I gave my friend a crocheted Michael D Higgins tea cosy for her birthday many years ago. We
have drunk hundreds of cups of tea since then. The tea cosy has become worn and a little stained,
with a small burn on the side of Miggledy's jacket. But it has not been retired from use. Because,
as people who feel deeply attached to Ireland, it means something to us. It is a small everyday
symbol of affection and familiarity with the Irish state.
As someone who was raised in the Protestant community in Northern Ireland, people are
sometimes surprised to learn that my sense of Irishness is so strong. I was brought up in a family
of religious Dissent, with my parents involved in the charismatic movement and now Quakerism.
Our politics were left-wing, pacifist and anti-colonial. We always had Irish passports. While my
family was steeped in British left-wing politics, we were always in favour of reunification.
Yet, growing up in a northern Protestant world during the Troubles, I lacked ways to express my
Irish identity. I learned a little Irish history at school, and read books at home to fill in the gaps. I
didn't have access to Irish music, dancing or language. Which is odd, because my Protestant
granny had been a champion Irish festival dancer before the Troubles. When a Christy Moore
cassette found its way into our house, we played it until the ribbon wore out. As a teenager, I
listened to Irish language radio, not understanding a word, trying to fuse a connection with an Irish
identity I knew was real, but which had few social scaffolds.
A lot has changed since these early attempts to put meat on the bones of my Irishness. I lived in
Dublin for eight years, studying History and Politics at University College Dublin (UCD). Later, I did
post-doctoral research at UCD's Institute of British-Irish Studies on Protestant evangelicalism in
Northern Ireland, funded by an Government of Ireland Scholarship.
During these years, I registered to vote for Dáil Éireann, and have never forgotten the excitement
of casting my first ballot. I later signed up for the UCD Senead Éireann panel (and can still vote in
these elections). I was strangely attached to the tapestry of Mary Robinson in the shop window on
Dame Street at this time. I saw her as my President. There was no conflict between my sense of
self as a northern Protestant and an active participant in this Irish political world. Just the opposite.
It was a relief to have institutional recognition of my Irishness.
When I moved back to Belfast in 2003, it was not the same place as I had left in 1995. Peace and
the internet had begun to create space for more mixed and diverse expressions of identity. I loved
this, and went out of my way to explore new things. I made friends from all kinds of backgrounds.
Went to every festival going, on whatever side of the peace wall.
For a time in the mid 2000s, I worked with loyalists in their transition out of conflict - a project which
was thriving at that time. This put me in contact with Martin McAleese, then President of Ireland
Mary McAleese's husband, who was heavily involved in this work. Another boundary-crossing Irish Presidency. Loyalists would tell me about their trips to Áras an Uachtaráin.
The peace also made it possible for Protestants to connect with Irishness in more tangible ways.
The Good Friday Agreement cemented my right to identify as Irish. I joined an Irish language class
at Turas in east Belfast. I have just finished writing a book, The Ghost Limb: Alternative Protestants
and the Sprit of 1798 , exploring how a range of Protestants are connecting with United Irish history
and current Irish identities. These identities can often look different to traditional Catholic and
nationalist versions. But they are born of a tradition with deep roots on this island.
It has been a long journey, working through the knots of what it means to be Protestant, northern
and Irish. But I find myself still bereft of political scaffolding to support my Irishness.
Of course there are things that allow me to participate in Irish political life. I can listen to RTÉ radio.
Some parts of RTÉ television can be accessed in the north. I can traverse the border freely. My
Irish passport frees me of much of the hassle of post-Brexit travel. It may have ever more
implications as time passes.
But I crave deeper citizenship.
The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was one of the defining political moments of my lifetime
(Brexit was the other). The Agreement created a vision of Northern Ireland as a both/and place. It
recognised northern identities and cultures as diverse. It offered a plan for living well in a shared
society. It gave us mechanisms to make both/and belonging meaningful in our governance.
But in practice, the Agreement's vision has struggled. The Northern Ireland Assembly has been
operational for only 60% of its existence. When it does run, our politics is still prone to seize up
with outrage and sectarianism. Westminster and the civil service keep us ticking over somehow,
but our services and systems are crumbling. The democratic deficit in the north is palpable.
The consent principle in the Agreement - that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK until a
majority wish otherwise - is the foundation on which our politics is built. It is undoubtedly the right
one. But this does not stop me from feeling politically powerless. Feeling that I have little chance to
shape the kind of society that I want to live in. That I am cut off from the state which I feel I belong
The both/and place that the 1998 Agreement designed exists in our hearts and our minds. But,
nearly 25 years later, it does not always feel politically real. Patience, hope and tea cosies are thin
gruel for those who have an appetite for deeper democracy. Presidential voting rights alone can of
course not deliver this. But as we wait in the holding bay for whatever is to come, extending voting
rights to northern citizens would be an interesting step in making a both/and place more