GFA at 20: “The barriers I face are based more on class and sexual identity”

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Slant is running a feature series on identity and stereotypes in Northern Ireland. This week Alina Utrata interviews Ciarán Weir.

Ciarán Weir knows there is a lot of things people assume about him at first glance.

1) That, because of his name, he’s Catholic.

“My name is more a nod to my Irish identity,” Ciarán specifies. “I know some people conflate the two.”

2) That because he’s from an Irish Catholic background, he’s a nationalist.

“Not strictly accurate,” Ciarán corrects.

3) That because he’s Irish, he drinks a lot.

“I’ve done my fair share,” Ciarán admits, “But I’m bored now.”

4) That because he doesn’t present as ‘effeminate’, he’s straight.

“I’m often perceived as ‘straight’, [so people assume] that I’m going to be accepting and agreeing of prejudice,” Ciarán tells me. “I’ve had many experiences, not just here but in England and even further afield, where people have said sexist, homophobic, racist and xenophobic things and assume I’m going to join in and be alright with that. It makes me cringe, it’s beyond awkward.”

Ciarán, a Master’s student in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at QUB, grew up and went to school in Belfast.

“My family are very much upwardly mobile working class, liberal and have a strong Irish identity,” Ciarán explains. “My granny used to share a coat with her sisters to get to mass in the winter and now I’m one of the first in my family to go to university.”

After attending a Catholic primary school and an integrated secondary school, Ciarán completed his undergraduate degree in Manchester. It wasn’t until he lived abroad that he reflected about how unique his experience growing up in Northern Ireland was.

“I do have memories of military apparatus on the streets of Belfast and of soldiers patrolling my local community as a child,” Ciarán recalls. “[One time], a solider let me peer down the scope of his rifle. It wasn’t until I lived in England that I realised how twisted our experience is here. Once you try to explain it to people, you quickly realise that it’s not a ‘normal’ place to live.”

For Ciarán, coming to terms with his Northern Irish identity took some time.

“For a while I rejected the situation here in NI, I honestly wanted nothing to do with it or this country. At points I’ve felt completely disempowered as a young person,” Ciarán says. “During this discontent I focused my attention on what was happening in other parts of the world.”

Ciarán is now is international activist on youth participation and drug policy, and works across Europe as a human rights advocate. Last week, he was in Vienna at the United Nations discussing drug policy.

“When I’m doing this work my local identity isn’t all that important because when working with other young people we’re trying to unite our experiences,” Ciarán explains. “This has taught me a lot. I very much see myself as a citizen of Northern Ireland, I feel a connection to Ireland as a whole, but my citizenship in the world is more important to me. It really is possible to embrace your culture and identity but move past that idea that it’s ‘under threat’, once you have that perspective.”

For Ciarán, going to an integrated school helped to break down barriers and stigma about the other community.

“The most important (yet weird) thing about NI is that it’s possible to live here and until 16 (when you get your first job) never having mixed with ‘the other side’,” Ciarán says, “To me, that is really striking. I think my experience of integrated education has really dismantled the passive attitudes of difference and fear of the ‘other’. My parents taught me that respect is important, no matter what someone’s background is, but I was aware there was two sides very early on. I remember in the first year of school it was a bit awkward and made me anxious, but honestly mixing with ‘the other’ was and IS the right thing to do.”

For Ciarán, the usual national and cultural lines of division are not the main forms of discrimination he experienced.

“There’s certain oppressions that I know my family as Irish Catholics have had to face,” Ciarán explains. “The barriers I face are based more on class and sexual identity- but neither of those are unique to either side in Northern Ireland. They unite us. Even with some of my friends from ‘the other side’ one thing that we always had in common was our class backgrounds. A lot of the time this was unspoken we just understood that we didn’t have loads of money (even though we did alright). I’ve also experienced people trying to convince me why all gay people should end their lives. That’s never easy.”

Grappling with his Catholic culture and identity has been difficult for Ciarán.

“[People assume] that because I’m a gay man I have rejected my faith because it teaches that being gay is ‘immoral….that’s not accurate.” I can reckon with Christianity’s teachings on ‘gayness.’ But once you study something like sociology it’s complicates your relationship with organised religion.”

Religion and culture, for Ciarán, is much more complicated.

“I don’t see myself as a religious person, but I respect religion and the fact that it forms part of my family (and others) traditions and understandings of the world,” Ciarán explains. “It’s taken me a while to get to that place. I think seeing my religious identity as more of a cultural practice than a spiritual belonging has allowed me to internalise my cultural practices without belong to a faith per se.”

Like many other young people, Ciarán feels that politics isn’t always representative of the community.

“I feel that there’s a huge gap in politics; there isn’t enough traction for alternative choices,” Ciarán says. “We have parties like Alliance, Greens, etc. who are non-partisan. I really wish that there was more of a demand for these parties, it’s possible that they don’t get as much votes as they should because we never really left the tribe when it comes to voting. I take no issue with unionism, but the DUP are in any case hard line Christians who use their faith to govern people with political ideology which excludes minority rights.”

But Ciarán has hope for the next generation.

“I like to think that people’s attitudes are changing particularly with the younger generation,” Ciarán says. “I don’t think my difference is all that interesting, and I know a lot of my friends are on the same page to a certain degree.

“To me it’s simple,” Ciarán explains. “We need to teach and celebrate both cultures but we can only do this with shared respect and the understanding that it’s not a competition. Having and celebrating your identity does not take away from someone else’s.”

Originally published at Northern Slant.



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