I was born in East Belfast in 1970, just as ‘the Troubles’ kicked off. In the Northern Ireland I grew up in, you knew what you were - in my case, Protestant and British.
My Protestant identity was defined by political Unionism. Unionism assumes Protestant majority rule, loyalty to the British Crown, and an equal place within the United Kingdom. But today those assumptions that held up the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mindset of the Troubles no longer exist.
The 2022 census showed that for the first time in Northern Ireland’s 100-year history, there are more Catholics than Protestants. Elections last May saw the Unionist parties lose their First Minister position to Sinn Féin who are pushing for a ‘Border Poll’ referendum on the reunification of Ireland. And Brexit has fundamentally changed Northern Ireland's position within the UK.
Twenty-five years after leaving for New York, I return to find political Unionism in crisis and failing the community it claims to represent.
The Protestant identity of my youth has fractured. Where once this community spoke with one voice, there are now many diverse perspectives informed by different lived experiences.
There are those that knew life before ‘The Troubles’, those that lived through ‘The Troubles’, and those that have only known peace.
There are those that are victims, and those that were perpetrators.
There are those that have unyielding loyalty, and those that feel betrayed.
There are those that took the Union for granted and now have to advocate for it. And those who don’t see any value in it anymore.
There are those whose perspective is informed not by post-partition politics but by a desire for social justice and shared prosperity in a global economy.
The Good Friday Agreement was conceived with the hope that generational change would transform historically insular identities, gradually improving relations across the sectarian divide. It seems to be working.
A generation that has grown up without the conflict of ‘The Troubles’ is rejecting the binary choices of Protestant vs Catholic and views Northern Ireland’s future in cultural and socio-economic terms.
Many Protestants are looking further back in their history and trying to reconcile their Britishness and their Irishness. A new identity is emerging, with over one-third of people identifying as "Northern Irish".
DISSONANT VOICES is a photographic essay featuring a diverse range of people from within the Protestant community, exploring how political and demographic changes are impacting their sense of identity.
Rather than feature political leaders, or those who claim to speak for any part of the community, these are the unheard voices of everyday people, presenting a fresh perspective of Northern Ireland.
These contemporary voices represent a diverse Protestant identity that goes beyond the marching bands, flags, and bonfires portrayed in mainstream media.
It tells the story of a community redefining an identity forged through conflict on the path to reconciliation and a permanent peace.
“Anybody looking in would get an impression that’s maybe ten or 15 years out of date because that's still the way the politics and government are set up. Politically, we're years behind where we actually are in society.”
Mal Johnston, Northern Irish.
Photographed on North Street in Belfast.
“Boris Betrayal they call it. They sold us out. They're saying that you can't have a land border, but yet you can have a sea border? People are like, how come we have the border now?”
Chris Simpson, Northern Irish and British.
Photographed on the shore of Belfast Lough near his home in Rathcoole.
“I think a lot of the problem is that there is an expectation that Northern Ireland is part of the Union and that is our God-given right."
Zoe McCullough, Unionist.
Photographed with her son Jay at their home in Waringstown.
“It's like a football match. We've always turned up on the field. We've always won. Whether we played well or didn't play. And now the Republicans are actually playing a better game. We're sitting back, Jesus, they really are scoring goals. But we're still winning, aren't we? Are we? Maybe we're not.”
John Hagan, Ulster Protestant and Loyalist.
Photographed with a newly skinned Lambeg Drum in Coagh, County Tyrone.
“Within the EU, I felt that comfort of being Northern Irish, Irish, British and European - all of those. And now I kind of feel that I'm not really quite sure, and somebody's making me choose.”
Ruth Allum, Northern Irish and British.
Photographed at her home on Belfast’s Malone Road.
“The big issue for the Unionist parties is that sovereignty matters more than jobs to them and always has.”
Neil McNickle, Unionist and Northern Irish.
Photographed at The Bluebell Stadium in the Ballymacash Estate, Lisburn
“People would have no love for the British government. They don't have loyalty to the British government. They are loyal to the Royal family and being a part of the Union, and the history behind that.”
Steven Pollock, Loyalist.
Photographed at The Old Tea Room Cáfe on the Shankill Road, West Belfast.
“I don't see why you can't be British and Irish. In fact, I think it's a great advantage that you can choose to be British and Irish and Northern Irish. You know what? There's no loss in any of that. It's all positive.”
Stephen Hill, Northern Irish.
Photographed at the border near his home in Castlederg, County Tyrone.
“Just because 26 counties decided to leave Britain, why does that mean I can’t be Irish? I’m Irish and British just as a Glaswegian might be Scottish and British.”
Andy Lindsay, Irish, British and Northern Irish.
Photographed near his childhood home on Bombay Street, Belfast
“In my kind of wishy-washy unionism, I would embrace ‘Northern Irish’ as a positive, because it includes an Irishness in there. It can be a gateway to Irishness or a gateway to Britishness.”
James Greer, Unionist and Northern Irish.
Photographed at Ormeau Park in Belfast.
“I would describe myself as Northern Irish and I don't really care what anybody else thinks of that. That's what feels right for me. And I think regardless of the constitutional situation, I'll always consider myself to be Northern Irish.”
Heather Wilson, Northern Irish.
Photographed outside Parliament Buildings at Stormont.
“If I look over towards the Irish side, there's a whole wealth of culture there for the taking. I long to be able to relate to it because it’s so rich and beautiful. But there's a gulf between me and that, and then a gulf between me and feeling British. I am like a bastard child.”
Stephanie Holmes, Northern Irish.
Photographed at her home in East Belfast.