When the British army was deployed in Northern Ireland 50 years ago, Anthony Kennedy was not out on the streets protesting or lobbing petrol bombs.
“The truth, I was trying to get laid,” he recalled this week.
It was the start of what became known as as the Troubles. As the months and years ground on, pitting those who sought a united Ireland against those dedicated to keeping Northern Ireland in the UK, Kennedy stayed on the sidelines.
In 1969, aged 21, he identified neither as nationalist nor unionist. He was in the middle, a “neither” camped out in no man’s land. It turned out to be crowded with plenty of others. “I never felt isolated. I always felt I was part of a group.”
But the bloodier the conflict became, and the more that images of soldiers, shootings and bombings came to define Northern Ireland, the more those in the middle felt invisible and powerless. Tribalism ruled, and they were not a tribe.
This week’s commemorations have again left them in the shadows. Former combatants and victims with tales of courage, atrocity and suffering have taken centre stage.
Yet the “neithers”, also known as the non-aligned, are emerging as a political force that could yet determine the fate of Northern Ireland.
“Fifty years ago, the door closed on the non-aligned,” said Kennedy, who is the chair of a society named after the late poet John Hewitt, who famously described his identity as Ulster, Irish, British and European. “It feels the door is gradually opening.”
Over the past decade, unionist parties have not won an overall majority of votes, and support for the nationalist parties of Sinn Féin and the SDLP has plateaued.
A Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, an annual poll conducted by Queen’s University and Ulster University, found that 50% of people identified as being neither unionist nor nationalist.
By 2021, the centenary of Northern Ireland’s creation, Catholics are expected to outnumber Protestants but will fall well short of 50%, with “others” accounting for the difference.
“We’re all minorities now,” said Conor Houston, the founder of Connected Citizens, an initiative to foster dialogue and inclusion. “Non-aligned people are starting to raise their voice.”
In the European elections in May, non-aligned parties took 21% of the vote, their highest share since the 1960s; Naomi Long, the leader of the cross-community Alliance party, astounded observers by winning a seat with 18.5% of first-preference votes.
Last week an audience at Féile an Phobail, a festival in the Sinn Féin bastion of west Belfast, welcomed Long almost as warmly as it did the Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald.
The paradox is that the centrist surge is happening amid polarisation that has collapsed power-sharing at Stormont and stirred resentment over unresolved “legacy” killings, many involving British soldiers.
With nationalist and unionist blocs each hovering at around 40%, it is “neithers” who will be likely to determine the outcome of any referendum on unification with the Republic of Ireland, an existential choice, if it happens, paved by Brexit.
The death of Lyra McKee, a 29-year-old journalist and activist shot by the New IRA in April, shone a light on a new generation that, like McKee, cares more about LGBTQ+ rights, healthcare and jobs than whether sovereignty lies in London or Dublin.
Sara Canning, McKee’s partner, has republican roots but does not yearn for unification. “As I grew up I realised that didn’t match the person I was or my wants and needs for the future,” she said. Pragmatism trumps ideology. “Most of my friends are non-aligned. We want a better life for everyone [whether we are] under the union flag or tricolour.”
There is a perception that in 1969 Northern Ireland’s middle class, and by extension many of the non-aligned, went off to play golf in leafy enclaves, leaving the Troubles to unfold mainly in border towns and blighted urban pockets.
For his part, Kennedy was hardly apolitical. He wanted – and still wants – Britain’s Labour party to contest elections in Northern Ireland. Bereft of a leftwing option, Kennedy skirted politics and instead contributed by working in housing and reconciliation.
The “neithers” surfaced in occasional elections, with the Alliance party scoring 14% in local elections in 1973 and 1977. But centrists lacked the urgency of nationalists and unionists who were locked in a zero-sum struggle that generated martyrs, songs, murals and parades.
“It’s difficult to make a positive identity out of a negative definition,” said Paul Nolan, a leading academic who studies social trends.
The 1998 Good Friday agreement drew a line under violence and facilitated more fluid national identities but its focus on “both communities” and “two traditions” entrenched binary politics, according to a 2018 Queen’s University study.
However, the number of “neithers” still grew in the intervening 20 years, it found. They tended to have jobs, a good education and to have lived abroad. They were more likely to be women and Catholic.
And the numbers would probably keep growing, said Katy Hayward, a co-author of the study. With Brexit and the recent electoral success of the Greens and the Alliance, a centre grouping in favour of devolution and EU membership seemed to be forming, she said. “Those from a unionist a background that are pro-remain are reconsidering themselves as no longer unionist with a capital U.”
In the 2016 referendum, 57% of Northern Ireland voters opted to remain in the EU, but the Ulster Unionist party (UUP) has since joined the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) in wanting to leave.
It is unclear how “neithers” would vote in a unity referendum. It would depend on the impact of Brexit, the handling of cultural issues, such as same-sex marriage and the Irish language, and the details of a proposed united Ireland, said Nicholas Whyte, an analyst.
Belfast still resembles a divided city. Flags and murals glorifying paramilitaries mark republican and loyalist territory; “peace walls” split contentious neighbourhoods; and traditional parades and bonfires are used to taunt the other side.
But change is afoot.
Seemingly mundane developments, such as a bus route connecting east and west, had normalised journeys that cut across sectarian divides, said Fr Martin Magill, a Catholic priest on the Falls Road.
Increasingly, foreigners come not to gawk at murals but for jobs in a burgeoning tech industry or for Titanic and Game of Thrones-themed tourism.
Northern Ireland’s other cultural export, poetry, has also evolved.
Noland said cross-community “planter and gael” collaborations between poets from each side of the political divide had given way to works by Sinead Morrissey, Alan Gillis and Leontia Flynn that reflect mobile, fluid identities.
“It is a perspective which allows them to touch glancingly on the Northern Ireland experience without ever being branded by tribal loyalties.”