“Fears and concerns of the Unionist community need to be examined, understood and addressed comprehensively by all stakeholders in advance of any referendum”.

Unionist Concerns Fears of a United Ireland, the need to protect the peace process, build a vision for a shared island and a united people

This was a central recommendation of the report entitled ‘Brexit & the Future of Ireland: Uniting Ireland & Its People in Peace & Prosperity’ published in 2017. The report was adopted unanimously by the all-party Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. The Rapporteur for the report was Senator Mark Daly.

Senator Daly followed up on this recommendation by contacting many stakeholders in the Protestant/unionist/loyalist community, from church leaders and unionist politicians to former loyalist paramilitaries, to start the process of engagement to ascertain what their “fears and concerns” might be. This research report is the result of these contacts.

Mike Nesbitt, former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, articulates one of the fears of unionism: “the fear is that their identity will be denied”[1].

Reverend Kyle Paisley is of the view that there are other reasons for unionists rejecting the idea of re-unification than just religious or political ideas. The lack of unity in the six counties shows how difficult it would be to get unity in a thirty-two county Ireland. Issues such as economics and the NHS will be crucial in consideration of a United Ireland. “I think there are other, more practical reasons for their rejecting the idea of re-unification than just religious or political ideas. To begin with, if there is no unity in the six counties of Northern Ireland, how can there be heart-felt unity across thirty-two counties?”[2]

A unionist public representative who gave the submission on the basis of anonymity spells out clearly the kernel of the fear, “Unionists do not have fear about a United Ireland. Unionist fear is a United Ireland”. He also states what unionism is by saying it is about a belief in the existence of Northern Ireland and that “its interests are best served in the United Kingdom”. In addition, many unionists would see the breaking from the UK as “a historic complete and irreversible failure of their core politics and identity” and he goes on “any talk or discussion on a United Ireland by unionism is seen by many as tantamount to negotiating surrender” This public representative believes the other issues that concern unionists in any consideration of a United Ireland include economics, the NHS, the EU, terrorism and the glorification of terrorists and their activities in the Troubles, identity and symbols of that identity.[3]

Raymond McCord, a victim’s rights campaigner, believes that Brexit cannot be used as an excuse for a United Ireland. Based on his own personal experiences he does not trust politicians, North or South. The Government in the Republic, he believes, shows no interest in unionist victims. He will accept whatever result comes from any referendum, but he states, “how can we have a United Ireland when we don’t have a united people in Northern Ireland?”[4]

An anonymous Protestant/ Unionist/ Loyalist (PUL) community member living in the Greater Belfast area made a submission, in which they stated that they have “serious concerns of the consequences of the Republic of Ireland absorbing one million people into a country where they have lost their identity” and “I was born an Ulsterman and chose my identity as British and as such like my forefathers I do not identify with the Irish Culture”.[5]

Reverend Hamilton, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (2010-2011) states “It appears to be the case that those who seek a United Ireland have little skill in, or interest in, uniting communities and building relationships as the necessary conditions for deep political discourse of huge constitutional import”.  The Reverend goes on to say, “I have great resistance to a referendum in the foreseeable future, not least because of what has been learned (or not learned) from the recent referendum in the UK”.[6]

Trevor Ringland, former Irish International rugby player and co-chair of the Northern Ireland Conservative Party (2013-2014), in an interview with Mark Rainey of the Belfast Telegraph on the 22nd of April 2019 spoke about how there was “no space in New Ireland for me”[7].

The report on uniting Ireland from the Joint Committees on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement contained a submission by Dr James Wilson, who served in the British Army during the Troubles, which outlined some of the unionist’s fear of a United Ireland. This submission is available in full as Appendix 2 of this research. In it Dr Wilson outlined that, along with the normal concerns that all those in Northern Ireland share about a future all island heath service and the economy, there are real and genuine fears among the Unionist community in Northern Ireland that the land would be taken from them, there would be retribution on members of the security forces and their community’s identity would be lost.

Dr Wilson’s previous findings are more comprehensively analysed in research and focus groups which Senator Daly commissioned Dr Wilson to undertake specifically for this research report. Dr Wilson conducted this research among members of the Independent Orange Order, a Loyalist flute band, UDR/Irish Guard veterans and a focus group at the East Belfast Mission. What it makes clear is the “mother of all fears” for the Unionist community is “effectively our home would become a foreign state”. Within that overarching fear is the belief that they could not “really be British in a United Ireland” that they would be “assimilation” and they would effectively become “second class”, “planter citizens” in a United Ireland. There is also a fear of “Triumphalism” by nationalists and republicans. The pressing need to address these and all the other fears in the unionist community in advance of a referendum is clear.[8]

In some of the submissions, the fear of violence is spoken about. There is an urgent need to address the loss of memory of harm uncovered in this research among the ‘Agreement Generation’ and in other groups who could be exploited by some to use violence to try to maintain the status quo. The Agreement Generation is classed as those born during or just after the peace process. Senator Daly worked with the UNESCO World chairs in Children, Youth and Civic Engagement Dr Pat Dolan, Dr Mark Brennan and Michael Ortiz, senior advisor on counter terrorism at the National Security Council in the Obama administration and the first US Diplomat appointed by the State Department on the issue of countering violent extremism who devised a strategy to be implemented in Northern Ireland. The research “Northern Ireland Returning to Violence as a Result of a Hard Border due to Brexit or a Rushed Border Poll: Risk to Youth” is included in full as Appendix 3 of this research. This report and its recommendations urgently need to be examined by the Irish Government.

Dr James Wilson, in his introduction to the research specially commissioned for this report by Senator Mark Daly, focuses on the views in relation to the issue of a United Ireland of some of the demographic represented by the 18% of the population in Northern Ireland who would find this “almost impossible to accept”, as reported in the 2014 NILT Survey’s Political Allegiances Module[9]. Some of the views of this 18% we have highlighted previously and Dr Wilson’s focus group findings are published later in this report. In contrast, 82% of the unionist community “would happily accept the democratic decision”, “would not like it but could live with it” or “don’t know” which is just 7%[10]. Notably, Rev Mervyn Gibson, Grand Secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, has said, “The only thing that will take us into a united Ireland is a vote of the majority of the people. As a democrat, I’ll accept that.”[11]

Many of the submissions, including that of Dr Wilson’s focus groups, referenced a fear of a United Ireland being that of triumphant nationalism. This fear is not without foundation and that is why we in the South must change not only our vision of a United Ireland but also how we speak about it. Language was a key component of negotiating the Good Friday Agreement and it remains key component of the peace process. With hard work, we must move from the language of the past such as a ‘United Ireland’ and all the dread and fear which it creates in the minds of our unionist friends and neighbours. We must instead change to the language of the need to protect the peace process, build a vision for a shared island and a united people in a New Agreed Ireland.

The Brexit referendum has taught us an important lesson: you do not hold a referendum until every possible outcome has been examined and prepared for, where possible. In his submission Raymond McCord explains the work he is currently undertaking to allow clarity on this issue “I have a challenge in the courts of Belfast and Dublin relating to a Border Poll. I am not calling for a Border Poll, what I am calling for is legislation to be put in place that a Border Poll can and must be held when certain conditions are met. Those conditions must be set out and abided by all.”[12]

This research has shown now is the time for the Irish Government to address the unionist communities’ fears and concerns of a united Ireland. It is clear the Irish Government must follow through on the recommendations contained in the Joint Oireachtas Committee of the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement report entitled “Brexit and the Future of Ireland, uniting Ireland and it’s people in peace and prosperity”.

The Government should establish a New Ireland Forum 2 as recommended in the Joint Committee’s report, not only to set a pathway to achieve the peaceful reunification of Ireland but more importantly uniting the people who call this island home.

In order to create the new future, we all wish to see for the coming generations we must embrace true reconciliation in the knowledge that true reconciliation means giving up all hope of a better past for the aspiration and hope of a better future for the coming generations.

[1] 4.1 Submission by Ulster Unionist Party Leader Michael Nesbitt (2012-2017)

[2] 4.2 Submission by Reverend Kyle Paisley

[3] 4.5 Submission by an Anonymous Unionist Public Representative

[4] 4.7 ‘Unionism versus a “United” Ireland’, Raymond McCord

 

[5] 4.5 Submission by an Anonymous Unionist Public Representative

[6] 4.4 Submission from The Very Reverend Dr Norman Hamilton

[7] 4.3 Submission from Trevor Ringland

[8] 4.8 ‘Brexit and The Future of Ireland: The fears of Northern Protestants concerning unity’, Dr James Wilson. Report commissioned by Senator Mark Daly

 

 

[9] Northern Ireland Life & Times Survey, https://www.ark.ac.uk/nilt/2014/Political_Attitudes/FUTURE1.html

[10] Ibid

[11] https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/we-are-not-going-to-be-bribed-out-of-the-united-kingdom-orange-order-chief-1.3951739

[12] 4.7 ‘Unionism versus a “United” Ireland’, Raymond McCord

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