The mother of all fears”, as described by a member of the unionist community about a united Ireland, “is that effectively their home would become a foreign state.”
A prevailing fear of the members of the unionist community whom I have spoken to in relation to a united Ireland is identity and what place there is for the British identity in a united Ireland.Mike Nesbitt leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (2012-2017) spoke of it as “the fear is that their identity is denied”.
Following the release of the 1st ever report by a Dáil or Senate Committee on the issue of uniting Ireland which I compiled in 2017 for the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, I have met a wide range of members of the protestant/unionist/loyalist communities including most recently a former loyalist paramilitary ex-prisoner at an 11th night bonfire. This research is based on one of the recommendations in the committee’s report “Fears and concerns of the Unionist community need to be examined, understood and addressed comprehensively by all stakeholders in advance of any referendum”. The result of these meetings and conversations is the research report I published entitled ‘Unionist Concerns and Fears of a United Ireland: The need to Protect the Peace Process and Build a Vision for a Shared Island and a United People’.
It includes contributions from Reverend Kyle Paisley, the son of the founder of the DUP Reverend Ian Paisley, Trevor Ringland Ireland rugby international, Michael Nesbitt former leader of the UUP as well as former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland Dr Norman Hamilton OBE. I also commissioned Dr James Wilson, a former member of the British army who served in Northern Ireland during the troubles to conduct focus groups in the Independent Orange Order, a Loyalist Flute Band, UDR/Irish Regiment Veterans and the East Belfast Mission. Former Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt “I do not speak for unionism in fact, nobody does”. Similarly, the report does not claim to include every fear and concern that the Unionist community has in relation to a United Ireland. The research identified 7 key areas of Unionist Fears & Concerns regarding a United Ireland; Loss of Identity and the place of unionism within a united Ireland, Triumphalism by Nationalist, Retribution on former members of the RUC, British Army and Prison Officers, Return to Violence, Land would be taken from unionist farmers, Returning to the European Union after voting for Brexit, Healthcare, Welfare and the Economy.
Some of these concerns I was aware of before this research, however it does identify some fears that are not on the political radar in the south, including the fear by some in the unionist farming community that the land would be taken from unionist farmers.
It is the responsibility of the Irish Government to address these concerns, that is why it should immediately implement another recommendation of the Joint Committee’s report, that being ‘to establish a New Ireland Forum 2’ which would look at all the issues in relation to a united Ireland. The New Ireland Forum 2 should include in its work addressing unionist concerns and fears. The advice of Seamus Mallon, Deputy First Minister for Northern Ireland 1998 -2001 should be listened to by the Irish Government “Nationalist need to show generosity if they’re ever going to persuade unionist of the benefits of a United Ireland”.
This generosity is needed to counter the view in the unionist community as articulated by Trevor Ringland when he said, “no space in a new Ireland for me”.
As Kyle Paisley, son of Ian Paisley said in his contribution to the research “The United Kingdom is by no mean a flawless political union. But then there’s the old proverb – “Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.”
In relation to a referendum Dr Norman Hamilton OBE in his contribution to the report gave these words of caution ‘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 which, like an Irish referendum, has massive constitutional implications.’
The Brexit referendum has taught us an important lesson, that being you do not hold a referendum until every probable outcome has been examined and prepared for, where possible, the hard-won peace we all enjoy on this island is at stake. The holding of a referendum without proper preparation and engagement, particularly with the unionist community, would lead to the fulfilment of the warning “policy neglect seldom goes unpunished”. However, the time available between now and the holding of a referendum should be used by the government in engaging with all sides.
We must listen anew to the advice of the man voted by the people of Ireland ‘Irish man of the 20th century’ T.K. Whittaker. He wrote a ‘Note on North-South Border Policy’ to the Taoiseach Jack Lynch written on the 11th of November 1968 on the eve of ‘The Troubles’. In it, Whittaker foresaw the long-term nature of achieving a united Ireland, that it required the best of ourselves and a collective understanding.
“We were, therefore, left with only one choice, a policy of seeking unity in Ireland between Irishmen. Of its nature this is a long-term policy, requiring patience, understanding and forbearance and resolute resistance to emotionalism and opportunism. It is not the less patriotic for that”.
T K Whittaker