Andrew Trimble: People in the Republic are not ready for a united Ireland

Views of middle ground must be heard in the debate about Irish unity, says rugby star

Andrew Trimble is back where it all began. He played his first rugby at Coleraine rugby club, on Northern Ireland's north coast; today, a signed jersey from his first season as an Ireland international has pride of place on the clubhouse wall.

“I first started playing mini rugby out here, my dad coached the team,” says Trimble, looking out over the pitch. “This is kind of where I fell in love with rugby.”

That love of rugby took him all over Ireland from a young age; he recalls how in Clontarf, Kildare and Limerick, boys would have been “farmed out to families, gone to the local Supermacs or gone bowling and had the craic, and then you would have had your rugby”.

“Those were good, good days, and very accidentally you’re learning about people from different cultures and different backgrounds and different environments and you’re realising, actually they’re not that different at all, they’re exactly the same.”

That sense of fellowship and solidarity has been a constant in Trimble’s rugby career; as a member of the Ireland schools and under-21 team, playing for Ulster, and then Ireland.

“I represented everybody on this island, and I’m very proud of that,” he says. “That plays a big part in my identity.”

That identity is complex and multi-faceted; from a Protestant, unionist background in Northern Ireland – though he says of his family that "we never would have described ourselves" in that way – he holds both a British and an Irish passport, and admits to sharing a bit of many identities.

Over the course of a morning in his company it is apparent that while being Northern Irish, Irish, British and European, Trimble is also an Ulsterman, a north coast man and above all, a rugby player.

“Northern Irish is probably how I would describe myself, but I’d be very happy describing myself as Irish, I think I am very Irish.”

Let's not oversimplify identity up here, let's not try and pigeonhole people when it's way more complicated

He is speaking to The Irish Times because he believes perspectives like his are more common than the binary way in which Northern Ireland is often portrayed. These views of this middle ground, he says, must be represented in the ongoing debates about identity and Irish unity and need to be better understood, not least south of the Border.

People in the Republic, he says, are “not ready” for a united Ireland. “It feels like southern nationalists, or people in the South who would want or who would be campaigning for a united Ireland are not prepared to have that conversation or compromise. That is certainly the case [among nationalists] in the North.”

Instead, he is “advocating strongly, let’s not oversimplify identity up here, let’s not try and pigeonhole people when it’s way more complicated. Make an effort to understand just how potentially complex things are, and people are.”

Yet he emphasises that he claims no greater authority than his own experience, and is the first to point out that he benefited from a relatively privileged upbringing.

“I grew up in what you might describe as traditionally a unionist house but more than that we were a rugby-playing family and I went to a rugby-playing school and we were middle class, so I didn’t grow up in a loyalist estate where there might have been stronger political opinions.”

“So it’s important to make that point that I’ve just been very lucky that I had an upbringing where I had a lot of opportunities.”

With hindsight, his background “ticked a lot of boxes that I now know are typical of Protestant, unionist families – we watched BBC News, we were a rugby-playing family, we had British passports.”

Politically, “my family would have voted UUP, I suppose. We certainly wouldn’t have been DUP voters,” he says. “But I never would have described myself as a unionist, or my family as a unionist family or as a Protestant family either.”

He got his first Irish passport in his early 20s, when he began playing for Ireland; it was not a difficult choice. “I was travelling with Ireland, I was playing for Ireland.”

“I hate the binary nature of how we can be perceived as one or the other and I thought, this is a nice way of just dealing with that, having both [passports], just taking it away so it’s going to be slightly more difficult to pin me down or paint a picture about me.”

He has spoken of his regret that, as a player, he did not sing Amhrán na bhFiann. “I was 21 whenever I started playing for Ireland, I wasn’t a politician, I didn’t give a stuff about anything apart from playing the best rugby I could, so I just did what everyone before me had done.

“It’s for the same reason I wanted to get my Irish passport, because if I’m playing for Ireland I want to sing the same thing the guy on the left of me and the guy on the right of me is singing, and just share that moment together.

“But in the same way there are guys lining up on either side of me who would sing The Soldier’s Song but not Ireland’s Call, and that’s a bit of a shame. I’m not sure if people ever ask them why they don’t sing it.”

In December, The Irish Times and Ipsos MRBI carried out polling on attitudes towards a united Ireland in the Republic of Ireland. In one of the questions, respondents were asked to what extent they would agree or disagree with a new national anthem.

Almost three-quarters (72 per cent) said they would not accept it, while 7 per cent said they did not know or had no opinion. One in five (21 per cent ) said they would accept it.

“I find it disappointing, really disappointing,” says Trimble, “but I’m not sure if I find that surprising or not. What it does say is that this is a case of they [in the North] will join us [in the South] and they will play by our rules, and that is never going to work. It needs to be challenged.”

People like me are very open about being part of a united Ireland but it has to work

If that attitude was to shift even a bit, he says, “you might find those who are unwilling to compromise up North will probably be more inclined to compromise and start a conversation. At the minute, why would they have a conversation?”

This point has been reiterated by many in political and civic unionism, who say that there is no point in taking part in a conversation when the end point has already been pre-determined. Trimble’s own experience is that there is “a really strong, growing middle ground which would align with a lot of the viewpoints I’ve expressed.”

This is borne out by polling; LucidTalk’s quarterly tracker poll of Northern Ireland political opinion consistently puts the vote share of the Northern parties which designate themselves not as nationalist or unionist, but as “other” – Alliance, the Green Party and People Before Profit – at about 18 per cent, an unaligned minority which would be crucial in any Border poll.

After an appearance on RTÉ's Claire Byrne Show last year, Trimble got "hundreds of WhatsApps from people who I maybe hadn't seen in years but who had a very similar upbringing to mine and they more or less to a man said, 'this is where I am'.

“They said they’d never really thought about it but they would be open to having conversations, no problem, as long as it all makes sense and it’s all done with mutual understanding and respect and a mutual appreciation of what is slightly unique about us.

“People like me are very open about being part of a united Ireland but it has to work.”

As to precisely what it might look like, or how it might be achieved, he is unsure. “It’s a challenge of creativity. I know a lot of staunch unionists would say a ‘new Ireland’ is just a marketing mechanism and a way to make this look more palatable, and I don’t think that’ll be enough.

There's such a disconnect, because people from Dublin, from down South generally, they don't spend any time up here

“In the same way people voted for Brexit when they didn’t know what it actually meant, it’s hard to have an opinion on a united Ireland or a new Ireland or whatever it’s called, because we don’t know, and ultimately we’ll be guessing right up until we have some of these conversations and we can see what’s possible.”

He has concerns about the impact of Sinn Féin’s campaign for a Border poll. “In 10, 15, 20 years, if this does happen, I think it would bring a lot more people on board if Sinn Féin weren’t driving it. I think that is challenging for many unionists.”

The conversation, he says, “needs to happen in a way that the potential end goal accommodates unionists”; he is concerned about the potential for violence if “loyalists are dragged kicking and screaming and forced into something”.

The political reaction by the DUP – which withdrew the first minister, collapsing the Northern Executive, over its opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol – and the protests against the Irish Sea Border are evidence, says Trimble, of the extent to which dialogue is not working and understanding is lacking: “They’ve just said no, or we’ll pull this whole thing down.”

Loyalism and unionism “need to feel they’re being listened to, and that’s why I say the people who are presenting the opinion [in favour of a united Ireland] need to be more accommodating and understand and have conversations with them so that it’s not just ‘our way or the highway’.”

There are opportunities for common ground; he highlights the NHS, and the UK's startup investment schemes which have benefited his firm, Kairos Sports Tech, as well as simply the need for people to spend more time in the North.

“There’s such a disconnect, because people from Dublin, from down South generally, they don’t spend any time up here, in places like the north coast, unless it’s for rugby or golf.

Integrated education is the most obvious solution ever – and if you sort out the education thing, you'll probably sort out the sport thing

“I love the north coast and I’m very proud of it, it’s beautiful up here, but it’s like our wee secret, people don’t even know about it, and I wonder if that’s maybe a reflection of the disconnection?

“There’s a parallel between people not spending time up here and people not having open, positive, understanding conversations with people from that community who ultimately we need to understand.

“We all need to understand each other more if we’re going to come to any kind of outcome that’s going to work.”

In the context of the North, where education remains overwhelmingly segregated along religious lines, he regards integrated education as the “silver bullet” that could solve many of its problems.

He agrees with recent criticism by President Michael D Higgins of the "shameful" segregation of education and sport in Northern Ireland, yet as a 37-year-old father of three young children, he finds the nature of the education system leaves him "torn".

“There is an issue here with segregated communities, there are people who don’t meet anyone from the other religion until they’re 18. So this is the most obvious solution ever – and if you sort out the education thing, you’ll probably sort out the sport thing.”

Yet he would also like his six-year-old son to one day go to a school where he can play rugby, as he did – even though he acknowledges this would mean a school with predominantly, if not entirely, Protestant students.

“They still don’t do Gaelic games, they don’t play hurling or Gaelic football. They would be just as foreign to my kids as they were to me.”

This cuts both ways. When he signed his son up for Gaelic football, he could not identify the name of the club as it was written in Irish, and found this and the request for his son’s Irish name a “disappointing” barrier to entry.

“I’m not saying they should speak English just for me, but I don’t know the language. Arguably, I should make more of an effort to understand it better, I’m sure I should, but I never learned it growing up because I never had the exposure.”

Yet for all the points of division in Northern Ireland, Trimble is keen to emphasise the points of commonality, not least the shared sense of humour – he loves Derry Girls and Patrick Kielty – and, above all, rugby. "I'm sure this wasn't by design, but rugby has tapped into something that very few different contexts or different sports have been able to do."

On March 12th, Ireland will take on England in the Six Nations; among the Ireland supporters watching will be "staunch unionists, staunch loyalists, Northern Ireland football supporters, DUP voters, and they are proper Ireland supporters".

Shane Lowry winning the Open, that was amazing, and he walked down the 18th like he was from Portrush

On the pitch, there is good news and bad news; he feels Ireland are “probably in as good a position as they’ve been in the last couple of years to get a win at Twickenham”, but overall he feels it will be France’s year.

“It’ll be the first time they’ve won in years and I think a lot of people who remember France in the Noughties are secretly France supporters, they just love to see that type of rugby being played. So I think if Ireland end up second behind France in the Six Nations, that’s a good result.”

Such is the power of sport, says Trimble, that in such moments there is the opportunity for a different conversation, for one that unites rather than divides.

"Shane Lowry winning the Open, that was amazing, and he walked down the 18th like he was from Portrush.

“If you were writing the script of that week, it would have been Rory McIlroy, the hometown hero, but in hindsight Shane Lowry was probably a better story for Ireland and for the unity of that shared moment.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times