Brexit or the union: What is more important for unionists?

The community, which includes many Remainers, is concerned by attitudes in the South

Jackie McDonald: “You should not assume that our appetite to remain in Europe outweighs the appetite for the union.” Photographer: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Jackie McDonald: “You should not assume that our appetite to remain in Europe outweighs the appetite for the union.” Photographer: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker


Within unionism there are Leavers and Remainers, often with strong opposing views on Brexit. Some fear that Sinn Féin, nationalism and Dublin will exploit the issue to advance the cause of a united Ireland, while others are of the view that quitting the EU will strengthen the union. Others still, are more worried about what it will all mean for the economy, their families and their livelihoods.

But there is one issue that unites all unionists: the union.

That point was made clear last year when the then minister for foreign affairs Charlie Flanagan met the Loyalist Communities Council which comprises some senior Ulster Defence Association, Ulster Volunteer Force and Red Hand Commando members, one of whom was UDA south Belfast “brigadier” Jackie McDonald.

While the majority of unionists voted to exit the EU, McDonald voted to stay in. But too much should not be read into his stance, he advised Flanagan. The UDA man detected a “greener” tone in his dealings with Dublin. “You are playing this wrong,” McDonald told the minister. “You should not assume that our appetite to remain in Europe outweighs the appetite for the union because the union will always come first.”

David Campbell, a former senior aide to David Trimble, says “I think that quite eloquently sums up the unionist Remain camp”. Campbell, with Tony Blair’s ex chief of staff Jonathan Powell, was involved in setting up the council to try to bring loyalism in from the political cold. And he himself is a Leaver.

‘Reignite nationalism’

Like McDonald, he was troubled by some of the commentary south of the Border, including from Leo Varadkar: “What we are not prepared to tolerate is Brexit being used to reignite nationalism, particularly in Dublin. We have had signs of that, even from a Fine Gael Taoiseach.”

Aside from his political work, with his wife Linda and two sons, David and John, he runs a 250-acre farm on Islandmagee in Co Antrim. The EU currently subsidises about 87 per cent of all farm earnings in Northern Ireland yet it is accepted that the majority of farmers voted Out. “It was primarily about sovereignty,” said Campbell.

He has faith some of the billions in savings the UK will make from being out of Europe will be channelled back into agriculture in Northern Ireland to maintain that level of support. He has even put his money where his mouth is on Brexit by expanding the farm: “We think that the next five to 10 years are going to be extremely beneficial for agriculture.”

Ultimately, his hope is “that common sense will outweigh a lot of the politicking” and that, through pragmatism and new technology, the island will be left with a soft Border. Mostly he is optimistic: “I think people are genuinely trying to work together for positive solutions.”

Successful businessman Ross Reed said it is a “total mystery” to him how so many Northern Ireland farmers voted for Brexit. He worries about hormone treated meat being imported into the United Kingdom. “A UK trade deal with America could ruin agriculture in Ireland as a whole because we have the highest standard of produce. Why would we want to change that?”

Everybody in Northern Ireland and in Southern Ireland is my neighbour and I love them all

Reed, who as he said is just past the “three score and ten” age is a native of New Bliss, Co Monaghan. A Presbyterian, he says his family were relatively poor but home life was “rich with happiness” and was “Godly”. He got engaged in the transport and meat industry, serving time as a managing director of one of Hugh Tunney’s meat factories in Northern Ireland during the 1970s before establishing his successful Interfrigo cold storage and shipping company employing 66 people in Antrim. He has lived in the North since 1964.

Regular supporter

He was a close friend of the late Ian Paisley and also is a regular supporter and funder of the DUP, although not a member of the party. But he doesn’t agree with the DUP on Brexit. In fact he was a “firm Remainer” and campaigned strenuously to keep the UK in the EU.

Reed has a pithy explanation of why he wanted to stay in Europe: “Why would you leave something that is good for you?”

A la Paisley, occasional little evangelisms creep into his discourse, although engagingly delivered: “Everybody in Northern Ireland and in Southern Ireland is my neighbour and I love them all. If you want eternal life, my friend, you have to love God, but more importantly you have to love your neighbour as well. That is how you make heaven, otherwise you won’t be there.”

On more earthly matters he wants the softest of borders. “My feeling is that on the island of Ireland we have quiet enjoyment of the whole land where we can move freely from North to South and South to North without any customs duties, levies or anything else. Given that, thank God, we have a very peaceful society we want to maintain that.”

Northern Ireland voted 56 per cent to 44 per cent to remain in the EU while the UK as a whole voted 52 per cent to 48 per cent to quit. On the overall UK Brexit vote, Reed thinks Leavers believed “the propaganda but they never researched the subject”.

“I would have to say that a lot of unionists voted for Brexit without looking at the figures. I never fully understood why they did it,” he added.

Reed describes himself as a “moderate, middle-of-the-road man” who is placing a degree of trust in British prime minister Theresa May’s commitment that there will be no hard Border. “I am quite satisfied this will work out all right. All our futures depend on it. If we get any kind of wind at all I can see us winning.”

On the union he is comfortable with the Belfast Agreement’s principle of consent: “The reality is that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and will remain so as long as a majority of people wish it to be so. I would describe myself as supporting that.”

Best option

Fellow businessman Irwin Armstrong runs and owns the Ciga Healthcare company in Ballymena, Co Antrim, selling pregnancy, menopause, diabetes and other home diagnostic test products around the world. The company employs 25 people in Ballymena and also has marketing offices in other parts of the world. He not only is a Remainer but is convinced the best option for the Republic is also to leave the EU and to join a “Union of the Islands tied in with a trade deal with America and the Commonwealth”.

PUP leader Billy Hutchinson said for the Taoiseach to be effectively talking about a border in the Irish Sea is “nonsense”. Photograph: Arthur Allison.
PUP leader Billy Hutchinson said for the Taoiseach to be effectively talking about a border in the Irish Sea is “nonsense”. Photograph: Arthur Allison.

He has no use for the EU. “It is an antiquated sclerotic relic of the 1950s and 60s, it has not moved forward.”

Armstrong is “amazed” that Dublin is “pushing this idea of Northern Ireland staying in the customs union and having some sort of Border down the Irish Sea – how in the name of God would that help Ireland trade with Britain?”

He said that, in 2006, he predicted the economic crash in the South based on the simple premise that when young people couldn’t afford to get on the housing ladder that it was then inevitable the ladder would come crashing down. He sees similar dangers now.

Armstrong therefore has little truck with the argument that Brexit could advance the prospects of Irish unity. “I much prefer my rich auntie to my nouveau riche cousins. At least I know my rich old auntie will be there for a while where my nouveau riche cousins might not be.”

Nationalist assumption

Dr James Wilson is a freelance consultant, researcher and historian, and former member of the British army from Coleraine, Co Derry. Last month he launched the “civic unionism” initiative to challenge what he saw as the nationalist assumption that qualities such as rights, truth and equality were not inherent within unionism.

He is a Remainer and, while reconciled to the UK quitting the EU, believes the current now is flowing in favour to those who want a “mellow” form of Brexit. That, he said, is because the existence of Northern Ireland means the break can’t be as sharp as the hardline British Brexiteers would like it to be. In fact, he thinks the Boris Johnsons and Jacob Rees-Mogg types across the water would prefer if Northern Ireland didn’t exist at all because, as the only UK land border with the EU, it is strengthening the case for a solution more amenable to both North and South. The complexities of the North-South, East-West relationships is tending towards a “soft” Border, he is convinced.

Wilson hoped that nationalists would not seek to exploit Brexit for constitutional reasons because the “last thing a united Ireland would want is bringing in a non-reconciled Northern Ireland”.

He added:, “Nationalists need to assure unionists there is no unity sub-plot to Brexit because unionists have this sense of always looking for the Trojan Horse, it is part of the psyche.”

Earlier this month in Washington, Leo Varadkar sought to reassure unionists that Dublin had no “hidden” united Ireland agenda behind its Brexit battle with Britain, while also acknowledging that some earlier Government comment had spooked unionists.

Billy Hutchinson, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party which is linked to the UVF, heard these assurances but wasn’t that impressed: “It’s like a paper writing something bad about you on its front page but later putting an apology inside in a corner of the paper that nobody reads.”

He said for the Taoiseach to be effectively “talking about a border in the Irish Sea is nonsense unless he teams up with Trump and gets the Mexicans to build it for him”.

Northern nationalists, the vast majority of whom wanted to stay in the EU, wonder what, if any, will be the unintended consequences of Brexit

“If he wants to make people nervous then let him keep doing what he is doing – there is a pro-British constituency and he needs to be addressing them and not playing games with them.”

Hutchinson added: “I expect Sinn Féin to jump up and down and say things but if Sinn Féin thinks this is going to lead to some sort of united Ireland I don’t believe it. I think the Catholic middle-class will think twice about all of this.”

‘Messy divorce’

Hutchinson voted Remain but now believes the politicians should just get on with achieving the best possible form of Brexit that works economically and doesn’t lead to constitutional and political upheaval. “For me it is a very messy divorce but we need to remember the children and how we are going to look after them. But I don’t see us staying together for the children’s sake. I think we are going.”

So, generally, whether from the Remain or Leave side, unionists appear satisfied with or reconciled to the UK breaking the conjugal bond with Europe. There also is a pretty broad unionist expectation that, as James Wilson said, what ultimately unfolds will be a “mellower” form of Brexit.

Regardless, Northern nationalists, the vast majority of whom wanted to stay in the EU, wonder what, if any, will be the unintended consequences of Brexit: will it sharpen the desire for a united Ireland; will it leave unionists in triumphalist mode after sticking one in the eye to nationalists; will it undermine the Belfast Agreement; will it threaten the peace?

The DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds says that every issue in Northern Ireland, including Brexit, comes “back to the unionist-nationalist divide”, but is dismissive of suggestions that it will harm the peace process or make matters politically worse than they are.

“I don’t think there is any danger to the Belfast Agreement or its successors as a result of Brexit,” he said. “There should not be any attempt by others to use the Belfast Agreement and the peace process to force UK into a particular type of Brexit either.

“I am disappointed in the rhetoric coming out of Dublin since Leo Varadkar assumed power – it was different under Enda Kenny. But I think at the end of the day we will get through this period. Once we know the shape of the relationship between the European Union and United Kingdom things will begin to improve and things will begin to settle down.”

With a year to go to Brexit, followed by another transition period of 21 months, Dodds was sanguine about the future. “Look at when the Irish Government adopted the euro,” he said. “There were catastrophic predictions over the impact on Border towns, and what it would mean for cross-Border workers, and changing money and all that, but people adapted and now there is no problem whatsoever.

“We are absolutely confident that there won’t be any border down the Irish Sea,” Dodds concluded. “We are absolutely confident that, unless the EU insists upon it and Dublin goes along with it, there is no need for any kind of infrastructure or regulatory checks on the Irish Border. If everybody is then singing from the same hymn sheet we should be able to make it happen.”