What Brexit means for ex-hunger striker Tommy McKearney

Reflections on Border: ‘If a Berlin-type wall were to be erected, relations would suffer’

Three of the McKearney brothers were in the IRA during the Troubles. Three of them were killed, one at Loughgall in 1987. Tommy McKearney spent 53 days without food in the first H-Blocks hunger strike in1980.

In 1977, McKearney, who was brought up in Moy, Co Tyrone, was charged with killing Stanley Adams (29), an Ulster Defence Regiment member shot while delivering post in Pomeroy. McKearney was sentenced to life.

Since early Friday, McKearney, who now lives in Monaghan with his wife, Patricia, has reflected on the existence of the Border in a world where the United Kingdom will no longer be in the European Union, but the Republic will be.

Despite Sinn Féin's demands, a Border poll will not happen, McKearney tells The Irish Times. "I think Sinn Féin's judgment was impaired by its desire to remain within the establishment. I think it made a fundamental mistake during the referendum and is now trying frantically to regain common ground by talking about a Border poll which in practical and political terms is not on."


Regarded with respect by Danny Morrison as "a dissenter, not a dissident", McKearney – who was never a member of Sinn Féin – has for years favoured the end of armed conflict, even if he does not regret his own part in it.

Growing up in Moy, McKearney shared the resentment about anti-Catholic discrimination. “The civil rights movement articulated many of the grievances that the Catholic, nationalist, republican population had.

“But there was no real conviction that the world could change, the world of the six counties. We felt we couldn’t change it, that the Unionist party had a majority and was backed by all the civil institutions and security institutions.”

His brother Seán died planting an IRA bomb that went off prematurely, Pádraig was killed in Loughgall in 1987 and Kevin, who was  not in the IRA, was killed by loyalists in 1991, along with his uncle John. *

Imprisonment, when it came, was a consequence of struggle. “We were taking on the British state and the consequence was that you would be possibly wounded or killed or taken to prison.”

Chosen for the first hunger strike, McKearney was prepared to die. “In a hunger strike you have to be willing, you have to be prepared to die. Otherwise it’s a gesture rather than an action.” In a letter then to his parents, he wrote: “I’ll put all my cards on the table. I’m going on hunger strike. If and when I die, I want to be brought back to Roscommon and be buried alongside my grandda.”

Despite his background, McKearney cautiously interprets the consequences of the United Kingdom's EU exit vote, saying that it "has assisted" hopes of creating a united Ireland, but – in the spirit of St Augustine – not just yet.

‘Immediate impact’

“Will this promote a united Ireland or not? In some ways I don’t believe it is going to have an immediate impact,” says McKearney , who believes political reality trumps political belief, for now. “A nationalist, republican view has to be left aside here; Britain is our neighbour, we speak the same language. I believe there will be a pragmatic deal done between the North and South of Ireland,” he says.

There "may well come a time" when the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, or her successors or the British government in London may well decide to hold a Border poll.

However, McKearney is certain that London will be in no hurry to call one. “At this point in time, the British government will not hold a Border poll, not after the trauma it has been through in the last few days.

“Whatever you may say about those who didn’t vote in the Northern Assembly elections, those that did voted for the union or unionist position. What is now happening is a desperate attempt by Sinn Féin not to have to answer for its support for Remain.”

Under the rules, the Norther Secretary can call a Border poll if there is evidence that opinions about the prospect of a united Ireland have changed, or he/she can simply decide to call one on their own authority.

Despite the uncertainty caused by Thursday’s vote, the referendum result will not disrupt “the normalisation” of relations between the Republic and Northern Ireland, he feels certain.

“That depends largely on attitudes between the two jurisdictions and the people living in the two regions. There’s no reason to believe that because the UK leaves the EU that people’s attitudes will dramatically change.

"Obviously if a Berlin-type wall were to be erected, contact and relations would suffer due to separate development, but building a wall stretching from Warrenpoint to Malin Head is not [even] a remote – never mind realistic – possibility."

Even Border posts are unlikely, but if they do come they will “very likely provide tempting targets for physical force republicanism as they always have done so in the past”.

However, McKearney sees little evidence, so far, that Brexit has fuelled "any great eruption of nationalism", even if Irish passport application numbers in Northern Ireland have risen substantially, blessed by DUP MP Ian Paisley.

"That bogeyman has been dragged up by Mike Nesbitt, in my opinion, to blow a raspberry at the smug DUP," says McKearney, although the fact that the North voted Remain when a majority voted Leave has changed the landscape.

“It has given weight to their argument that Northern Ireland is an isolated irrelevance within the larger UK [and] would have more real influence in an all-Ireland republic. But this is a slow burner rather than an emotional upsurge.”

* This article was edited on June 30th, 2016