Ireland’s Call: Fr Joe McVeigh clings to united Ireland dream
Fermanagh-based priest wants borderless new country with special place for unionists
Fr Joe McVeigh: “In my view, it’s not a matter of the six counties joining the 26 counties; we have to begin again with a totally clean slate.”
Father Joe McVeigh, a Fermanagh-based priest who lives in the mainly Protestant village of Lisbellaw, tucks himself away in his parochial home in his spare time to spend time writing, reading and thinking.
There he dreams of a United Ireland, but one that is far-reaching and inclusive for unionists. The shelves of his study are filled with a multitude of books on the history of Ireland, the Easter Rising, the Troubles’ horrors, the rise of Sinn Féin and one called Unimaginable Revolutionaries.
Next month, Fr McVeigh will take a class of primary school children for Holy Communion. Today, the 71-year-old Republican ponders on the kind of Ireland those children will inherit, long after he has departed.
“I hope that young people grow up in a new Ireland in which they respect all aspects of society and people who are different from them, such as unionist, and they show generosity of spirit,” he says.
The anti-Brexit campaigner wants to see a borderless new Ireland: “In my view, it’s not a matter of the six counties joining the 26 counties; we have to begin again with a totally clean slate and a new beginning,” he adds.
There must be a special place for unionists in a reunified Ireland, he believes, and they need to be accommodated “to their satisfaction, not ours”.
“The Westminster government must become persuaders for the unionists; they could negotiate a new deal for themselves in an Ireland that has no border, that has a new constitution that would recognise their special place,” he said.
For many unionists it would be a difficult pill to swallow, he accepts, but the days of “Rome Rule” are long gone: “The Catholic Church is in a seriously weak position compared to what it was before. There has to be total separation between church and state going forward.”
Politicians can work out solutions: “Nationalists in the north were happy to go to Stormont, with all its associations, and I don’t think nationalists would have any problem in a local assembly continuing in a unified Ireland. The sovereignty would shift from London to Dublin.”
Nationalist first minister
As he sees it, Westminster currently is getting in the way of reunification, but the Fermanagh priest predicts that if Scotland breaks away from the United Kingdom then the very existence of the Union itself is in question.
In McVeigh’s new Ireland, there would be a nationalist first minister and a unionist deputy first minister leading the country: “I never thought we would have a first and deputy first minister here but I don’t see any reason why that couldn’t be the way in a reunified state.
“It would be one way of showing that nationalists are prepared to accommodate unionists and that unionists have a very important part to play in a new Ireland, in a new political disposition,” he said.
For unionists such as Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster agreeing to a united Ireland will be difficult, if not an impossible task, but it would be a sign of “real leadership to engage even in discussions about this”.
McVeigh is willing to concede much to unionists, specifically around British culture and identity.
“In a new Ireland there must be safeguards in place to preserve their culture, their identity in the way that other former colonies have managed to maintain some type of association with their former government to which they held allegiance.”
That includes marking the anniversary of King William III’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 on the Twelfth of July, he says.
“That is a big day for unionism, if they want to have marches wherever they want, that has to be preserved. They need to have some way of expressing their allegiance to the monarch in a unified Ireland.
“While I can’t see republicans accepting any kind of return to a commonwealth type of situation, I can see them making every effort to facilitate a role for the monarch. Reunification cannot be seen as a complete victory for republicanism, unionists have to be comfortable.”
“Only an all-island economy could hope to bring about prosperity and job opportunities for all the people living on this small island.
“It is time for the economists and progressive politicians to pursue this goal. Surely this would give hope to our young people, many of whom are contemplating going abroad when they finish their education.”
He wants the young people he meets at St Michael’s Church in Enniskillen, where he is based, to feel proud in a new Ireland.
“I already sense that young people have a different perspective; they are more tolerant in their outlook, they are more conscious of who they are, of their identity,” he said.
McVeigh says he has never felt closer to a United Ireland than now.
“People sense that things are changing, that the relationship between Britain and Ireland is changing and the tide of history is moving in the direction of something new, and that could even be in my lifetime”.