Loyalists on Brexit: ‘There will never be a united Ireland’
‘Street loyalists’ warn against ‘dangerous’ talk on hard border and Irish unification
Bonfire builders complete their structure near the peace wall in west Belfast on July 9th. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty
In this mural, the hand is in a clenched fist.
The hulking features of the famous Samson and Goliath cranes of the Harland and Wolff shipyard frame the mural’s backdrop, evoking a rich economic history that loyalists cling proudly to.
A short walk down the Newtownards Road, four loyalists – or “street loyalists”, as one of them describes themselves – speak candidly to The Irish Times of an unresolved past and an uncertain future because of Brexit.
The four are all hardened loyalists, veterans not only of the 30-year conflict that ended with the 1998 Belfast Agreement but of the fragile 21-year peace that has lasted since then.
Speaking in an east Belfast community centre on a street festooned with Union Jack and Ulster Banner flags for “the Twelfth” commemorations, the four men, all supporters of the peace process and advocates of better relations on the island, stress they are sharing personal opinions, not those of their groups.
Three of them, Winston Irvine of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the UVF; Jackie McDonald of the Ulster Political Research Group, the UDA’s political wing; and former local DUP assembly man Sammy Douglas, voted to remain in the EU in the Brexit referendum three years ago.
The fourth, Rob Williamson, co-ordinator of the Reach Project support network, where the four have gathered, voted to leave. He accepts he voted against his interests as the local community organiser – the group benefits from EU funding – but he also accepts “there is a huge amount of money going into Europe”.
They have different views on Brexit but “the constitutional safety” of Northern Ireland within the UK is “the one thing that unites all of us”, said Williamson.
McDonald said he knew, even before the June 2016 vote, that there were “going to be problems with the Border” if the people chose Brexit, with the Republic remaining members of the EU.
The Belfast man believes politicians are “as sabre-rattling” by saying Brexit will affect the peace process. He bemoans how few people have sought out the views of loyalists on the issue, which has exposed the long-standing weaknesses in the Good Friday Agreement that anchors the Northern Irish peace.
“It was the ship that was launched but never fitted out,” said McDonald.
These loyalists see the repeated warnings from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney about the threat of a return to violence, the importance of the backstop provision in the Brexit deal and the risk of a hard border – all raised as part of the Government’s objections to the pro-Brexit British positions – as undermining good neighbourly relations with the Republic.
“There’s a feeling that 20 years of goodwill is being lost by aggressive statements by the Irish Government. That is a danger,” said Williamson. He points out the Belfast Agreement covers a million Protestants but feels the Government does not recognise the whole population the agreement protects by “making all these green statements”.
For these four men, it does not follow that because a majority (56 per cent) of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU that a majority would want to stay in the EU by being in a united Ireland.
If there is a Border that separates us, there is definitely not going to be a united Ireland
“Moving the constitutional tectonic plates is very dangerous and very irresponsible,” Irvine warned. He said that “most right-thinking people” in their communities would not want a return to “the dark days of the past” but he is worried about how younger loyalists who have no memory of the Troubles might react to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the UK being eroded in a post-Brexit world.
“My fear is there are people who didn’t live through that, and therefore think they either missed out on something or don’t fully understand what really is the impact if we end up returning back literally to a battle and a military one over a constitutional question. While no one wants that, we could very easily be sleepwalking into that,” said the prominent loyalist.
McDonald said while “anybody with any sense doesn’t want a hard border,” young loyalists would like one because “if there is a Border that separates us, there is definitely not going to be a united Ireland”.
Douglas recognises there is a “sea change” among moderate nationalists and that post-Brexit they would vote in a referendum “for some sort of agreed Ireland”. While he believes there will never be a united Ireland, he is concerned about what Brexit might throw up.
We will not go back to war but attitudes can change. That would be my fear
“The representatives of UDA, UVF and the Red Hand [paramilitary group] all signed up to decommissioning because the union was safe. You go into the whole Brexit situation, nobody knows what is going to happen.”
He thinks it “very likely” that English and Scottish nationalism could break up the United Kingdom and is concerned about what the coming years and wider political disruption across the UK might bring.
“We will not go back to war but attitudes can change. That would be my fear,” said Douglas.
Irvine does not believe Conservative leadership contenders Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt would leave the EU at the end of October without a deal – as they have threatened – if either was elected British prime minister, but he acknowledges there is a huge risk in the potential consequences from a no-deal Brexit and elsewhere. A Jeremy Corbyn-led UK government with “a sort of Irish nationalist affinity” within the Labour leadership would send “shockwaves” across the UK body politic, particularly in Northern Ireland, he said.
He points to the “madness” around talk of “an agreed Ireland, a new Ireland or a united Ireland” when the North has “not been able to manage relationships here with Catholic and Protestant neighbours who live within yards of one another”.
“It is absolutely ludicrous for people to think that there can be a peaceful transition from Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom to some kind of new constitutional arrangement of Northern Ireland within some kind of Republic of Ireland sovereignty,” said Irvine.
Douglas cautions that such a constitutional change would result in going from a nationalist minority in the North to a Protestant minority in “an agreed Ireland” who would still see themselves unionists.
McDonald dismisses the idea by pointing to more practical day-to-day complications of a united Ireland.
“How would the Garda Síochána deal with one million Protestants and a certain percentage being involved in crime or whatever might result because not everybody would be happy with this new Ireland?” he said.
The UDA leader believes that a hard border would mean “uniforms” on the Border making them targets of dissident republican militants and the potential for tit-for-tat responses from loyalists.
“So is the violence going to come from what happens at the Border that loyalism might retaliate? It might spread from the Border out. It will not start in east Belfast or the Shankill Road,” he said, referring to the loyalist heartlands of the city.
You don’t trust the Irish Government, the British government or the Europeans so there is that danger people feel of being backed into a corner
The loyalists convey a sense of the need to resolve the Brexit-induced identity-nationality crisis from within – and with radical solutions. Two of the loyalists do not trust the UK government.
“Britain would dump us in the morning if the circumstances were right,” said McDonald.
“That is a dangerous place to be in. You don’t trust the Irish Government, the British government or the Europeans so there is that danger people feel of being backed into a corner,” said Douglas.
Williamson said Sinn Féin and others who want a Border poll in Northern Ireland on Irish unification “haven’t told people what a united Ireland even entails”. He said that, post-Brexit, other options should be considered: a Northern Ireland-Scotland confederation, Northern Ireland and Scotland going “semi-independent” or the Republic “coming within the British Isles” or rejoining the Commonwealth.
A simple majority in a Border poll would be dangerous when there are “a whole range of conversations” to be had and “a single binary choice” between a united Ireland and staying within the UK is “no longer relevant post-Brexit”.
“Fifty per cent plus one would probably be civil war,” said Williamson.
All four loyalists want to see closer cross-Border ties with the Republic and think they need to persuade nationalists of the benefits of being in the UK, "not insulting them as we do from time to time", said Douglas.
"I think this is one of the most beautiful islands in the world," said McDonald, who holidays and has good friends in the Republic. "We don't have hurricanes, tempests or earthquakes. If we could just live together, this is the place to be."