North Down on Brexit: ‘The DUP threatens the union more than Sinn Féin’

On NI’s ‘gold coast’, liberal unionists grapple with a Brexit-induced redrawing of identities

The upmarket homes and gated estates of the Belfast professionals who live in north Co Down leave the town of Holywood open to gentle jibes about Northern Ireland's "gold coast".

This is a home for the "haves and have yachts", goes another joke, where the middle-class residents are said by outsiders to hold fast to the view that an annual European sun holiday is a human right. Rory McIlroy and Jamie Dornan – local sons both – add even more glitz to the unique status of Holywood being "one 'l' of a town".

Nowhere is Northern Ireland's Brexit-induced identity crisis more keenly felt than in this liberal area. North Down was the constituency with the largest Protestant-unionist population to vote Remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum, in which Northern Ireland voted 56 per cent overall to stay in the EU.

The buffeting of Northern Ireland in the political storm between the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party and UK prime minister Theresa May (whom the DUP keeps in power) over her Brexit plan is stirring unexpected conversations in these parts around nationality, constitutionality and what is right economically.


"The DUP is threatening the union more than anything Sinn Féin can do at the minute," says Hilary Warnock, a member of the liberal centrist Alliance Party who describes herself as a soft unionist. "I am tired of them speaking for us."

She is one of five Holywood residents gathered at the home of Trevor Ringland, the former Ireland rugby international, solicitor and co-chairman of the Northern Irish arm of the Conservative Party, to discuss Brexit and its fallout with The Irish Times.

None of them support the DUP, preferring the local Independent unionist MP Sylvia Hermon. They all back May's deal and fear that a disorderly Brexit would spell economic catastrophe and bring forward the thorny question of a united Ireland. That, they feel, is a question better asked years, if not decades, from now.

“If the deal that is on the table got through, that would calm that question and people would think that we have got the best of both worlds here and that’s okay,” says Warnock. “If we leave with a no-deal, then I think yes, it is pushing the question of a united Ireland or not.”

She feels “more Irish” than English or British since Brexit, she says.

Partial Remain

John West, whose father, Harry, was leader of the Ulster Unionist Party in the 1970s, is a Remainer and believes May's deal would give the North a "partial Remain with tremendous opportunities we can exploit".

The draft EU-UK divorce deal, which is facing a vote by the UK parliament on December 11th, would keep Northern Ireland under both EU and UK economic rules as part of the contentious “backstop” option should a future trade deal not guarantee an open Irish border.

"A no-deal would be calamitous for Northern Ireland to the point where we would probably be better off within Europe within an all Ireland," says West.

While, he still favours maintaining the union of Northern Ireland with Britain, his mind is “not unchangeable” on the possibility of a united Ireland.

The “pain and suffering” from a no-deal Brexit, he says, could “shift the dial in terms of support for a united Ireland in some sectors” and that this could be enough to swing a majority for reunification.

Brexit has reintroduced identity politics into Northern Ireland two decades after the Belfast Agreement provided an acceptable fudge on the issue. Re-emerging orange-green fault lines mean a returned focus on identity and sovereignty trumps any pressing economic concerns, practical thinking or, for the DUP, even compromise. The party has returned to the “not an inch” mentality it doggedly stuck to in the past.

“Back the deal constructively rather than continue to fight a losing cause” is West’s advice to the DUP.


Ringland believes talk of a united Ireland is premature and that it must come from the ground up over time rather than from politicians. People are not as polarised as politics, he says.

“We have a wee bit of healing to do and a bit of real thinking about relationships in Northern Ireland to undo the damage that the conflict caused and across this island as well,” he says.

“Let’s focus on uniting people, and 50 years from now, let those generations take whatever decision they want around constitutional preferences but do it as friends and people who know each other.”

Ringland, who sees himself as British-Irish and European, believes to push any sooner for reunification would create “a sense of triumphalism in Irish nationalism matched by the sense of loss in that British tradition” that would set “the project” back socially and economically for generations.

West agrees that capitalising on Brexit in a negative way, by alienating one side or the other for political gain, would result in the terms of the UK’s departure being “painted in pictures like: ‘We won, you lost’”.

Jeremy Stewart, a north Down teacher and unionist who voted Leave, says if people were sold a united Ireland for long-term, pragmatic social and economic reasons, he thinks people would "start to consider and look at it more reasonably".*

He feels that some politicians have "dealt a very bad hand" in the Brexit debate and singles out Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, accusing him of playing "Project Fear" when he displayed an Irish Times front page article about the 1972 IRA bombing of a Border customs post to stress his case to EU leaders for a backstop.

“Trying to force people into something is the worst thing,” says Stewart.

He has no concerns about the future of the union, as the future of Northern Ireland is protected by the 1998 Belfast Agreement that guarantees no united Ireland unless a majority votes for it.

“The problem is that the DUP don’t have confidence in the Good Friday Agreement. That is my backstop. Until the people of Northern Ireland change their mind on that, I am confident in the union,” he says.

Warnock believes Northern Ireland can work “as a good unit” and would work even better with May’s Brexit deal, but feels the DUP must be “more open” and change its views on same-sex marriage and abortion.

“If they don’t, then the numbers are going to come into play and there will be a united Ireland, and people won’t be happy because you will end up with this horrendous group of unionists very unhappy,” she says.

John McNally, a southern blow-in to Holywood, says he does not believe Brexit makes people “less unionist or more republican” and that the drive for a united Ireland must come from people first.

McNally, a retired banker who has lived about a third of his life in Northern Ireland and votes for the local unionist MP as the best representative for the locality, points to his sons and the younger generation, who do not give the old identity politics much thought.

“If a united Ireland is a place where new structures in the new Ireland will accommodate the Britishness [so] that the unionists feel they will be comfortable, in that environment then there is nothing to be feared,” he says.

“I think that is for another day, in another discussion, not linked to Brexit.”

I don't know why we need tags. We have moved between these identities and we are very relaxed about it.

In affluent north Down, unionists do not feel as threatened as they do in other parts of Northern Ireland and can show greater willingness to compromise and embrace flexibility around identity.

If Irish passport applications were a straw poll for a desire to see reunification of the island in response to this crisis, then north Down, at least anecdotally, would be charging towards a united Ireland.

Irish passports

A deeper look reveals this to be a pragmatic move more than a wider political statement for many in north Down, where the unionist-nationalist divide is barely noticeable and people do not wear their nationality or religion on their sleeves.

"My hand was nearly worn off signing Irish passport applications for people after the Brexit vote," says John Barry, a professor at Queen's University Belfast, who was very busy two years ago as a signatory in his capacity as a Green Party councillor on North Down council.

“It was an awful lot of people who definitely do not consider themselves to be Irish and who certainly would not be supporters of a united Ireland,” he says.

Barry believes the Troubles may have robbed some unionists of their ability to acknowledge their Irishness because of its association with Catholicism or armed-force republicanism.

“Since the Good Friday Agreement, there has been a re-embracing of those aspects of Irish identity, and it may be that the passports are symbolic of that,” he says.

John Woods, a public policy consultant living in Holywood, is one such example. He is from a Protestant, unionist background and is a Remainer. He realised the benefits of continued free access to the EU after Brexit and applied for Irish passports for him and his family.

“I partly did it because I wanted to demonstrate that my Irishness as part of the EU, my Europeanness, comes together. I don’t want to be part of a Britain that sets itself aside,” he says.

The rapid social changes in the Republic have made it easier, too.

“Looking south at just how much things have changed, the South is now the liberal and progressive part of the island. That makes a big difference for people,” says Woods.

Back at Ringland's round-table discussion, all four participants who do not have Irish passports would have no problem applying for one if travel in the EU were to become restrictive. McNally, who is originally from Co Kildare, already has an Irish passport. He describes himself as a "mellow blend" of Northern Irish-Irish but not a unionist.

“I don’t know why we need tags. We have moved between these identities and we are very relaxed about it.”

Angry Serb

Explaining the complex composite identities of Northern Ireland, Ringland recalls a cycling holiday to Serbia with Stewart. They encountered an angry Serb who quizzed them on their nationality. He asked whether they were British and said he hoped they were not because the British had bombed his country.

“Suddenly we all declared how Irish we were,” says Ringland, laughing.

He believes that Northern Ireland’s future is in blurring the lines around identity that Brexit has inadvertently redrawn.

“Belfast is as British as Finchley but it is not as English and it is as Irish as Cork but it is not as Irish-Irish,” he says.

“The key to the future is more inclusive identities. Certainly, a British identity is Scottish, Welsh and Irish and a multitude of other nationalities.”

Ringland sees sport, along with the all-island structure and diverse make-up of Ireland’s rugby team, something he has first-team experience of, as a template that can help unite people.

“That is where we need to be in Ireland pre-Brexit, not looking at Brexit but just looking at relationships,” he said. “It is a feast of identities that we can have at different times.”

* This article was amended on Decembr 3rd to state that Jeremy Stewart voted Leave. An earlier version incorrectly stated he had voted Remain in the Brexit referendum.