To this day there are people who cross the street to avoid Rev David Latimer. His 2007 conversation, which deepened into a friendship with the late Martin McGuinness, was and remains deeply controversial to some within his own community, not least because his church, First Derry Presbyterian, lost five parishioners during the Troubles. They were members of the RUC and UDR, killed by the IRA.
“Sometimes you have to take a bit of a risk,” says Latimer. “I took a fair bit of punishment for it, still do. But if you wait until there’s a perfect playing field, you’ll never do anything.”
The contemporary pitch is much changed, but no less contested. Brexit and its outworkings have irrevocably altered the political landscape, and another conversation – that of the constitutional arrangements on this island and what the future of Ireland might look like – has become louder and broader.
Civic nationalist groups such as Ireland's Future are making the case for that "new conversation" outside the political arena. Within it, Sinn Féin has called for a referendum on Irish unity within the next five years, the SDLP has its New Ireland Commission and, in Dublin, the Shared Island Unit within the Department of the Taoiseach represents both an official acknowledgement of that conversation, and an attempt to manage it.
The language is carefully chosen; the unit’s purpose is “to work towards a consensus on a shared island” by examining “the political, social, economic and cultural considerations underpinning a future in which all traditions are mutually respected”.
“In the past we have heard from governments in the Republic of Ireland talking about Irish unity; this is about a shared island,” was the response from Northern Ireland’s First Minister, DUP leader Arlene Foster, in a BBC interview. “If there’s a recognition that there are two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland, then I think that’s a positive step.”
Not quite the endorsement those on the nationalist side may have been looking for, but certainly a starting point for a conversation; if the unit is to achieve its aims, it is clear this will require conversations with, and engagement from, unionists as well as nationalists.
"They couldn't convince the unionist and loyalist community with 30 years of bombs and bullets, [so] a Shared Island Unit's not going to do it"
According to last year’s Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey on the attitudes, values and beliefs of the North’s population, 33 per cent of respondents said they regarded themselves as unionists and 23 per cent as nationalists, and there are also conversations to be had with those who define themselves as neither unionist nor nationalist.
The reality, therefore, is that at least 600,000 people on this island define themselves through their preference for remaining part of the UK; a position antithetical to any union with the rest of this island, however it might be framed.
“They can talk till they’re blue in the face,” says loyalist blogger and unionist activist Jamie Bryson. “No unionist is ever not going to be a unionist. They couldn’t convince the unionist and loyalist community with 30 years of bombs and bullets, [so] a Shared Island Unit’s not going to do it.”
Whatever arguments might be made around the shared island concept, he explains, boil down to “asking unionists to engage in discussions about the destruction of the union. It’s entirely illogical, and why would any unionist take part in that?”
“They think unionists are deluded Irishmen,” says leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and former UVF prisoner Billy Hutchinson. “We’re not. They think we’ll wake up one morning and think suddenly we’re Irish. That won’t happen.”
Both reject the suggestion – generally put forward by some nationalists – that unionists too see the way the winds of demographic change are blowing and are pragmatic enough to realise they need to involve themselves, however reluctantly, in these conversations around constitutional change.
“I’m not taking part in conversations. Nobody I know is taking part in conversations – well, maybe some middle-class people are, but it’s not on my agenda and it’s not on the agenda of people I talk to,” says Hutchinson.
“Social media in Northern Ireland is very hyper-liberal and republican/nationalist leaning, so it looks like there’s a momentum but there’s actually not,” says Bryson. “When you go out and talk to people, I don’t think it’s reflective of reality. It’s making the mistake of confusing Twitter with reality, and it’s not the same thing.”
When opposition to a potential united Ireland is raised, almost inevitably it comes paired with another suggestion – that of a violent “backlash” from loyalism. Both Hutchinson and Bryson emphasise that they do not advocate violence and are committed to peaceful means. “What others might do or may not do is only supposition,” says Hutchinson. “I don’t want to get into that.”
“Nobody in the unionist and loyalist community has suggested to me that engaging in violence, going back to conflict, would be a good idea,” says Bryson. He is opposed to the Belfast Agreement – which he argues envisages only one end point, that of a united Ireland – and favours challenging it using the legal and political systems.
He says this is the context within which conversations around a shared island or similar terminology must be viewed as “designed to lure gullible unionists into it to give it some kind of cover, some kind of veneer that this is all about building conciliation and people getting along, and it’s actually not, it’s simply about moving along to nationalism’s overall political objective”.
"If we cannot begin to talk to people about how their future lies within the United Kingdom, that's not a conversation, it's just a monologue"
Many within unionism will share his viewpoint, and even those who argue that it is better to engage than not are adamant that discussions around, for example, mutually beneficial areas of cross-Border co-operation cannot be used as a stalking horse for Irish unity.
“Until it becomes a Shared Islands Unit, with an -s added to the end of it, we’re not interested,” is the response from Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken.
Nor can the outcome be predetermined. “It’s a conversation I’m not interested in if the sole agenda is a united Ireland,” says the grand secretary of the Orange Order, Rev Mervyn Gibson.
“If they want to try and persuade me about a united Ireland they can knock their socks off trying to do it, but if it’s the sole conversation and if we cannot begin to talk to people about how their future lies within the United Kingdom – which I would like to do – then that’s not a conversation, it’s just a monologue.”
‘Space to engage’
Linda Ervine makes a similar point. She is an Irish-language development officer who runs the Turas project for Protestant communities in east Belfast, and who also happens to be sister-in-law of the late PUP leader David Ervine. She feels that if the conversation is about Irish unity “then obviously it’s only really going to be one side that’s going to get positively engaged”.
“Whereas if we discuss a shared island, discuss what works for people on this island on both sides of the Border, that to me is a much more positive conversation and gives space for more people to engage.”
Ian Marshall sees potential here. He is a Northern unionist who sat in the last Seanad, and one of the first things he learned in Dublin was that people in the Republic “aren’t preoccupied with Irish unity”, but with issues such as jobs, housing and education – none of which present a threat to unionism.
This is “the opportunity we need to capitalise on,” says Marshall. The Shared Island Unit represents a “fantastic opportunity” to create a “safe space” where conversations can be had, and results delivered, around new and existing spheres of collaboration in a way that is respectful and non-contentious, he adds.
The DUP’s Ian Paisley, MP for North Antrim, says he is also “up for” a conversation, but says it should be “an open and honest national conversation – not nationalist conversation”.
Any conversation, he says, must be “open and frank, and it’s also got to be one that listens and is respectful and is prepared to say, ‘Look, unionists have their identity, let’s stop talking about almost converting them and let’s talk about having a conversation that allows us to coexist with them’ ”.
Instead, he says, its current framing is “about the nationalist political dynamic, is about converting unionists to the view that you can have your unionist viewpoint but it’s a viewpoint within a new Ireland which is outside of the UK”.
He speaks of the need for unionism to change the dynamic, not least given the approaching centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland and actions of the “heroes” of the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic. “We haven’t conveyed the fact that this is very much a British institution which is equally adored by people no matter what their religion or political outlook, and at the end of the day if the ‘small u’ unionism in that hasn’t been conveyed, that’s largely our fault as unionists.”
“Unionism is constantly asked what it is, and it defines itself by what it is not, because Britishness and unionism is so nebulous and so individualistic ... and I think we have to start claiming that territory and get out there and be positive for the union and that’s how we will win the hearts and minds of the next generation.”
Lack of confidence
Derry-based theatre director Jonathan Burgess points to lower levels of educational attainment among working-class Protestants, as well as a lack of confidence, as factors that go some way to explaining why unionism does not articulate its position as well as it might.
“There is a thing in unionism that something shared is something lost, and you get that within the Derry context ... The Protestant community wasn’t confident enough of its own voice in a public forum unless it was very declamatory.”
Ervine goes further. “It’s a lack of respect, it’s an inability to give anything, I suppose it’s a feeling of being threatened ... When you block things such as the Irish language, then that in my opinion makes people run towards Dublin.”
For her one of the “sad things in unionism is that the argument for a united Ireland is not an easy argument ... There are a lot of nationalist people who would vote in a referendum to stay in the UK if only unionism would lighten up a wee bit and make it a much more pleasant place for them [and] stamp down on sectarianism.
“Rather than making Sinn Féin the bogeyman, just say, ‘We’ve a different outlook.’ ”
"I mean it in the best possible taste, and I do mean it humorously – Micheál Martin is dour enough to be a Protestant"
Whether or not this transpires remains to be seen; regardless, conversations will happen, not least between the DUP and the Taoiseach. “It’s in our interests to make sure there’s a good relationship there,” says Paisley.
He has met Micheál Martin, though not since he became Taoiseach. “I mean it in the best possible taste, and I do mean it humorously – he’s dour enough to be a Protestant.”
He notes that Martin is a Cork man, and therefore may have a different perspective to some previous taoisigh. “I’d say that’s going to be interesting and potentially an opportunity, and I will definitely listen attentively to the things he says about building relationships with us because I’m all for having a better relationship on this island and sharing it properly.”
But, from the viewpoint of many and probably most unionists, it is clear the conversation must have its boundaries. Even Latimer, with his own experience of an unexpected conversation, describes it as “unhelpful to be racing ahead and almost leave people feeling like the outcome is a game, set and match ... Nothing will make the Protestant community more nervous than our nationalist or Catholic neighbours predicting what will happen in five years’ time.
“I would certainly encourage unionists to be around the table and discussing the way forward, but it can’t be a done deal. Everybody has to be involved, and don’t be in a hurry.”