United Ireland? ‘The south of Ireland doesn’t want us and can’t afford us’
Peter Robinson’s remarks on Irish unity greeted with apathy and antipathy in North
Former first minister Peter Robinson at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties. Photograph: North West Newspix
Omagh man Kevin Skelton shakes his head when asked what he thinks about former DUP leader Peter Robinson’s advice to unionists that they need to think about preparing for a Border poll which could lead to Irish unity.
He recalls with a mirthless laugh Robinson’s infamous “invasion” of the village of Clontibret, just across the border from Co Tyrone in 1986. As a protest against the Anglo Irish Agreement which gave Dublin an advisory role in Northern affairs, Robinson, then deputy leader of his party, crossed the Border into Co Monaghan, accompanied by masked loyalists carrying cudgels.
He later pleaded guilty in an Irish court to unlawful assembly, and paid a large fine, thus avoiding a jail term but earning the nickname, Peter the Punt. “I know what I’d do with a Border poll, where I’d push it,” says Skelton.
“I couldn’t give a hoot, couldn’t care less. The south of Ireland doesn’t want us, doesn’t need us and can’t afford us. If the vote was held on both sides of the Border they’d likely reject us. Peter Robinson and Mary Lou McDonald would be better putting their time into getting the assembly back together. There’s none of them wants to deal with the past.”
Skelton’s wife Mena was one of the 31 people (including unborn twins) murdered in Omagh when the Real IRA’s massive 1998 carbomb exploded without warning on Main Street. Prepared in the Republic, it had been driven north, passing through Clontibret, and across the border into Tyrone.
Relatives and friends are bracing themselves for the 20th anniversary on the 15th of this month. The views of the survivors are as diverse as the backgrounds from which their loved ones came and Skelton does not claim to speak for anyone other than himself, though his anger at what he sees as the neglect of the victims is widely shared. He thinks a Border poll is irrelevant, and that Brexit is the critical issue.
“My fear is that Brexit could start the Troubles up again. I’d be out of here if there was a hard border,” he said. However, he also believes that the real Border in Northern Ireland is the river Bann. The newly released NI statistics on deprivation support his view that the most prosperous areas are in the northeast, with the western Border areas among the most disadvantaged.
“Omagh was already struggling on the shavings from the table, and it never recovered from the bomb,” said Skelton. “It is well on its way to being a ghost town.”
Further north and further west, the city of Derry has lately been in the news because of a flare up of street violence among young people under the influence of dissident republicans. The violence included sectarian attacks on the Fountain estate, a tiny unionist enclave alongside the old city walls on the by now almost entirely nationalist west bank of the river Foyle.
On Wednesday night a remarkably civil and wideranging debate took place on the other side of the river, the largely unionist Waterside, in a Protestant church hall. Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald and DUP MP and chief whip Jeffrey Donaldson were among the speakers discussing the future of the Northern state.
The event was one of 40 in the New Gate Fringe Festival, organised by the North West Cultural Partnership, which includes the Londonderry Bands Forum the membership of which is drawn from young men from some of the most deprived loyalist estates in the region. Public debates including working class nationalists and republicans have long been a feature of Northern political life. An audience predominantly made up, as this one was, of working class unionists is far more rare.
The first question from the audience was about Robinson’s suggestion, which he made first in his inaugural lecture as an honorary professor at Queen’s University, Belfast, in June and repeated at the MacGill summer school in Donegal last week.
“What’s your take, Sir Jeffrey?” said June Elder. Donaldson said the DUP was very clear on the question. “Peter does not speak for the DUP. He is retired. I do,” he said. “I don’t share his view.”
Considering such a poll would polarise people and cause further division, he had not had a single email from a constituent about it. “We are preparing for Brexit.”
Elder came back after his response with a supplementary question. “So was Peter just off on a rant?” she asked. “No,” said Donaldson with a tight smile. “He was expressing his opinion.”
“Well,” retorted Elder, sceptically, to laughter. “My TV shows the same as yours.”
Joe Thompson said he was a unionist but he was angry with the DUP. “For decades they’ve insisted this part of the country is British and now with Brexit they say it can’t be treated any differently from England, Scotland and Wales,” he said. “But people are treated differently when it comes to reproductive rights, marriage rights and the Irish language act.”
Donaldson said devolution meant that different parts of the UK would have different laws. He said the place to legislate for the issues Thompson raised was at Stormont and reiterated his party leader Arlene Foster’s accusation that Sinn Féin was “holding to ransom” the parties which wished to resume powersharing. “We no longer have a veto,” he said, pointing out that to use a “petition of concern” to block new legislation 30 votes were needed. “We only have 28,” he said.
McDonald retorted that Foster had just that morning backed the use of a blocking mechanism to prevent a local council from flying the rainbow flag this weekend, Saturday August 4th, as part of LGBTQ Pride events around the North.
Afterwards, Thompson, who works in Derry and lives in Mid Ulster, told The Irish Times he was not satisfied with Donaldson’s response. “The DUP is coming across as just so arrogant,” he said. “They’d get their 30 votes to block progressive change – they know it and so do we. I support the union but I vote Alliance now. Peter Robinson was right to say what he did about a Border poll. It is going to happen and the chaos that followed the Brexit vote showed that we need preparations.”
The audience at the debate strikingly included many young people. On his way out after an intense 2½ hours, Chris Smith said a Border poll would be pointless. “It is not a question people need answered,” he said. “I am a unionist and I want the politicians either to get Stormont up and running or go back to Direct Rule. As it is we are losing out every way. My girlfriend works in the NHS here and she has just had to forego a payrise that colleagues elsewhere are getting. My mate is a firefighter but because of cuts his job is about to be lost.”
Julia Kee, a community worker on a programme made possible by the EU’s Peace 4 funding, shared this view. “We have more important things to be thinking about than a Border poll,” she said. “I am a unionist and we have been hearing nothing but this anti-choice, anti-LGBT rights talk from the DUP.
“The political impasse is creating political unrest around Northern Ireland including here in this city,” she said. “Then you get politicians calling young people scumbags and that does not help.”
Hospital consultant Fergal McNicholl is from Greysteel, the Co Derry village which became internationally known after loyalists burst into a pub there in 1993 and sprayed it with gunfire, killing eight people. He came to the debate at the invitation of his friend, Dave Duggan, a writer from the city.
“I felt quite privileged to be here tonight,” said McNicholl. “It was very impressive that they got a mixed audience and the fact that there was no tension was a massive step forward.” He was not inclined to favour preparing for a Border poll. “The territorial issue puts our identity back into conflict – I quite like it the way it was,” he said. “There was a period where I felt I could be comfortably Irish in this town and live beside someone who was comfortably British. Brexit has already raised territorial issues. It makes things harder. It unsettles us.”
Georgina Campbell is a young dancer. She told the panel that she was worried and wanted to know if, in a new Ireland, the likes of her would have a place. She said that the Highland dancing that is her medium is rooted in British military history and that the highest honour available is to dance for the queen. Afterwards, she explained that a Border poll meant nothing to her.
“We should just have a government,” she said. “My three best friends are nationalist girls who are self-employed artists. Highland dancers and Irish dancers work together on a regular basis, but a lot of our cultural activities are in our own communities. Northern Ireland is unique and special. We need to embrace it and we need to market it. It is just this big mad eclectic place. I love it so much – I’ll never move away.”