Why was Mike Nesbitt moved to utter republican slogan?

Tiocfaidh ár what? Young people in west Belfast put a united Ireland to a vote

"Tiocfaidh ár lá," declared a smiling Mike Nesbitt to the 12-17 year-olds from Ballymurphy's Glor na Mona youth club in very nationalist west Belfast.

"Ár lá" didn't refer to a united Ireland but the chances that the union with the rest of the UK might be safe for a little while yet and might even gain the support of some of the children from this west Belfast republican stronghold.

Nesbitt was speaking after the Ballymurphy boys and girls voted in a "referendum" at the Farset International Centre on the Springfield Road on Thursday night.

The 62 youngsters had the option of putting their Xs in one of two boxes: “Yes, Ireland should be independent and united”, or “No, Ireland should not be independent and united”.


But why was the MLA and former Ulster Unionist Party leader so happy with the result? Let's maintain the suspense a little longer.

The teenagers voted after hearing pitches from two proponents of a united Ireland: Chris Donnelly, a nationalist commentator and school vice-principal in Ardoyne in north Belfast, and David McCann, deputy editor of the Slugger O'Toole political website. They also heard from two advocates for maintaining Northern Ireland's link with Britain, Nesbitt and Linda Ervine, an Irish language officer in east Belfast.

The meeting was chaired by a youth worker, Conchur Ó Muadaigh (27), which meant that nearly everyone in the centre had little, or absolutely no experience of the Troubles.

McCann spoke about a united Ireland creating economic prosperity, of Brexit hastening the day when it would happen, and how the young people had a "chance to shape that new Ireland".

Ervine, sister-in-law of the late Progressive Unionist Party leader, David, said personally she "would not dismiss out of hand" the prospect of unity. But she said what would demoralise her was the "thought of separation from the United Kingdom" and the "vilification of everything that is British".

Nesbitt argued that Northern Ireland remained economically stronger linked to a large UK bloc. He spoke about how an IRA bomb wrecked his father's business in 1973 and how for him a "united Ireland is synonymous with the IRA, with bombs, bullets and coercion".

Negative trap

Donnelly spoke about Irish people wanting “to remain part of Europe” and of how nationalists “must not define themselves as against anything British” as that was a “negative trap to fall into”.

“We need to build a united Ireland that says you can still be British in a united Ireland . . . it has to be based on respect,” he added.

Afterwards the four speakers had five minutes each to engage in question and answer sessions with the youngsters.

Eoin Ro Wilson, a 17-year-old student from De La Salle college in west Belfast, said it was “very interesting to get the views from both sides of the community”.

“From the unionist side, they said they wanted us to persuade them why we should have a united Ireland. And that is a very key point that needs to be mentioned due to the fact that they live in what I regard as Ireland. We should be catering to their needs as well,” said Wilson.

“Linda made good points. She actually corrected myself when talking about welcoming unionists into my community. She said it is ‘our’ community. It opened my eyes,” he added.

“She is involved in learning the Irish language. She is doing what a lot of other people should be doing, us working together as a whole to move forward in our community.”

His friend Liam Groves (16) from the same school said he found the discussion about Brexit very useful.

He also liked the talk of how important it was that the unionist and nationalist communities interact with each other “so that unionists don’t feel excluded, as we did”.

The fact that Ervine spoke Irish also impressed Groves. “Linda is a Gaeilgeoir like myself. She is just very understanding of our language – well it is not our language, it is everyone’s language. She was very understanding of the culture too, although she wants to keep the union.”

Daire O’Hare, a 16-year-old attending Coláiste Feirste in west Belfast said all the chat “made me very open-minded towards the other side”.

“It was good to hear the other opinion about Irish unity. I come from a very nationalist background and I have always felt that Ireland should be unified,” she said.

But she found that “Linda and Mike made some very valid points about Irish unity and the affects it would have on the unionist community”.

Their points about losing the British National Health Service and other economic arguments also had an impact but still she, like Eoin and Liam, voted for a united Ireland, and expect to do so again when they reach adulthood.

Then Ó Muadaigh announced the result. There were four spoiled votes. There were 54 votes for a united Ireland. And there were four votes to maintain Northern Ireland’s link with Britain. From Ballymurphy Glor na Mona youth club.

“Tiocfaidh ár lá,” exulted Nesbitt. “Let us talk to the four,” said he and Ervine.

The young contrarians did not reveal themselves.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times