A united Ireland would be ‘like Brexit: so many knock-on effects’

Prospect of unity brings a mix of hope and pragmatism to one Co Roscommon bar

We are waiting for The Ghost, to hear what he reckons about a united Ireland. It’s lunchtime in Coffey’s Bar in Lecarrow, Co Roscommon, an idyll close to the banks of Lough Ree.

It’s a bar of returning faces and unfussy loyalties, and conversation and live music. Regulars often enter through the rear door from the grocery shop. The television is in the other room – the lounge – and is rarely switched on.

Darts are fine but card games went out the door one evening in the 1960s when John Joe Coffey ended a heated game by taking the pack and flinging them over the wall outside. It was an act that became local legend.

“There might have been land on the table,” says his granddaughter and current proprietor, Sarah-Jane Coffey.

READ MORE

“There might have been a lot more on the table, too,” says Pat Joe Grady from his place at the bar.

Card games were banned, a rare rule in an easy-going house that has been observed since. The building has been in the Coffey family since 1916, Ireland’s touchstone year. Given the subject of conversation, it’s an appropriate date.

Politics is not often up for debate in the bar because it is simply not as fun as local news and gossip. Every so often somebody will say something that sparks a good old row says Noel Galvin. But the idea of a united Ireland is so vague and abstract, so intertwined with the ambitions of gilded historical figures and late-night ballads that it seldom comes up.

“It’s a very fraught kind of subject,” ventures Mick Stapleton, who stops in regularly coming to and from Athlone.

“I’m just reading Tommie Gorman’s book there ... he’s from very close to the Border himself, he’s from Sligo and so emotionally, he would be in tune with things across the Border and all that. He quoted Mary Lou McDonald – that she has given herself up to 2032 ... a good space to lead into what she thinks is achievable for a united Ireland. We can go on talking all we like down here about our emotional desires for a united Ireland. But how do we take along with us the people who could create the most trouble in preventing it?”

“I don’t think people fully understand it ... what does it actually mean and all the workings behind it,” says Sarah-Jane.

“It is like Brexit: there are so many knock-on effects which the English only realised after the event. I personally wouldn’t understand how it would all work.”

Who does? Pat Joe Grady remembers talk of Ian Paisley coming down for summer holidays in Lecarrow as a young man, before he became unionism’s chief firebrand. Summertime brings mainly European tourists to this part of Roscommon. “Austrians, Germans, the odd Israeli,” says Noel Galvin. Rarely an English reg, they agree. But the village, set on a canal harbour, draws quite a few tourists from Northern Ireland who park near the water in their camper vans.

“They are not bad now, most that come down here,” says Pat Joe.

“They are down beside me as well in the campers and they are very friendly.”

The room agrees that if a referendum were to be held on a united Ireland, they’d expect it to pass. Imagining how that would look takes a bit of time and navigating.

“I don’t think people would want the flag to change,” Noel Galvin says, when that prospect is raised.

“I would imagine that 90 per cent of people in the Republic would say that you couldn’t touch the flag.”

However, Mick Stapleton was surprised to read a survey that most Irish people don’t want Amhrán na bhFiann to change.

“Because a lot of us aren’t enamoured by its quality as an artistic work,” he says.

“It should be changed,” John Joe Grady reckons.

“Not one bit of harm would that do.”

“Sinne Fianna Fáil,” he quotes.

“Why should it mention about one party?”

He says that while there should be a united Ireland in theory, it won’t happen anytime soon.

“It should be. But it’s not going to be. Not that I can see. If they hadn’t sent Collins over to sign that treaty, the English wouldn’t be up there now. The English wouldn’t have beat the Irish.”

It’s still too bright out – even if there’s a shadow on the lake by four – to venture down the rabbit hole of speculative history. But other possibilities are in the air. The mere idea conjures up so many unknowns, from the currency to the composition of an All-Ireland soccer team to future security issues.

“Who is going to foot the bill – because there will be a big expense for us? And who will foot it? Only the people who are earning,” ventures another regular, breaking away from a peaceful coffee to join in.

“And then when you have loyalists who don’t want a united Ireland. When they throw the rattle out of the pram, will we have to send troops up there to keep them quiet? Like you could have a young fella from Clara getting shot up in Belfast.”

It’s a sombre thought. Mick Stapleton says that on regular trips to the North with Buccaneers Rugby Club, he has never felt entirely relaxed. He notes that if there was a referendum tomorrow, his lack of faith in the security structures would edge him towards no.

“Because I don’t think the security is there. It is too unpredictable. And it would be a massive joke ... look at the way we have left the Army. It is an absolute dereliction of public duty. We are talking big, but we have nothing to back it up.”

As Sarah Jane Coffey notes, since the conversation started, everyone in the room has referred to Northern Ireland as “up there”.

“So, we are not sort of including them in how we think,” she says, to broad agreement: “And they say the same about us, I’m sure.”

“Ah, Jaysus I’d say that some of them look at us as Outer Mongolia.”

“No, they wouldn’t even know Roscommon, like.”

“Well, we have a festival here, the Black Pudding, that they would enjoy.”

Frankie Dolan drops in. Frankie is the postman. He is also one of Roscommon’s best Gaelic football players. He dismisses calls for his opinion and declares that he is not a political animal. Talk turns to the upcoming Connacht Intermediate final. St Dominic’s, the local club, are having a season of seasons and qualified to meet Dunmore – old Galway royalty. The game would take place on Saturday, in nearby Kiltoom: a bumper evening in the village beckoned. In truth, St Dominic’s date with destiny held the power to quicken the pulse far more naturally than the far-off prospect of a 32-county island.

“Even if there is, there will always be a border in the way we see it,” says Pat Joe Grady.

By now, The Ghost, too, has made an appearance, living up to his nickname by stealthily taking his place at the bar and waving away demands that he contribute to the issue of the hour. He remains unnamed. The chat continues around him as the traffic outside moves by and the December day deepens.

North and South, Ireland is divided on the unity question

Listen | 43:16