‘See this united Ireland thing, put that on the back burner and get the cost of living sorted first’

Derry unionists bristle at prospect of constitutional change with more pressing concerns to worry about

In Derry’s Fountain estate, the Cathedral Youth Club is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

“I was a member of St Columb’s Cathedral, and it was the late Dean Good came out to [my husband] David and I and asked us if we would set up a Friday nightclub for young people because they were in danger of joining paramilitary gangs,” says founder Jeanette Warke.

They had been forced to leave the area “as part of the exodus from the west bank to the east bank when Protestants were put out of their homes” but, she says, “where your heart lies, your feet wander”.

“That’s how the youth club started, a Friday night in September 1972.”


Fifty years on, it is the hub of this small community – the last remaining Protestant enclave on Derry’s predominantly Catholic west bank of the Foyle.

Here, history, identity and community are important; on the estate’s streets, the Union flags and red, white and blue kerbstones stand out against the grey of this winter morning, and murals and placards commemorate those from the area who fought and died in the first World War.

Inside the new youth club – it reopened last year after an almost £700,000 rebuild – are other symbols. Bunting marking Queen Elizabeth’s jubilee hangs from the ceiling, while on a shelf sits a bodhrán, a souvenir from St James’s Gate in Dublin.

Cross-community work, says Warke, has always been at the heart of what they do. “Our first was with Shantallow, we ran jumble auctions, and Patsy O’Hara’s mother, the mother of the hunger striker, supported me at every one.”

The Irish Times is here to discuss the results of opinion polls on North-South relations and political views on the future of this island carried out by this newspaper and the ARINS project at the Royal Irish Academy and the University of Notre Dame.

Among the headline figures was the finding that 50 per cent of voters in Northern Ireland would choose to remain in the UK in a referendum on Irish unity, compared to 26 per cent who would vote to unite with the Republic; 66 per cent south of the Border would vote for Irish unity.

A united Ireland, says Warke, is something “we don’t really think about. We’re quite happy living in the North, under the British flags, and we’re very much royalists in here – we celebrated our queen’s jubilee and we mourned her death.

“Speaking to people in the South, I think they’re quite happy having their own flag and their own government and it’s the same up here so if it’s not broke, why try to change it?

“I think they should be looking at sorting out Stormont and getting that back up and running.”


Amy Holland agrees. A mother of three young children, she says her main concern is “where your next money’s going to come from to pay for your gas, your electric, your food.”

“See this united Ireland thing, put that on the back burner and get the cost of living sorted first,” says Wendy Jackson.

The study also found voters in the South would be reluctant to change the Irish flag or anthem – with almost half saying such changes would make them less likely to vote for unity – while Northern voters were much less likely to vote for a united Ireland if it adopted the Republic’s health system.

North and South, Ireland is divided on the unity question

Listen | 43:16

Their youth groups, says Warke, are “respectful” of all symbols, not least the Tricolour, and they are taken on regular study visit to Dublin; the Irish Government is among their funders.

To suggest a change to the Irish flag, she says, would be an “insult to their culture” – just as there would be “a definite no” if they were asked to change the Union Jack.

Asked if they could live in and feel welcome in a unitary state, the group was doubtful. “It would be a big ask for us,” says Warke. “I can’t see it ever happening.”

But, she stresses, such questions are far from the most important. “Now we have more to bother us ... we are being part of the conversation by talking to you today but after this we go back to the normal things and our real problems, which at the minute is trying to survive financially.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times