Brexit and unity

Brexit and unity
Northern Catholics respond to David Trimble and Kate Hoey


 Fr Joe McVeigh

“We want the Irish government to pursue the whole thing about the border poll which is part of the Good Friday Agreement and Trimble was one of the people who negotiated that and accepted that.”

“…The whole momentum is going towards Irish unity even many unionists are beginning to see the potential and the advantages of having an all-Island economy, and all-island approach to health, farming, tourism…that’s what’s going to convince people eventually.”

“I mean you’ll always have those extreme unionists who would never countenance a united Ireland in any shape or form but there are many hard-headed farmers and businessmen, business women, who do not feel intimidated by talk about a united Ireland or a border poll.”

“He’s not at all qualified to speak for the Catholic community, he’s flying kites here and he’s just looking for attention for his viewpoint. It’s not sustainable, there’s no foundation for his arguments at all, he’s out of touch with reality.”

“(Brexit) has really accelerated the whole discussion and it has raised the whole issue of partition and the border again […]  It’s now the most important political issue on this island for everybody, it’s a debate that has to be had.”


Baroness Nuala O’Loan

“I think the letter from David Trimble and Kate Hoey is, frankly, bizarre. The extent to which they seek to present themselves as interpreting what Catholics and nationalists feel in the North is extraordinary. I think it is a very irresponsible intervention.

“They clearly didn’t speak to Catholics or nationalists or they would’ve heard a very different story. People are anxious about the prospect of a ‘no deal’ Brexit or a hard Brexit. Fears about the border are real and not exaggerated. Feelings are running very high. The uncertainty has absolutely made many people – and not just nationalists – feel that a referendum or a process towards a united Ireland is inevitable.

“Frankly, David Trimble is speaking rubbish when he says that fears about Brexit are groundless.”


Oisin McConville, former Armagh GAA star

“With Brexit it’s heightened all our awareness and a realisation that there needs to be a vote.

“The economic consequences are way down the list when you consider that people in this area don’t want to go back to the Troubles, they don’t want to go back to the point where you’re afraid to send your kids out to school […] Realistically the only thing I hear is the economic implications and at this stage I could not care less about the economic implications.

“I suppose people in the North feel because there’s no assembly, that there’s no representation of what people’s views are and I think in particular the Catholic community feels pretty cut off from everything at this stage. It’s pretty disheartening, it’s pretty annoying and frustrating but the most important thing is that if the hard border comes in this country it will lead us back to the Troubles.

“…The thing about voting for a united Ireland is that there are sections of the other side of the community now who probably want it also, or probably are more sympathetic to it. It’s not just a ‘green’ and ‘orange’ issue that it has been in the past.”


Bernadette Smyth, Pro-life leader

“In many ways what David Trimble is saying is very correct.

“We’re very disillusioned about what the future would hold, the one thing I would say very clearly, if you’re pro-life, if you’re pro-sacramental marriage we would not want to be part of the Republic, so a lot of Catholics now are saying are we safer morally to stay independent in the North, do we want our own government in Stormont to make laws that represent the people here and especially the Catholic? I think it’s very clear with the DUP leading we’re safer as Catholics, we’re safer in the North to have our views represented – especially the moral views on abortion.

“…We don’t want Westminster making laws for us, we certainly don’t want the Irish government making laws for us, we want to elect good outstanding moral politicians and if that be Unionists so be it, they’re actually more Catholic than some of the Catholic politicians.

“…We don’t know where the future will lie with the economy, there’s a lot of scaremongering going on regarding the economy and the peace process. I voted for Brexit. I want Northern Ireland to be independent. I want to see a future where we make decisions for our people.


Prof. Deirdre Heenan

“I think it’s utterly irresponsible and reprehensible for him to write such a letter.

“If he spent some time in Northern Ireland and met with business people and groups, he would understand how genuine their fears are. Businesses are all about certainty – future, planning and investing – and how can they make those decisions when they have no idea what the future will hold. To dismiss those fears is actually a concerning lack of political leadership and insight.

“Brexit has disrupted the political landscape and things we were fairly sure about, we are no longer sure about what would Brexit mean, for identity, in terms of rights, whereas prior they were pretty sure about those things.

“What we do know is that a period of great instability and uncertainty, things that were once inconceivable suddenly have become a possibility – many people four years ago thought it inconceivable that we would leave the European union, the idea of a hard border or any kind of a border was unthinkable.”


Declan O’Loan, SDLP Councillor

“Any suggestion that all this talk of fears around a hard border are groundless is absolutely absurd and entirely off the mark…fears that some of the extremists would take advantage of that sense of betrayal around that issue to indulge in violence I think are very real fears.

“I think that there is an increasing sense among the nationalist community certainly but also to a degree among the unionist community as well that the sands are shifting here and that movement towards a united Ireland for the first time in my lifetime is now a very serious live proposition, as something that might happen in the not-distant future. I absolutely think that that tendency has been deeply influenced by the Brexit debate, and I think that there’s now almost among many a hunger for Irish unity.

“…The fact that we’re part of a wider European community is deeply rooted among the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, and any sense that we’ll be cut off from that is something that’s just utterly, utterly unacceptable.

“I just think there’s an increasing sense that Westminster and the way it behaves just no longer speaks for us.

“…There needs to be preparation for a border poll. People quite rightly ask what does this mean? That’s the conversation that needs to start, and that’s a conversation that needs to be led by an Irish Government.”


Declan McGuinness, Aontú Member

“There is a danger, and it’s an immediate danger on the ground. Martin (McGuinness) worked so very hard at a rapprochement with the British and the unionists and effectively the border doesn’t exist anymore. The border will exist again if some kind of curtailment in the movement of people between the Six Counties and the 26 counties happens, and particularly if there’s a physical presence on those borders you couldn’t give an absolute assurance to any officers in those places that they’d be safe.

“…I think Brexit might have galvanised the desire – and I think it might have increased it even to some tiny degree even within the unionist community. The applications for Irish passports may not be totally just a mechanism for free travel. There may be something more to it than that.

“Several unionists including Mike Nesbit and Peter Robinson have talked about how they don’t want a united Ireland but they can see that unionists may have to start preparing for it. That is light years away from what would have been said before, so Brexit has had a massive effect in terms of that.”


Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry

“…People are not sure what Brexit means, and therefore the uncertainty is unsettling people.

“Some may say, like David Trimble and Kate Hoey, that there’s nothing to be worried about.

“That certainly is one possible thesis, but others are saying there’s a lot to be worried about, and ordinary people are finding themselves in that worrying space where they’re looking for clarity and it’s not being given. We’re three and a half weeks away from this taking place.

“The uncertainty is damaging, and the crisis of democracy that’s not just a Northern Ireland thing: it’s a UK-wide thing and in many ways is a western-world-wide thing. If democracy is not seen to be capable of delivering, that’s almost an existential crisis for how we run our countries.

“There’s a recognition that economically Northern Ireland is heavily integrated with the Republic, and at least there’s an openness on the part of many people to say we’ve got to look and see what’s going to be best for all of us in the long term.

“I think there’s an openness to look at what changes might come down the line to us, but the other question that I think is important – we certainly have asked it about the Sinn Fein leadership – is that when people talk about a united Ireland, what on earth sort of Ireland are you talking about?

“Because simply putting all the people of one island under one jurisdiction is about as clear as Brexit, and ‘Brexit means Brexit’. I think the question we should be asking is not ‘are there enough people to win a referendum?’ The question that should be put to those proposing a united Ireland is ‘What sort of Ireland?’”


Prof. Francis Campbell
, Vice-Chancellor St Mary’s University, London; Former Private Secretary to Tony Blair and UK Ambassador to the Holy See

“Whilst the [David Trimble and Kate Hoey] letter makes some good points, and it does not assume the conflation of Catholicism and nationalism, it seems to under-estimate the serious negative impact that Brexit has had on the confidence of many northern Irish Catholics who had assumed that the 1998 Belfast Agreement was the basis for a future of open relationships on these islands unimpeded by a border.

“The status quo of what the Belfast Agreement allowed for which was the Irish identity, the British identity or both under a European citizenship has certainly been put in jeopardy and called into question. It is one thing to be integrated into a civic identity, it is another thing to be pulled towards a narrow ethnic identity that threatens that wider openness to the EU that the Belfast Agreement fully complimented.

“Before the result of the Brexit referendum I didn’t think that I would have seen a border poll as allowed for under the Belfast Agreement in my lifetime. I now think that such a poll is inevitable.

“That feeling or that aspiration for Irish unity is likely something that would’ve been there in part of the population, but in the post-Brexit environment it would seem to have a wider appeal to a larger part of the population that hitherto would have accepted for the medium- and long-term the status quo.”


Alban Maginness
, former SDLP MLA and Lord Mayor of Belfast

“There are real dangers with Brexit, and particularly a hard Brexit in terms of the economic performance of Northern Ireland and also in terms of maintaining the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement.

“Both would be damaged by a hard Brexit or indeed a no deal. I think it’s a flight a fancy of his part – whenever he says these things I don’t think he’s living in the real world as far as Brexit is concerned, and its impact on Northern Ireland.

“As far as Irish unity is concerned, there is without doubt – in my view and as a nationalist politician of many years standing – there would be substantial support amongst nationalists for a united Ireland in any border poll. There’s no doubt in my mind about that.

“However, having said that, any border poll should be on the basis of a well worked-out plan as how to implement Irish unity. I think they should take a lesson from the Brexit poll, where no such plan was on the table for the electorate’s consideration.”


Aideen McGinley, former NI Permanent Secretary

“There are definitely dangers with Brexit because part of the problem is the total unpreparedness and the total lack of considered opinion in terms of what actually would happen.

“…When you see agricultural communities, businesses, the community and volunteering sector, all really worried, I think that in itself is a barometer of what is possible.

“…I think interestingly, a lot of people both nationalist and unionist who have never thought there would be a reunification in their lifetime, it’s now something being talked about because it seems to be more, instead of political issue about identity and jurisdiction, it seems to be more about an access to a wider European identity, and that in itself takes some of the politics out of it, particularly for the moderate unionist community.”


Fr Gary Donegan, C.P.

“If you put any kind… of uniform – soldier or guard or customs man – (on the border) you are going to give the people who oppose the Good Friday Agreement peace process the oxygen they need. They will take one of the people out in a couple of weeks.

“…How can Trimble be so assertive, when there is so much uncertainty around the issue?

“Many people never countenanced the idea of a united Ireland being a better option and that’s why it’s so much at the fore – you hear people talking about it that you’d never have expected. Friends in the Protestant tradition say the North voted to remain, and that’s been ignored, which goes against the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.”


Prof. Anne Moran, 
University of Ulster

“I find it quite extraordinary for an architect of the Good Friday Agreement to say that there’s no connection between it and Brexit. It’s just unbelievable.

“I believe that a ‘no deal’ Brexit would have the potential to destabilise peace, and probably more so because of the disruption that would be caused at border level, the commercial level, and the maintaining of cross border checks which would ultimately [lead to] dissidents becoming involved.

“Brexit would definitely harden the border and breach the spirit of the agreement and not least put at risk the economic and social progress that has been made over the last number of years.”


Tracy Harkin
, Iona Institute

“I don’t think you should call them “groundless” at all I think you have to acknowledge, people here in my generation have lived through the Troubles, the very thought of going back to a militarised border with all these tensions around…I wouldn’t say they’re grounbdless I think we have to be careful to always safeguard what we’ve got here.

It’s still a divided community here in many ways, there are paramilitaries waiting on both sides to rear their ugly heads again they haven’t gone away. We know that from the different activities, the punishing and shootings have continued to be a problem, there was obviously the bomb up in Derry not long ago, there’s a lot of activity in the loyalist paramilitaries policing their own area etc. that’s a very real problem.

“…I think in terms of a united Ireland I think that there’s a sense here that also we’ve moved forward a lot, we’ve dual citizenship here, I’ve had an Irish passport for as long as I can remember.

“I think there’s a realism there that nobody wants to rush into anything. It has to be a democratic process, well thought out, phased in and I do think that obviously Brexit has given us an impetus because most of the people voted to stay in the EU, not that they thought that the EU was perfect, there needed to be reform.”