Belfast Telegraph

Mark Daly: Why unionist fears about a united Ireland must be addressed before a referendum is even contemplated

Fears: the Republic’s parliament at Leinster House would have to tackle many concerns before unionists would even consider a border poll
Fears: the Republic’s parliament at Leinster House would have to tackle many concerns before unionists would even consider a border poll

By Mark Daly

The mother of all fears", as described by a member of the unionist community about a united Ireland, "is that effectively their home would become a foreign state."

A prevailing fear of the members of the unionist community whom I have spoken to in relation to a united Ireland is identity and what place there is for the British identity in a united Ireland.

Following the release of the first ever report by a Dail or Seanad committee on the issue of uniting Ireland, which I compiled in 2017 for the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, I have met a wide range of members of the Protestant/unionist/loyalist community, including, most recently, a former loyalist paramilitary ex-prisoner at an Eleventh Night bonfire.

The result of these meetings and conversations is the research report I published entitled Unionist Concerns and Fears of a United Ireland.

It includes contributions from the Rev Kyle Paisley, son of the founder of the DUP, Ian Paisley; Trevor Ringland, the former Ireland rugby international; Mike Nesbitt, former leader of the UUP, and the former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Dr Norman Hamilton.

I also commissioned Dr James Wilson, a former member of the British Army, who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, to conduct focus groups in the Independent Orange Order, a loyalist flute band, UDR/RIR veterans and the East Belfast Mission.

Mike Nesbitt said: "I do not speak for unionism, in fact, nobody does." Similarly, the report does not claim to include every fear and concern that the unionist community has in relation to a united Ireland.

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The research identified seven key areas of unionist fears and concerns regarding a united Ireland: loss of identity and the place of unionism within a united Ireland; triumphalism by nationalists; retribution on former members of the RUC, British Army and prison officers; a return to violence; that land would be taken from unionist farmers; returning to the European Union after voting for Brexit; healthcare, welfare and the economy.

Some of these concerns I was aware of before this research; however, it does identify some fears that are not on the political radar in the south, including the fear by some in the unionist farming community that their land would be taken from them.

It is the responsibility of the Irish government to address these concerns. That is why it should immediately implement another recommendation of the joint committee's report, that being "to establish a New Ireland Forum 2", which would look at all the issues in relation to a united Ireland.

The advice of Seamus Mallon, Deputy First Minister from 1998-2001, should be listened to by the Irish government: "Nationalists need to show generosity if they're ever going to persuade unionists of the benefits of a united Ireland."

As Kyle Paisley said: "The United Kingdom is by no means a flawless political union. But, then, there's the old proverb: 'Better the devil you know'."

In relation to a referendum, Dr Norman Hamilton gave these words of caution: "I have great resistance to a referendum in the foreseeable future, not least because of what has been learned (or not learned) from the recent referendum in the UK which, like an Irish referendum, has massive constitutional implications."

The Brexit referendum has taught us an important lesson: you do not hold a referendum until every probable outcome has been examined and prepared for.

The hard-won peace we all enjoy on this island is at stake. The holding of a referendum without proper preparation and engagement - particularly with the unionist community - would lead to the fulfilment of the warning that "policy neglect seldom goes unpunished".

The time available between now and the holding of a referendum should be used by the Irish government in engaging with all sides.

Mark Daly is a Fianna Fail member of the Irish Senate

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