In Omagh, Co Tyrone, a group of friends and former member of the security forces are keen to have their say.
“How many times do security force members get a chance to speak about how they feel about ordinary matters in relation to a united Ireland, so-called united Ireland? We don’t get that opportunity,” emphasises George, a former policeman.
He is among those who have agreed to meet The Irish Times to share their views on Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI polling published last week on attitudes in the Republic towards a united Ireland.
The poll showed a clear desire for a united Ireland – 62 per cent were in favour of uniting the island, but not yet – with only 15 per cent backing a referendum now, compared with 42 per cent who preferred a vote in the next 10 years – and not at any price. There was also strong opposition to a new flag or national anthem, and less than 50 per cent support for having unionist politicians as part of the government in Dublin.
There has to be a realisation that the vast majority of soldiers and police just went about and did their job to the best of their ability
All of those who have agreed to give their views for this piece are unionists, and Protestant; all are former members of the British Army or – and in at least one case both – the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) or Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
For security reasons, only one is willing to be identified; the others go by first names only, or use family names, and will not be photographed.
“There are still people out there who want to murder and maim,” says George, adding that if they were to be identified they would be attacked on social media. “There are still people getting threats and having to move home,” says Paul, who was both a soldier and a policeman.
“Security is still at the forefront, I don’t think it’s ever left, so there would be a reluctance for former security force members, even members of the public, to give their views,” says Richard Scott.
“As a former security force member, I still feel that we are being victimised and villainised, so with that perception it’s hard to speak openly.
“Every time you lift a newspaper, it’s about what a member of the police or the armed forces has done. It’s a bit like when people say such and such a force is institutionally racist – we’re now institutionally uniformed terrorists, which is complete and utter nonsense, because what we did was our job.”
As a policeman, Scott tended to the dead and injured in the Real IRA bombing of Omagh in 1998, which killed 31 people, including unborn twins.
He was among the first on the scene, was among those who searched for survivors and helped recover the bodies of the victims. He worked on the police investigation and prepared the files for inquest, and was subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
All agree that if there has been “wrongdoing in the past, that should be investigated, but it seems to be one-sided”. Scott says: “There has to be a realisation that the vast majority of soldiers and police just went about and did their job to the best of their ability.”
They point to the controversy over a commemoration for members of the Royal Irish Constabulary and Dublin Metropolitan Police – which was due to be held in Dublin Castle last year but was cancelled due to public opposition to the event – as evidence of how attitudes in the Republic have not changed, and why they would not be accepted in a united Ireland.
“So 100 years later, the only people who are still being vilified were the police officers, and everybody has been exonerated except for those poor policemen, many of whom were Catholics who were shot dead in their homes, shot dead on trains and everything else in a cowardly and horrible way,” says Scott.
The population in the South don’t want us, and yet they expect us to go into a united Ireland?
Similarly, the decision of President Michael D Higgins not to attend a cross-community church service marking the centenary of partition and the formation of Northern Ireland was “another slap in the face for us”, says Paul.
“What was political about a church? If we take us forward 25 years and we’re all sitting in this united Ireland, and you’re asked what did you do in the past, ‘Oh we were all in the police’, would we say it? I don’t think we would. I don’t think we could, because you could end up being persecuted for it.
“It would be covert, it wouldn’t be going and writing things on the side of your house, it would be covertly within the community. ‘Why is his sons not playing GAA? Oh, they must be Protestant. Why are they not speaking the Irish language?’
“Then you’ll just become what they are in the South, southern Protestants who just go to the church, they don’t dare speak up. It’s a false life, to me that’s just false … I don’t want to become a neutral person just turning a blind eye to everything.”
Kenny, a former soldier, says: “If we were part of a united Ireland we’d be a very small minority and we wouldn’t have a voice. The fear is our culture would just be eradicated.”
Aspiration versus reality
The group feels that the poll results that found a high proportion (77 per cent) would not accept a new flag or a new national anthem (72 per cent) is evidence of an unwillingness in the Republic for genuine compromise or accommodation.
The similar reluctance of those polled to accept higher taxes or less money to spend on public services (79 per cent opposed these in both cases), the feel demonstrates the gap between aspiration and reality when considering the prospect of a united Ireland.
“If there was a united Ireland tomorrow morning, they’re going to have to pay every time they visit a doctor, so there’s a romanticism about having a united Ireland but there needs to be an awful lot of thought put into it before it goes in, and I just don’t think the people down south really want us,” says Scott.
Why are we talking about a united Ireland? Why aren’t we talking about a new Northern Ireland, or making Northern Ireland work for people?
Kenny adds: “How can they ever invite anybody to join them when they’ve said no, don’t want a new national anthem, don’t want a new flag? They’re not doing anything to attract people.”
In the poll, people were asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed with having unionist politicians as part of government in Dublin. Responses were split: 44 per cent said they would accept it, 42 per cent said they would not, and 14 per cent didn’t know or had no opinion.
In Omagh the reaction is confusion. “Why would they not accept people who were voted in?” asks Paul.
Kenny says, “It shows a pure bitterness, as far as I’m concerned.”
Paul asks for more details on the scenario, whether these were unionists who had been voted into government and pointing out that if so, they would have to be accepted. “If you get voted in, it’s like Sinn Féin getting in. They use that word mandate … they would have a mandate.
“It shows the population don’t want us, and yet they expect us to go that way [into a united Ireland]?
They also have concerns about the prospect of Sinn Féin in government in the South. On a united Ireland, “Sinn Féin haven’t done anything to sell it”, says Scott. They are angry about what they regard as the party’s glorification of terrorism. George: “They’re still justifying what they did.” Kenny: “But young people now don’t care the same.”
“They have to stop going on about the past,” says Paul. “Everybody has to accept everybody’s [past] and then I’ll accept it, not one minute saying they want investigations and then they’re standing at memorials celebrating terrorism.”
They discuss the ongoing conversation around a united Ireland and the Irish Government’s Shared Island unit, and whether or not unionists should be part of it. George says he logged on to one of the Shared Island seminars “to see what was going on” and then turned it off.
“Some unionists are getting involved in these conversations because they’re saying if we don’t get involved and then there is a united Ireland, it’s too late to put our case forward about equality and parades and Remembrance Days – that if we’re not involved we can’t complain when the deal is done.”
His own feeling is that “they’d be better spending their time trying to sell Northern Ireland to everyone in this country, Protestant and Catholic”.
He wonders “why are we talking about a united Ireland? Why aren’t we talking about a new Northern Ireland, or making Northern Ireland work for people?”
“I think [the Ulster Unionist Party leader] Doug Beattie’s trying to … but it’s not really been pushed hard enough.
“Our unionist politicians have to sell that far better … I personally believe that if we went into a united Ireland, the unionist population by and large would be really discriminated against.”
Bills says: “We should work for a better Northern Ireland and build Northern Ireland and work on it instead of worrying about a united Ireland.”
Though all are opposed to a united Ireland, all feel it will happen eventually, though not in their lifetimes.
Scott says: “Republicanism has to realise, it’s not just taking one group of people and plonking them down South, it’s 750,000 people, a million people, you just can’t push a million people to do what they want them to do, especially with their past.”
George adds: “If eventually there’s a discussion around it and the Protestant people, unionist people, are treated with respect, get total equality, well then it can work, but if not … ”
One section of the community will always be vilified,” says Scott. “At this time it’s our section of the community are being vilified all the time, and we’ve seen that, in 100 years, attitudes haven’t changed.”