Now that unionism is talking, Irish Republicanism needs to listen – by Patricia MacBride

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Eileen Paisley is the matriarch of unionism in Ulster.  Even though it is almost five years since the death of her husband, Ian, no other woman in or on the margins of unionist politics in the north of Ireland has commanded the same respect.

In an interview on BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence programme this morning, the now Baroness Paisley said the most important thing for her in a united Ireland is ensuring that no-one, regardless of their religious faith, is persecuted because of it.  That’s significant.  Not because someone who stood alongside her husband in founding the Free Presbyterian Church wants to ensure that freedom of religious expression and freedom of worship is protected.  It’s significant because it illustrates that the subject of Irish reunification is something that she has thought about.

In this, at least she has something in common with her husband’s successor Peter Robinson who, last July, told the MacGill Summer School that unionists had to prepare for a United Ireland.

After nearly 100 years of partition, there’s a growing sense of momentum.

Yesterday, RTÉ released an opinion poll which found 77% of people in the Republic of Ireland would support a united Ireland if a poll were held tomorrow. The fact that RTÉ asked the question as part of an exit poll carried out at the local government and European Parliamentary election shows that the subject of Irish reunification is registering more and more as an issue with people throughout the island of Ireland.

When asked by the interviewer, Audrey Carville, are we mature enough to share this island, she said: “I think we should be by this time and I am sure there are enough people of sense and sensibility who do not want to be fighting with their neighbours or their friends to want to have it properly united.”

In 1985 when the British and Irish governments signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement which gave the Irish government a measure of involvement in the affairs of the north, Ian Paisley famously led the Ulster “Says No” campaign.  In November 1985 at a rally at Belfast City Hall, he famously said: “”Mrs. Thatcher tells us the Republic may have some say in our province. We say, Never! Never! Never! Never!” 

Ian Paisley did, however, go into government with Sinn Féin in the Assembly, developing a strong personal relationship with Martin McGuinness and that fondness continues as Mrs Paisley speaks in her interview of continuing to be texting with McGuinness during his illness, right up until he lost consciousness.

It is perhaps that personal friendship that has caused her to contemplate what would have been unthinkable for her 30 years ago.  “If we go right back to the beginning, the dividing of Ireland,  I think the Irish people all over – north, south, east and west – are a great people…They are a fellow countryman or woman of yours.  I just wonder why it had to be divided at that time and I think perhaps it was a wrong division.”

There are those who will think perhaps Eileen Paisley’s comments are a thinly-veiled criticism of current DUP leader Arlene Foster who said last year in an interview when asked about the prospect of a united Ireland:  “If it were to happen, I’m not sure that I would be able to continue to live here, I would feel so strongly about it.  I would probably have to move.”

To dismiss Mrs Paisley’s comments in such a manner would be a mistake, though.  She says: “The politicians need to lay aside a lot of the baggage they’re carrying and they need to face facts.  There are so many petty little things that don’t really matter in the bigger picture if they would just get out and see the needs.”

Unionism will undoubtedly consider her comments.  What is yet to be seen is how or if they will act upon them. What’s most important though, is now that unionism is talking, Irish Republicanism needs to listen.

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About Author

Patricia MacBride is an Academic at the Transitional Justice Institute at the University of Ulster where she is currently undertaking research on post-conflict reparations. A former Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, she is also a regular media commentator on politics and victims’ issues.

10 Comments

  1. Gerry Mander on

    Well f**k me!!! When a Paisley of ALL families starts saying the formation of Norn Iron was an historical mistake, the worm has definitely not just turned but is practically break-dancing on it’s head.

    So what was all that mischief and mayhem unleashed by her late husband about then, with hindsight? Was haranguing and attacking moderate unionists throughout the decades worth it? Was running a good man like Captain O’Neill from office worth it? Was the bringing down of the Sunningdale Assembly worth it? Was the incited riots, community division, murder, mayhem, and carnage worth it? Was refusing to negotiate and walking out of the Good Friday Agreement and then waiting a decade to sign up to it (after direct rule had already went to town on this place) worth it?

    I hail from a staunchly unionist family, but once I started studying Irish history around 2006-07, the scales fell from my eyes and I too started to believe that partition has been a DREADFUL mistake; whilst some of the reasons for Unionists opting out of the Free State were genuine and understandable at the time (economic, industry, and taxation matters for example), none of them were so insurmountable that they couldn’t have been dealt with in a unified and independent state’s national legislature… and as for the reasons put out by some at the time that Protestants would have been “a powerless minority” in an Irish state… pure bunkum; we were approximately 26% of the Irish population at the time, and in a legislature elected on proportional representation, and if the overwhelming majority of Irish Protestants voted for a single party (which they would have done), we would have been a quasi-permanent part of government thereafter thanks to needed coalitions between parties, influencing the state a lot more than we ever could or have with Westminster.

    We literally held the keys to the kingdom back in 1921-22, Protestants could have demanded – and received – every concern of theirs addressed in a written Constitution, such was nationalism’s desperation to avoid partition… but you only get once chance in history, and once a united Ireland becomes inevitable, unionism will be playing a much, much weaker hand than they had a century ago… and after Ireland has already been irrevocably changed (for better or worse).

    To quote the Bard; There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.

    Clearly unionism never read their Shakepeare, alas…

  2. Pauline Bradley on

    Peace and reconciliation is still the way to, that’s how you get people talking and listening in safety. I would like to do my bit to help this along as by my birth and life experience, I include all sides of the community in my personality and I have skills which could help.

  3. Pauline Bradley on

    Peace and reconciliation is still the way to, that’s how you get people talking and listening in safety. I would like to do my bit to help this along as by my birth and life experience, I include all sides of the community in my personality and I have skills which could help.

  4. Pauline Bradley on

    Peace and reconciliation is still the way to, that’s how you get people talking and listening in safety. I would like to do my bit to help this along as by my birth and life experience, I include all sides of the community in my personality and I have skills which could help.

  5. Pauline Bradley on

    Peace and reconciliation is still the way to, that’s how you get people talking and listening in safety. I would like to do my bit to help this along as by my birth and life experience, I include all sides of the community in my personality and I have skills which could help.

  6. Pauline Bradley on

    Peace and reconciliation is still the way to, that’s how you get people talking and listening in safety. I would like to do my bit to help this along as by my birth and life experience, I include all sides of the community in my personality and I have skills which could help.

  7. I really like this article and comments. A door is opening now and talking and listening, mostly in reverse order, will take us all to a better outcome for all of us living on this island.

  8. Patrick Fahy on

    I too come from a family background where visitors to our home were predominantly from the Protestant/ unionist community; the reason being that my father was a cattle dealer and most dealers came from that community. So I saw and recognised how similar we all were, both good and bad. Later, and inevitably, I was divided from those people through the also inevitable conflict. I too believe that partition was a disaster for Ireland, North and South. It institutionalised differences that with goodwill and to the advantage of us all could have been solved. Our futures and our present could have been so different

  9. Everytime I read an article like this it brings tears to my eyes. As a southerner, biker, historian and guide around all of Ireland, married and divorced from a man from Belfast, the last 107 years of history on this island could only make a human cry.
    The intolerance of so many to produce a history of two identities; a settler & a native is heartbreaking. I have worked with the Orange lodges, the Royal Blacks, Coiste, Stormont, City Hall and so many institutions. I have walked with the UVF hearing their stories, sat with former hunger strikers, become friends with a great retired Police officer, delivered tours on the Shankhill and brought business from Dublin to a whole variety of businesses across NI. Through-out the last 7 years of bringing groups to Northern Ireland I have had the most beautiful of encounters with all sides of the political spectrum. I have laughed with people who hated everything they thought I represented and where I feared everything I thought they represented. And yet tourism and shared business has forced both of us to realize we are just ordinary people trying to make a living.
    I have cried in relief after I’ve had some awkward uncomfortable conversations.
    The decade of centenaries in the Repubic has produced some new understanding of this islands history; Belfast achieved Home Rule before Dublin, many Unionists never wanted partition in the early 1900’s, the Republic never remembered ‘the Fallen’ until the last decade. So many stories got lost in white washing history to suit a ‘poor catholic repressed Irish oppressed by an empirical British Protestant Monarchy’. This simplified history fails to acknowledge the 18th and 19th century history of this island where so many on this island participated in Empire building, in the expansion of the British empire, in building Dublin as a Georgian city of splendor. Nearly everybody’s history will include a person who fought for empire or travelled to India or Africa whilst at the same time may have been persecuted and lost their lands due to religious or political turmoil.
    I am not sure we are ready in any way for a United Ireland, so many in the South have no understanding or tolerance for a Unionist history and the Irish Government would need to seriously think about an inclusive history, promotional campaigns to help create tolerance and understanding. I am not a campaigner for a United ireland frankly it frightens me but it is truly amazing that Baroness Paisley would reflect on that period of partition in history which has brought so much division to this island. This warms my heart and makes me cry at one and the same time.
    I love Road Racing, not sure what this has to do with anything but Granny Dunlop (Joey, Robert, Micheal and William ) being the most amazing Granny on this whole island. Two great ladies from County Antrim

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