A Brexit and a ‘New Ireland’ – how safe is the Union?  – By Brian Rowan 

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Twenty-five years ago, Northern Ireland was at a new beginning; something we did not fully understand in the world of 1994, but would learn over a period of time that a corner had been turned.

The developments of that year – and specifically the two ceasefires (republican and loyalist) – would be the start of what has come to be an imperfect peace.

I was then a BBC correspondent in Belfast; the words of the IRA ceasefire read to me and my journalist colleague Eamonn Mallie by a woman on the morning of August 31, 1994. In Dublin, other journalists were also given the IRA statement; that historic news being shared and spread in both parts of this partitioned/divided island and much further afield. The statement declared a ‘complete cessation of military operations’. This was world news, and we now waited for the violent loyalist organisations to see how and when they would reciprocate.

1993 had been a horrendous year; the headlines of October screaming of bombings and shootings and of Northern Ireland once more being walked to some edge. Within weeks, the story emerged of secret contacts between the British Government and the IRA leadership.

We were in another of those moments of convulsion. Did secret contacts mean secret deals? A year later, that nervousness and uncertainty and questioning would play into that period of waiting for the loyalists.

Before there would be any response to the IRA statement, they demanded confirmation of a number of points, including: “That our constitutional position as a partner within the United Kingdom is assured.”


A statement on September 8, 1994 added: “It is incumbent upon the British Government to ensure that there is no change or erosion within Northern Ireland to facilitate the illusion of an IRA victory. Change, if any, can only be honourable after dialogue and agreement.”

The following day, the then Church of Ireland Primate Dr Robin Eames stepped onto the stage. He gave a news conference in which he said Prime Minister John Major had given him his word that there was ‘no secret agreement’ with the IRA.

Eames urged loyalists to listen to the assurance he had been given, adding: “There is more to be gained in the political sense through dialogue than will ever be gained through the barrel of a gun.” By October 13, 1994, a combined loyalist military command had announced a cessation of ‘operational hostilities’ – its statement included in bold type the words: ‘The union is safe’.

Union vs Unity 

Why is all of this important in the here-and-now? Because there is once again nervousness and uncertainty in Northern Ireland. Some might even say danger.

Two-plus decades after the Good Friday Agreement that introduced a power-sharing government here, politics at Stormont  has broken down.

There have been several lengthy negotiations with elastic deadlines to try to restore the political institutions and, in the standoff, new conversations are opening out. Not just about the old choices of direct rule from Westminster or devolution at Stormont, but a new element – the possibility of a border poll and a future ‘New Ireland’.

There is nothing certain about this, but in this phase of the Brexit debate, this different scenario or outline – this third way – is not easily erased from a stretched and stretching political canvas.

The debate is becoming louder – more persistent. Some might argue, more credible. A border that had faded from people’s memories has been allowed to once more form in their thinking. It is not something they want to imagine; certainly not that security infrastructure that was part of the conflict period.

So, in a place that voted to remain, assurance is needed beyond the talk of some solution that, as I write,  has yet to be properly and convincingly defined. Unionists oppose the proposed backstop but, for others, it is the minimum requirement. The extension of this, is that third-way conversation about union versus unity.

This is not the feared secret deal that played in the minds of loyalists and unionists those 25 years ago, but an open dialogue; a real conversation that urges discussion on possibilities in the present. Some have opened their minds. They see a changing scenario. Others appear to be living in denial.

‘Danger signs’ 

In August 2019 – to mark the 25th anniversary of the first of the ceasefires – I revisited those developments in an interview with Lord Eames.

After the statements of 1994, I learned he had played a key background role in the events that brought the loyalist response in October that year. He had been sharing the thinking of loyalists – communicated privately to him – with then Prime Minister John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. Indeed, in March 1994, he had been been given terms and conditions by loyalists that would have allowed their ceasefire to be announced first.

Events on the ground – the targeting and killing of prominent loyalist figures – derailed that initiative. This sentence from an unpublished 1994 document shared with Eames gave an indication of the thinking then of the combined loyalist military command:

“We are concerned that positive political progress should be made so long as the rights of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland are upheld by HMG and an honourable accommodation arrived at with our minority population and their representatives.”

This was their focus on the union and that need for assurance that it was safe. My 2019 interview with Eames for the BBC was not about how we arrived at the ceasefires of 1994, but an examination of progress since. I asked, could he say with any confidence in 2019 that the Union is safe? His response was a measured statement on a changing context: “I would like to say it is, but I believe there are danger signs, which I think we all need to be conscious of.”

‘New Ireland’

His words on that ‘New Ireland’ debate were equally measured: “You don’t have to surrender your principles or the principles you’ve been brought up on to simply grasp new ideas. I’d like to know a bit more about what’s meant by the ‘New Ireland’, but I can see possibilities.”

This is part of the changing conversation – part of what was described to me as a fluid situation. Eames did not elaborate but, in the reading between the lines of his commentary, there is a question about whether people – particularly within the unionist/Protestant community – are awake to what is developing.

We know the questions that will have to be considered and answered. What is meant by this new political and constitutional construct behind the label of a ‘New Ireland’? How does it embrace and protect unionism and Britishness? What kind of political institution should there be in the north? Is this new design economically viable? How do the education and health systems work? What is the transition period? Who leads the conversation?

There are those whose minds are open to this dialogue who are adamant that this cannot and should not be driven by Sinn Fein; adamant also that there cannot be a pre-determined outcome but, instead, the conversation must begin with a blank page.

Others see all of this as premature and dismiss any thinking outside the frame of the union; but in a recent conversation, one senior loyalist – alert to a changing landscape – spoke of people being blind; and not fully understanding the importance of the shifts and trends that are occurring.

New realities that cannot be ignored

Lord Eames is not alone in trying to see the road ahead and plan the journey. In July 2019, on the eamonnmallie.com website, the former Methodist President Harold Good wrote: “As others have rightly pointed out, there are realities regarding the future political landscape of the island of Ireland that we can no longer ignore – and yes, it is also my experience that more and more people from within the unionist part of our community are beginning to share this conversation, much more in private than in public.”

Brexit is a major factor in this discussion. Look at the Northern Ireland vote in the most-recent European elections; probably the most-thinking and strategic election in my lifetime in which the remain position here from the 2016 referendum was underscored when the second unionist seat was lost and the Alliance leader Naomi Long was elected.

This is not to suggest that you can simply transfer that voting trend into some future border poll, but Brexit has changed and is changing mindsets. The ‘New Ireland’ conversation will be and should be a long debate; a thoughtful and carefully managed dialogue, because within it there is so much at stake.

Old certainties are being challenged, The union is not as safe as it once was. We are looking at a dis-united kingdom and, in this place of divided communities, we walk on eggshells when we enter these new discussions. Things change. Even in Northern Ireland. Brexit, the border and Boris Johnson’s style of politics are the things to watch as a third way is considered on the island of Ireland.

The above chapter is Brian Rowan’s contribution to the recently published book: Brexit and Northern Ireland – Bordering on Confusion? Available from www.bite-sizedbooks.com and Amazon.

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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at www.merrionpress.ie


  1. The so-called “precious Union” has never been in more peril, and hardline unionism has only itself to blame;

    – hardline unionism opposed the extraordinarily modest (compared to what has followed in the last five decades) reforms of Prime Minister O’Neill; a decent and honorable man – albeit not one blessed with the common touch like Brian Faulkner – run out of office by a baying mob led by a minister of the Gospel who should have known better.

    – the Unionist government had an unassailable majority in the devolved Parliament for 50 years, and did what with it? Treated the Catholic minority as ‘the enemy within’ (despite many personal friendships between the two communities) and consistently resisted any reform of Stormont or the operational structure of the province… leading to the civil rights movement, a knee-jerk backlash from some unionists, and we’re off to the races for 30 years of bloodshed and carnage.

    – hardline unionism again thwarted any progress with the (flawed) Sunningdale power-sharing agreement; yes, the Council of Ireland went too far as a de facto all-Ireland legislature (and the likes of Conor Cruise O’Brien warned Dublin as such to no avail, with Willie Whitelaw also stating years later they asked too much of Brian Faulkner at the time), but NOTHING justified the Ulster Worker’s Council blockade, it was seditious treason and should have been stopped in it’s tracks within days… had HMG done so, and the Assembly had stood, the IRA ceasefire of 1975 would likely have been a permanent one.

    – despite winning an absolute majority in the 2016 Assembly election and Stormont settling into a kind of quasi-democracy, unionism again mucks it up in the form of the DUP’s hubris and arrogance when Arlene Foster refused to be humble and contrite, accept some measure of responsibility for the RHI shambles, and stood down for six weeks to allow an interim report to assess the root causes. Their arrogance, plus Paul Givan’s bone-headed Liofa move, antagonized and re-radicalized a slumbering and fading nationalism… leading to the collapse of the Assembly and the loss of said majority in the subsequent election.

    – and, of course, we come to the February 2018 agreement reached between the Dupers and the Shinners which was frankly the deal of the century for unionism, a 75% victory overall, and an Irish Language Act that was substantially meaningless, a purely symbolic victory for SF and they knew it at the time (they were probably relieved to get that monkey off their back). But true to form, hardline unionism goes into panic mode before knowing the facts, and led by the Orange Order, pressured the DUP into walking away from that agreement… leading to the tyranny imposed from Westminster this past July, and which the DUP seem rather blase about overall, despite their rhetoric… if they REALLY cared about the sheer horror about to forced on N.I. then they would have threatened HMG to withdraw the bill or the DUP would withdraw from both the GFA and the C&S arrangement… that would have stopped the bill in it’s tracks, make no mistake about it.

    It’s a good job Unionism wasn’t running the war effort in the 1940’s or we’d all been speaking German right now…

    Will the Union survive Brexit? The real question could be asked, SHOULD it? It’s brought nothing but death, destruction, and division on the six counties (and beyond), and an untold expenditure in both blood and treasure that simply hasn’t been worth one death it wrought.

    Unionism still hasn’t grasped the basic underlying truth that BRITAIN DOES NOT WANT THEM, but doesn’t throw them to the wolves (so to speak) ’cause HMG don’t want a full-blown civil war on their doorstep akin to what’s happening in eastern Ukraine right now.

    I now believe we made a dreadful mistake not signing up to an independent Ireland in 1922 – although I’m realistic about why that would never have happened at the time – but whilst I recognize the undoubted economic benefits of the Union, at the same time, I’m utterly exhausted and exasperated with how unionism continually shoots itself in the foot (with a machine gun!), resisting modest reforms only to have more draconian ones forced on them from above, and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory at every opportunity.

    If there is to be a ‘new Ireland’ it will have to be a fundamentally different nation in it’s Constitution and operational structure, to say nothing of cultural, historical, and political sensitivities (will it rejoin the Commonwealth to placate Protestants?) that will need to be sorted in advance… I wish them luck, they’ll have 800 years of blood-soaked history to unravel.

    The Union is not safe… but it’s greatest adherents are the ones that have led us to this point… oh, the irony…

    And just for the record; I’m a Christian, a conservative, and someone from a staunchly Protestant-Unionist family… but I’m also objective enough to see the writing on the wall when I look at it.

    Here endeth the the lesson.

  2. Good evening Gerry.

    An interesting and worthwhile read.

    “The Union is not safe… but it’s greatest adherents are the ones that have led us to this point… oh, the irony…”

    And, to refer to an issue as you have already hinted at, as another conservative Christian from a staunchly Protestant-Unionist family, I no longer have any interest in defending a Union or a Unionism which could but doesn’t seem to want to do what it can to protect those who are alive but not yet born.

    No nation deserves to prosper if this is its choice.

    How safe is the Union? Really, I’m not sure I care any more, and that because the lines of division in our communities have changed, and changed utterly: everything is secondary to the protection of life, and I hope and pray that any parties who seek a ‘Christian’ vote, but fail to act according to those principles will lose at the ballot box–whatever the implications for our ‘precious’ Union.

    • Hi P,

      You’re absolutely right… it says a lot for how things have shifted when I would rather vote for a party, namely Aontu, led by a former Sinn Fein TD and which wants a united Ireland than a supposedly socially conservative unionist Protestant party in the DUP.

      At least the former would move heaven and earth to protect the right to life for everyone… the latter seems more concerned with protecting votes for the next election (by not agreeing to a watered-down and frankly inconsequential Irish Language Act) than protecting the most vulnerable and defenseless.

      Like you said; things have changed and changed utterly… prayer is best weapon we have, but we need politicians with the courage of their convictions to make things happen… I pray we get more of those in the imminent short-term future.

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