Northern Irish unionists fear post-Brexit land grabs

Report identifies Zimbabwe-style seizures as key concern in the event of a united Ireland

Some unionists in Northern Ireland fear Zimbabwe-style land seizures by Irish nationalists if the region joins a united Ireland, according to a report that lays bare anxieties about any Brexit-fuelled breakup of the UK.

Farmers and others with Protestant and unionist backgrounds worry that Catholic and nationalist neighbours would claim their land in a cultural, economic and political takeover by Dublin – “the mother of all fears”, the report found.

Based on interviews with focus groups and unionist representatives, the report was published on Thursday. It was compiled by Mark Daly, a senator with Ireland’s main opposition party, Fianna Fáil, to inform Irish policymakers about the implications if Northern Ireland votes to join the Republic despite opposition from unionists, as permitted under the Good Friday agreement.

“The reason for the report is to identify the fears and concerns,” Daly said. “Identity is a key one – will roads be renamed, will it become Bobby Sands international airport?”

Daly has his own fear: that Ireland will stumble into unity unprepared, unleashing grave, long-term consequences.

The senator James Wilson, who served with the British army in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, was commissioned to interview members of the Orange Order, a loyalist flute band and Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) veterans, among others.

Some expressed anxiety about losing land that was originally owned or farmed by Catholics displaced more than a century ago.

“There are real and genuine fears among the unionist community in Northern Ireland that the land would be taken from them, there would be retribution on members of the security forces and their community’s identity would be lost,” said the report, which runs to 55 pages, with another 200 pages of appendices.

Violent land disputes during the partition of Ireland in 1921 and the targeting of land-owning UDR members during the Troubles created a real fear of farm takeovers similar to those seen in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, said Daly. “It’s not theoretical. Anytime somebody says that and it’s not addressed, the fear grows.”

Other fears include loss of identity, nationalist triumphalism, retribution against former security force members, a return to violence, losing welfare and health care benefits, and rejoining the EU.

“For those who cling to the binary, and there are many unionists who do, the fear is that their identity is denied,” wrote one contributor, Mike Nesbitt, a former leader of the Ulster Unionist party.

Rev Kyle Paisley, the brother of the Democratic Unionist MP Ian Paisley Jnr, cited fear of swapping the NHS for the Republic’s uneven health care.

An unnamed UDR veteran painted a grim scenario of a loyalist uprising overwhelming the Irish army and police. “They would have to raise a Catholic gendarmerie, like the B Specials, and then you will have civil war, way beyond the Troubles II and more like Bosnia.”

There was also a strong resolve among some unionists to fight for their rights in the face of a united Ireland. “There is a lot of young loyalists out there who missed the war, champing at the bit for military glory. We need Northern Ireland to work. If it doesn’t, a united Ireland will certainly not work,” said one unionist.

Others viewed the Brexit chaos as a lesson to be learned. They saw the prospect of a border poll in the near future – with 50% +1 meaning their exiting the UK and joining a united Ireland – as a corollary of Brexit, which “filled certain cohorts of that demographic with apprehension and loathing”, the report found.

The report also stated that the Brexit referendum has demonstrated that a border poll “cannot be rushed or used for political gain” or jeopardise “the hard won peace we all enjoy on this island”.

Norman Hamilton, the former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, said he felt those who were pushing for united Ireland “have little skill in, or interest in, uniting communities” which would be necessary for such a major constitutional change.

He said he feared a referendum in the foreseeable future “not least because of what has been learned – or not learned – from the recent referendum in the UK”.

Paisley said he believed unionists would reject a united Ireland not just on political or religious grounds but because of a lack of unity on the matter and the attraction of the NHS in Northern Ireland.

A unionist public representative told the researchers “any talk or discussion on a united Ireland by unionism is seen by many as tantamount to negotiating surrender”.

Demographic data shows Northern Ireland Catholics, who tend to be nationalists, will soon outnumber Protestants, who tend to be unionists. A majority – 56% – voted in the 2016 referendum to stay in the EU but Northern Ireland now faces a potentially ruinous exit, burnishing the appeal of a neighbour with EU membership, economic success and social liberalism.


Rory Carroll and Lisa O'Carroll

The GuardianTramp

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