How Brexit changes a unionist to a united Irelander

Brexit is making some unionists re-evaluate their allegiance to the UK – and consider support for a united Ireland, says Philip Gilliland, a commercial lawyer and former president of the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve been given a gift which is called Brexit, because it’s allowed those of us who are from a Protestant background to be able to talk about the heresy of the united Ireland in a way that is not heresy,” says Philip in the latest Forward Together podcast.

He continues:In other words it’s allowed us to talk about the possibility of constitutional change in a way that doesn’t seem to be disloyal to our tribe, because clearly for many of us, Brexit is nuts.”  Correcting himself and moderating his speech, he adds: “That sounds very disrespectful to people. I think I should really retract it. People are entitled to their view if they think it’s the right thing to do. That’s brilliant.  Fill your boots. That’s grand.  But it clearly has changed the dynamic between how we deal with our neighbours in the south and how we deal with our neighbours in Britain.

“It’s shone a light on the fact that the Brits don’t really know or care very much about Northern Ireland. We knew that anyway. It has shone a light on that fact for those of us whose businesses are totally integrated into the Republic’s economy – which mine is. It is a threat to jobs and our own livelihoods. And so we’re going to vote with our economic future [in mind]. It’s allowed a lot of us to question why we were unionist in the first place.

“In the past many of us who were unionist thought we were more a bit more socially liberal and there was a fear of theocracy. Today that’s totally changed. We are now the theocrats. I’m not. I actually want a socially liberal world. The idea of the socially conservative moral stuff coming out of unionism is utterly abhorrent to me. And frankly, ironically, rather un-British too. We’ve got all sorts of reasons now to talk about the constitutional issue in a way that weren’t open to us….. If it’s not under the aegis of Sinn Fein, I don’t really care. I’m happy with it.”

Leadership void

Philip, like most of the interviewees in the Forward Together podcasts, is strongly critical of political leadership in Northern Ireland today. “We don’t have what you might call a traditional political class,” he says. “The people who might otherwise be involved in leadership in society feel they do not want to put their head above the parapet. We have to accept that there was a fear, a legacy of political violence, for a very long time. There is fear on the part of people who are afraid to say what they really feel.  Fear in what is unfortunately still a tribal society, fear of breaking ranks and being accused of being disloyal to your own – which sounds very medieval. But I think that’s the way that most people still think.

“So we have to encourage people to say whatever they think, to feel empowered to say what they feel about progress in society. And I can’t think of any evidence recently of bully boy tactics on the part of paramilitaries in either tribe stopping people saying what they feel…. So we have to encourage people to stand up and say what they feel. There is a truism here, which is that bad things happen when good people do nothing. And it’s too easy in Northern Ireland for good people to do nothing.”

Philip adds: “I do feel that some business organizations are a very good vehicle for leadership in civic society. They do allow people to emancipate themselves and say what they feel. Certainly, my experience of being a business leader is that the audience that we were speaking to, which is not just businesses who are our members in Derry, but actually all of society, want to be led. They want leadership.”

Integration – please

But Philip is equally animated about the need for social integration.  He explains: “Pretty much everybody wants a shared society, except for the nationalist and unionist politicians who benefit from a segregated society…. 99% of people here get on actually really well – much better than they ever did. People on the ground are really getting on grand. Obviously it would be better if we shared our education.

“One of the keys to unlocking this is the fact that we have something like 60 or 70 thousand too many school places. And the annual budget per child is continuing to reduce. And that’s just clearly nuts. So every school can’t perform while we have 70,000 too many school places. Surely somebody needs to say, isn’t the problem that we’ve got 70,000 [empty] school places? …we have to work out what is the best way to rationalise schools. And when we rationalise schools guess what, we’re going to have to actually mix a few of them, because it’s the only way to do it.”

Dealing with the past

Despite being a lawyer, Philip does not believe that going through the courts is the best way to deal with the past.  “I’m not a criminal lawyer,” he says, “but my sense of the administration of justice and the past is that it’s just so vast and so difficult a task to apply legal justice to events of over 20 years ago, that it’s just not practical…. And many of the witnesses are dead.  Many of the witnesses who are still alive with the passage of time may not even know – their memories may be playing tricks, they may not even remember what they think they remember…. With a very heavy heart I can’t see us going back to the administration of justice in the technical sense, in the legal and juridical sense, to deal with the past.”

What is important, argues Philip, is to address the trauma and mental ill-health caused by past events.  “All of us who are over the age of probably 45 have to a lesser or greater degree suffered some degree of trauma as a result of violence,” he suggests. “Obviously some people suffered vast trauma and others only very mild peripheral trauma. But we’re all a part of it. A majority of people over the age of 45 carry with them some degree of trauma about the past.

“So what is the right way to deal with that? And given the fact that the administration of justice in the technical sense is probably not going to deliver the answers, certainly not going to deliver a lot of the truth. What actually is required in my view is a policy of truth…. Jail is not the point, but what would be extremely good for the healing process is to know, why did you pull the trigger? What was it in you that said that was a good idea? And who were you just following orders [from]? Why did you follow orders? And the person who gave the orders, why did you give the order? Why do you think that was a good idea?

“I don’t know many people who openly say they were perpetrators, but I imagine the toll on their own mental health must be phenomenal.  Very, very few people who got involved in paramilitary activity or violence perpetrated by the state were what you might call a sociopath. Ninety nine percent of people who got involved in that sort of thing for whatever reason believed they were doing the right thing. But a part of that was the dehumanization of the person who was going to be your victim and now that we’re actually talking to each other again it must be quite challenging for the perpetrator to find a humanized person associated with their victim. And when the perpetrator goes home and they say goodness me, I did that to his brother. I think there’s a tremendous toll on their own mental health.  We are quite a damaged society, particularly for people over the age of 45. I am told that there are intra-family consequences for the next generation, which may or may not contribute, explain, one of the reasons why we have such a high suicide rate amongst young people. Is there some connection?  I don’t know.”

The latest podcast interview is available here. The podcasts are also available on iTunes and Spotify.


  • Holywell Trust receives support for the Forward Together Podcast through the Media Grant Scheme and Core Funding Programme of Community Relations Council and Good Relations Core Funding Programme of Derry City and Strabane District Council.


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