‘Brexit means that Northern Ireland’s constitutional future has become an issue for Europe’, says Denis Bradley

Denis Bradley was keen to move on in the latest Forward Together podcast interview to discuss the constitutional position of Northern Ireland.  “Well that’s the one that intrigues me because I don’t know the answer!,” he says.

“First of all I think something very important happened within the last couple of weeks and has not received attention. And that is that the Europeans have said if there a no deal situation we will still have to deal with the Northern Ireland situation.  That’s a massive movement.”

Denis insists that he does not believe that the re-imposition of a hard border is possible.  People in border areas – “the local farmer, the local shopkeeper, the local child” – have now become too used to being without borders.  “And anyway, all the border structures would be within green territory.  What I mean by green territory is from here [Derry] to Dundalk is basically – with a few exceptions, a few pockets – it’s basically a nationalist homeland.  So to think that you could do that [impose a hard border] is thinking that you can put the cavalry of the old western films out into the fort somewhere.”  But, in the analogy, the Apaches won’t stand for it.

He continues: “The Europeans are saying, if there’s no deal…. we will not deal with the British government until we solve this problem. I think that brings us to a new place. To some degree it takes the sweat off Leo Varadkar.  But I also think it’s an understanding that we’re different.  That’s what makes us different from Scotland…. I think the fascinating thing about Brexit is that it was an English construct. And it is going to leave England incredibly unsettled for a long period of time.  Whether that is for five years, or 10 years, or a generation, I do not know.”

That, in turn, leads to a new conversation about the future of Northern Ireland, including the potential All Ireland Forum, favoured by Denis.  “What we need is for a conversation to start,” he says.  “What we need is engagement from all the different parts of this island.”  But, he warns: “I do see unionism’s propensity to go back in on itself and at this difficult moment not to engage. I can understand why this is. They come from a position that nationalism can lose 20 times or 40 times – unionism can only lose once… They will become incredibly defensive.”

Denis wonders if unionism and loyalism is beginning a process of change. “My contact with loyalism over the last 20 years has been substantial and they have been very angry with the DUP, because they feel betrayed by the DUP and they feel that the DUP looks down their nose at them.  I think they are much less willing to be radicalised into creating havoc on the streets if we lose the ‘precious union’ or the ‘precious union’ is under threat.”

But Denis adds that “the southern government and parties say this is crazy, this is not the right time” to call for a border poll.  He continues: “Of course it’s the wrong time and it’s crude, it’s simplistic, and crude and wrong to have a border poll now. That’s as crude as you can get. The difficulty is that if you take that off the table, I’m not convinced unionism would move at all. It will stay within its own narrow ground. It won’t move out into engagement.

“I think that the border poll, or the possibility of a border poll, at least challenges unionism. And I think Peter Robinson was hinting at that. I think Peter Robinson was prepared to look at that and make his people ready for that…. Robinson seems to be this lone voice and we haven’t heard much else coming forth.  I think it was Colum Eastwood who made a statement, which I thought had a lot of validity – he said it’s very hard to have a conversation with people who don’t want to talk to you.  Is there civic society within unionism which is prepared to talk?  Nationalism will talk.”

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.