Respectful talks on new Ireland needed, says DUP founder member – The Irish Times

The failure of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union means talks now about the future of the island of Ireland are now necessary, a founder member of the Democratic Unionist Party and close ally of the Rev Ian Paisley has said.

Saying that the Brexit campaign following the 2016 referendum victory has “gone belly up, and we know that”, Wallace Thompson, speaking to a Royal Irish Academy seminar in Dublin, said the treatment offered to the DUP by Boris Johnson had been “quite frankly disgusting”.

“We can blame the Brexiteers. We can blame our own attitudes within unionism. We can blame the European Union. We can point the finger in all directions. But the reality is it just has ended badly.

“It has changed things quite dramatically from my own personal perspective as well as to how we move forward,” said Mr Thompson, who emphasised that he would vote against the unification of Ireland if a referendum was held.

Acknowledging that he “probably” would not now be showing a willingness to talk about a united Ireland if Brexit had gone well, Mr Thompson said: “That’s been unionism’s problem: the ones you thought should be your friends very often turn out to be your worst enemies.”

Northern Ireland is now constitutionally in a new position because of the creation of a sea border for trade between Northern Ireland and Britain that Mr Johnson said he would never allow: “It is the fallout from Brexit that has made me think more deeply,” he told the RIA event.

“The irony is I’m still strongly in favour of maintaining the union, but I am open to looking at other options. But it has to be done in a very, very respectful way and over a long period of time,” he continued.

“But those who are telling me at home in Ulster that, you know, we must stand firm against all attempts to make us think of our future, that we must maintain the union are the very ones who are then also saying that the union has been fractured by Brexit.

The conservative beliefs of evangelical Protestants in Northern Ireland would have to be accommodated if a new Ireland is created in the years or decades ahead, said Wallace Thompson

“So, on one hand we have been told that to talk of even thinking of a new future for the island is heresy and blasphemy, that we must stand firm for the union. And yet they’re telling us the union is broken. And I haven’t yet heard anyone who’s in a position to say how we can repair that break,” he said.

Saying that the British monarchy is something that he “can take, or leave, to be perfectly honest with you”, Mr Thompson said he was not “an ardent royalist”, though the Union Jack “is dear to me, it’s part of my upbringing”.

He had been brought up to believe that the Tricolour was “the enemy’s flag”, though he said he fully understood the symbolism behind the Tricolour – that it represents nationalism and Orangeism “with peace between them”.

“That is what we are aiming for here. The Tricolour itself I wouldn’t be overly perturbed with one way, or the other, but I think we are going to have to start from a blank sheet for all of those things,” he said.

There is an emotional attachment to Britain and the Union Jack among unionists, he added: “But, it’s an attachment to something that doesn’t exist any more. When I look at Orange banners I see pictures of great men from the past, of people fighting battles in the Somme or whatever, and you’re looking at the aristocratic sort of background.

“But that Britain is gone, that is a parade of the past. None of that exists now. There’s a sentimental attraction to your heritage, but as your heritage changes you’ve got to be realistic to accept that things are changing,” he said.

The conservative beliefs of evangelical Protestants in Northern Ireland would have to be accommodated if a new Ireland is created in the years or decades ahead, said Mr Thompson, who is a member of the Free Presbyterian Church.

His grandparents’ generation had signed the Ulster covenant to prevent “Rome rule” and later fought at the Somme to protect the British empire, but the empire has now gone and the influence of the Catholic Church has “completely changed”.

“I’m driven by my faith, and that is primarily what does drive me. My unionism is important, but my Protestantism is more important,” he said, in conversation with Belfast Telegraph journalist Sam McBride.

“The whole dynamic has changed and we live in a secular United Kingdom. The Republic is now a much more secular society. That in itself throws up challenges for me because I have to recognise that in that context of a secular mindset across these islands, my views are very much minority views and might be seen by some as anachronistic to the point of being absurd. But I still hold to strong moral ethical views based on what I believe to be Bible truth. My concern would be that whatever arrangements are made constitutionally in the future within in the UK or in some all-Ireland arrangement that what I hold dear will be preserved, protected and recognised,” he said.

A close friend of Ulster Unionist politician and academic Edgar Graham, who was murdered 40 years ago this week by the IRA, Mr Thompson said he had visited his grave recently and was still shocked that “that fella has been lying down there for 40 years”.

There are so many people from all traditions in Northern Ireland who bear trauma from the Troubles who have suffered from the loss of members of their families and who are still looking for answers to questions and looking for justice.

“It’s deep within the psyche of the unionist people,” he said, “the siege mentality of Protestantism is something that’s not easy to understand unless you’re inside it. As a people, we’ve always felt our backs be against the wall, we’re always been attacked.

“What comes across perhaps to other people as triumphalism and arrogance actually is a fearfulness an insecurity,” said Mr Thompson, who served as a special adviser to Nigel Dodds in the Stormont Executive led by Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness.

“So I think as a unionist, I have to say let’s look at this collectively, because we’re all hurting. Now, my fellow unionists might say most of the attacks that have been done have been done by republicans on loyalists. But it’s a two-way process.

“If we are going to go forward on a mature basis we have to recognise that a lot of people have suffered an awful lot of hurt in Northern Ireland. And we can’t allow it to trap us going forward,” he said.

Saying that he had been “blessed with 10 wonderful grandchildren”, the 70-year-old said he was thinking more and more of their future. “Even to my own children, the Troubles are largely history. That generation will not be trapped by the trauma of the Troubles.”

Insisting that he did not want to belittle or deny anyone’s trauma, he said the violence and death perpetuated during the decades of conflict were unnecessary and should never have happened.

“It’s been appalling. It could have been avoided. Mistakes were being made by unionism, but they could have been sorted out. The IRA campaign was a travesty which left a dreadful scar because through that campaign all sides were affected,” he said.

“You then had loyalist gunmen going out and murdering innocent Roman Catholics, appalling things happened that could have been avoided. But we can’t be trapped. We have to remember them. We have to revere their memory, but we have to try and move on.”

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