I run ‘Cobh Rebel Walking Tours’ here in Co. Cork.
As a result, I am met with guests of all nationalities who visit here to learn all about our war of independence and Irish history in general, each year.
I want to tell you about some of those guests and the conversations we have had, not just about what happened here in the past, but what’s also likely to happen here in the future. I think you will be pleasantly surprised to hear the opinions of some , particularly in the context of the ever more vocal topic of a coming border poll. Some of the more interesting and surprising comments have come from the mouths of visiting guests from North of the border.
Here are a couple of examples of people I came across – non nationalist voters who are looking forward to voting Yes in the coming border poll, whenever that might be.
Case1. In early April 2022, I received a tour booking for one adult and one child. The young woman from Belfast was polite and friendly in her late 30s or early 40s. Before long, I was able to detect from her demeanour and reaction to what the tour was revealing to her, that she was learning Irish history for probably the first time. I was smart enough to know that this didn’t necessarily mean she was a unionist, as some months earlier I had a nationalist secondary school biology teacher from Tyrone on tour with me , who also revealed that she hadn’t been taught Irish history while attending school. Now this young lady from Belfast became more intriguing as she soon revealed that her twelve-year- old son with her was currently attending an all -Irish GaelScoil in Belfast. This then paved the way for a more open discussion where she also revealed her partner and son’s father was a Sinn Fein voter.
That then led me to ask if she would ever consider voting SF herself. This was approximately four weeks out from the famous May 2022 assembly elections when SF was tipped to win the election and take the top spot with Michelle O’Neill becoming First minister at Stormont. I was surprised in more ways than one by the response I received from the lady.
“Not in a million years, I could never bring myself to vote SF” she replied. She then began to explain why. She said that while she lives in Belfast, she’s originally from Fermanagh, Enniskillen in fact. And by some stroke of good fortune, her family avoided being wiped out in the Remembrance Day bombing there in 1987, due to some unforeseen circumstance, it was the first and only year the family had missed the commemoration that day.
No, she said, she could never bring herself to vote SF and she would probably be voting for her local UUP candidate in the coming election. But she added. “I tell you what, if there was a border poll tomorrow morning, I would be the first to vote Yes”. When I asked why, she immediately pointed to her 12-year-old boy and said, “For him and his future”.
Case 2. This was a gentleman about ten days later of similar age to the earlier lady from Belfast. Although he was born a Catholic, he never regarded himself as nationalist or unionist. Although I can’t recall the name of the town he said he came from, I do recall him telling me that it wasn’t far from Belfast and by some weird turn of events, it escaped relatively free from the conflict that raged all around it. He told me that while he was growing up, he watched the conflict and rioting on TV like it was in some foreign country from where he lived. He said it seemed as far away from him as it probably did for people like me living in Cork.
He said he always assumed at that time that the rioters he watched on tv were probably from a low socially deprived background who involved themselves in such activities for fun and recreation, like hooligans at football matches each weekend. It was only when he grew older and after the conflict had ended, that he realised there was a political context to all of this. He also realised that being deprived of Irish history in school, was a big factor in his ignorance of the subject. This was one of the reasons he was now doing my tour, to help overcome this deficit in knowledge – helped by the fact that he too was aware that a border poll was coming over the horizon and he too would probably be voting yes when it arrives.
What made this man even more interesting was that he was a former Alliance election candidate. We had a very interesting conversation about this and the part Alliance might play when it comes to debate and offering leadership- or not. He was convinced that it should be a free vote for the public and not be led by a green or orange vision, therefore Alliance would not be telling its supporters how to vote.
I asked him what would be orange or green about a new Ireland – as surely a new Ireland would be post green/orange by its very nature, and isn’t this the very reason why the Alliance Party should be out front now promoting such a position to its voters. To not offer such leadership would be very damaging to the party when their supporters will be asking them at the doorsteps for such advice. I also told him, if Alliance refuses to change its current policy before polling day, they will effectively be as impotent on the matter as the British Labour party was about Brexit, and we all know how that turned out.
So the point with this second case that I’m trying to make is, as far as this man is concerned, the Alliance party is evenly divided as to its approach on the border poll issue. Some are for and some against. When the campaign eventually builds up momentum, it won’t be a case of the green or orange wing of that party that will decide its approach, but access to the EU and all the protections and benefits that comes with that. That’s the view of that gentleman. and, I feel this whole debate about flags and anthems will have very little to do with how unionists or former unionists will vote in or boycott the referendum.