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Twenty-five years on, a conversation with unionists who voted no to the Belfast Agreement – The Irish Times


In 1998, Iain Carlisle campaigned against the Belfast Agreement.

“The slogan was, ‘It’s right to say no,’” he remembers. “Honestly, hand on heart, I couldn’t name more than five people I knew at the time who voted yes. It wasn’t a minority of people who had concerns.”

In the referendum that followed Northern Ireland’s landmark peace deal, signed on Good Friday 1998, 29 per cent of those who voted – almost 275,000 people – voted no to the Agreement. Seventy-one per cent – 677,000 – voted yes.

“We were being portrayed as dinosaurs and the people who wanted to keep us in the past, and I felt the people who voted no were actually demonised,” says Carlisle.

“It just felt like there was a tidal wave of support for it and we were on the wrong side of history.”

A history and politics graduate from Ballynahinch, Co Down, Carlisle came from a “policing family and security force background, we lost several friends and neighbours” [during the Troubles].

“Effectively all aspects of the talks [political discussions in the run-up to the agreement] I wasn’t particularly happy with – an increased role for the South in the affairs of Northern Ireland, the decommissioning thing was a fudge, the inclusion of Sinn Féin and the sanitisation of Sinn Féin, the effective disbandment of the RUC.

“All those things were very bitter pills for people of my community to swallow,” he says.

‘Couldn’t reconcile themselves’

In the Assembly election that followed, in June 1998, the unionist vote was split between the pro-Agreement Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the anti-Agreement DUP and UK Unionists.

“It was very easy to categorise opposition to the agreement as just fundamentalists and people who would say no to everything, but there were lots of moderate unionists who couldn’t reconcile themselves with some of the content of it,” says Carlisle.

He was a member of the UUP, but left in 1998; he quotes his colleague, Dr Jonathan Mattison, who also quit the UUP shortly after the agreement was signed. “I didn’t leave them, they left me.”

The thing for me was letting prisoners out of jail, people who had murdered and bombed and killed people, and being a woman of faith I found that difficult

—  Lynda Gibson

Carlisle now works in the Museum of Orange Heritage in Belfast and is the chief executive of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland; he and Mattison, a curator at the museum, are among a group of unionists who opposed the agreement and who meet The Irish Times in the museum to share their views.

Opened in 2015, the museum tells the history of the Orange Order, which was founded in 1795 and named after the Protestant King William of Orange, who defeated the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, ensuring a Protestant line of succession.

It includes a replica “Lodge Room” – typical of that found in Orange lodges – and a memorial window commemorating the more than 300 members of the Orange Order who were killed during the Troubles.

“The thing for me was letting prisoners out of jail, people who had murdered and bombed and killed people, and being a woman of faith I found that difficult,” says Lynda Gibson.

‘Sticks in my throat’

Another former member of the UUP and from east Belfast, she was a deaconess in the Presbyterian Church and chaplain at Maghaberry Prison; her husband, Mervyn Gibson, is the grand secretary of the Orange Order, a Presbyterian minister and a former RUC officer.

She describes how when their children were young, they left home for school one day and returned to a different house. “Their father was under threat and the police moved us to a safe house in Bangor… that to this day sticks in my throat, what they did to my children.

“It divided our family. My sister was full-time UDR, her husband was RUC, they voted for it because they thought they were doing a good thing but within a few months they knew they shouldn’t have. But it was too late then.”

For many years we never left the house without checking under the car, we had to sleep with weapons in the house… we didn’t really have a normal life

—  Gillian McIntyre

“I grew up through all of the Troubles in Londonderry,” says retired personal assistant Gillian McIntyre. “You would go to school and the next day girls wouldn’t come in because their fathers had to leave the [Catholic-dominated] Cityside, in the mass exodus there was of Protestants.

“One guy in my class was shot dead, taken up the lane and shot dead. We lived with those things.

“Then I moved here [to Belfast] and married a man who was a member of the security forces and for many years we never left the house without checking under the car, we had to sleep with weapons in the house… we didn’t really have a normal life.”

Mattison’s uncle, John Smyth, was also a police officer; in 1981 he was killed along with his colleague Andrew Woods when an IRA landmine exploded under their car near Omagh, Co Tyrone.

The attempted murder of senior police officer John Caldwell in Omagh in February, Mattison says, “brought it all back. I don’t want to sound churlish, because I think it was very appropriate all the political parties condemned it, but the political representatives of the group who murdered my uncle in Omagh will probably be going to events marking some of those who committed that atrocity in 1981.

‘No empathy’

“There has been no empathy with what the people went through in Northern Ireland” from either the Dublin or London governments, he says.

“You can stand at events, and you can have your photograph taken and the symbolism that goes with that, but nobody understands the thunderous noise of the empty chair in thousands of households.”

Mervyn Gibson also campaigned against the agreement; on the day of the referendum, he was at a polling station, handing out leaflets encouraging people to vote no.

“I wanted to support that agreement, I wanted that peace, and I talked to a lot of people in the security forces who were the same… I came to the conclusion I couldn’t support it. Morally, people who murdered getting out of jail was just fundamentally wrong.”

But he says he “can understand” those who voted for it: “I remember preaching down in Fermanagh and talking to congregations where in the graveyards there were UDR men, part-time reservists, Protestants who’d been murdered… [they] said, we trust the leader [David Trimble] to try and move forward.

“Up until then I’d been an Ulster Unionist all my life… I wasn’t a natural DUP supporter but the DUP became the only party I could vote for,” Gibson says.

McIntyre says: “I couldn’t agree with another country, because that’s what I view the Republic of Ireland as, having any input into what happened in Northern Ireland.”

Of the provision in the agreement that people could identify as British or Irish or both, she adds: “I found that very unsettling… it was like as if it was trying to chip away at the fact that if you lived in the United Kingdom, you were British.

As time went on, “we had convicted murderers and terrorists in government and that was very hard to take, for somebody who has never broken the law, being asked to respect what these people have to say.”

In limbo

Twenty-five years on from the Belfast Agreement, the Troubles are over and much has changed. The DUP is the largest unionist party. At the last Assembly election in 2022, it polled 184,000 first-preference votes, almost twice as many as the UUP’s 96,000, while Sinn Féin is not just the largest nationalist party, but the largest party overall, with the right to the position of first minister.

The make-up of Northern Ireland itself has changed, with the 2021 census revealing that Catholics outnumber Protestants for the first time in its history.

Politically, the power-sharing institutions set up as a result of the agreement are again in limbo; the North has been without a fully functioning government for more than a year, and of the last 25 years, the Assembly has been in suspension for around 40 per cent of the time, and the consequences of Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol have, many argue, deepened divisions.

“We’re now in a situation where effectively two-thirds of nationalism votes for Sinn Féin, and it might be incorrect to assume, but certainly from my family and my community’s point of view, we see that as an endorsement of what went before,” says Carlisle.

“The unionist community never voted in any significant number for parties which supported loyalist terrorists.”

“That’s what we can’t understand,” Matthison interjects. “How your neighbour can do that.”

All agree that, if the referendum were to be held today, it would be rejected by unionists; in a LucidTalk poll in January 54 per cent of unionists said they would vote no to the Agreement.

“I feel very unsure what the future will bring and feel very betrayed and unsettled as a unionist,” says McIntyre.

‘What’s the point?’

The group describes a sense of apathy and disillusionment among unionists. “What’s the point? Our views aren’t being represented, our views won’t be listened to,” says Mattison.

He has seen this “in the lodge room, or in your church on Sunday morning, and increasingly with the protocol, everybody is joining the dots back to previous Agreements, to 1998, to St Andrews.

“People who would never have addressed the issue are sitting in church before the service starts on Sunday morning, are now turning round and saying, this is getting dire, and nobody recognises this.”

But voice these views publicly, he says, “and you’re viewed as a troublemaker… keep quiet, that doesn’t meet what the expectations of the establishment are, that everybody is to walk off into the sunset.”

[Unionists] will get fed up with there being Stormont and the majority consensus will be, right, direct rule then

—  Dr Jonathan Mattison

“Unionists viewed it as a settlement. For republicans it was always a stepping stone,” says Mervyn Gibson. “I’m going to be controversial, I think Arlene [Foster’s] phrase about the crocodile is perfectly true. You can never appease the appetite Sinn Féin have, and if we go against that then we’re the dinosaurs, and being branded as anti-peace when the security forces here held the line… is horrendous.”

Former DUP leader and then first minister Arlene Foster, in the run-up to the March 2017 Assembly elections, said, “If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back and looking for more,” in relation to Sinn Féin’s demand for an Irish Language Act. She later said she regretted using the term.

Gibson says: “I think community relations are now worse. Yes, you have your set pieces, your choirs coming together, and schools… but that mistrust has come back again.

“I do think we’re probably worse off now with regards to the future. I don’t see a united Ireland in my lifetime – maybe that’s not that long – but now all these things are reorientating our focus towards Dublin, that’s what the protocol was mainly doing, and that’s why it was dangerous.”

‘Nothing inevitable’

If pressure continues to build towards a united Ireland, says Mattison, “if you continue to depress that spring, they [unionists] will get fed up with there being Stormont and the majority consensus will be, right, direct rule then.”

Carlisle says: “Everybody talks up the inevitability of this reunification of Ireland and there’s nothing inevitable about it.”

But, adds McIntyre, “behind me there are probably two generations of people who never lived through the Troubles, don’t know and maybe are not interested, so if the nationalist community continues to grow and if there is a poll we could well be outvoted on it.

“I don’t think I’ll be here then, but where does that leave the unionists pushed into a united Ireland? They would be expected to keep their heads down and get on with their life.”

“There’d be a lot of nationalists who [would] like the four green fields to come back together, but they also like the health service, they like all the things up here financially, so I think we’re secure for quite a long time,” says Mervyn Gibson.

“I think it’s incumbent on unionists to make sure there’s space for all those who want to remain part of the United Kingdom, for all those who want to be unionists.

“They might not all be from the same religious background, they might not be from any religious background … but it’s important we build bridges with those communities.”

“Unionists just want ordinary politics,” says Mattison. “We want boring politics. That’s the future.”

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