Changing unionism on show at the Ulster Hall

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Up to a thousand people attended the Ulster Hall in Belfast on Wednesday night for a meeting supporting Irish unity in a venue long associated with unionism.

Singer Frances Black, chairwoman of Ireland’s Future, described the event as “momentous”.

All the northern unionist parties were invited, but none attended. However, several people from a unionist background took part and addressed the audience on their readiness to consider Irish unity.

One was Glenn Bradley, from a loyalist area of Belfast. The former member of the Orange Order and former soldier in the British army is now open to constitutional change, embraces his Irish identity and says “intensive debate” on the subject is happening among traditionally unionist communities.

He spoke about discovering his “denied history”, especially the Protestants’ involvement in the 1798 rebellion and learning that his staunchly unionist great-grandfather was a fluent Irish speaker.

Such “myth-busting, that type of rising above propaganda” caused him to question his thinking. “[But] the big game-changer was Brexit,” he added.

Proud of his “British culture and Protestant tradition”, Bradley told the Ulster Hall crowd that that his identity “does not make me any less Irish than anyone else”.

“The only people I can see who are denying that those conversations are taking place, and the potential of what that can then deliver, is political unionism,” he said.

Ben Collins, an East Belfast Presbyterian and a former civil servant in the British administration, has also been influenced by the United Irishmen and learning the “true meaning of the Tricolour” – the reconciliation of Orange and Green.

The Good Friday Agreement meant that he could embrace “my Irishness”, he said, but Brexit made his change of direction an “urgent necessity”.

Sociologist and writer Claire Mitchell spoke of “alternative Protestants” who are “open to a conversation about a united Ireland”. Political unionism had stuck its “head in the sand” on the unity debate, but “civic unionism is already engaging”, she said.

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