Northern Ireland

One-time loyalist spokesman David Adams urges Ireland’s Future to focus on reconciliation

Former UDA member said it is ‘ridiculous’ to claim unionists are making reconciliation a ‘precondition for a border poll’

David Adams speaks at the Ireland's Future event at the SSE Areana in Belfast. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

A former elected representative from one of the so-called fringe loyalist parties has urged Ireland’s Future to place a greater focus on reconciliation ahead of a potential border poll.

David Adams, a one-time member of the UDA who represented the Ulster Democratic Party at the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, told Saturday’s Pathway to Change event in Belfast that the civic nationalist group has ignored the need for reconciliation.

The SSE Arena event, which included contributions from former taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and GAA president Jarlath Burns, was attended by more than 2,000 people.

Mr Adams, who last year told The Irish News how Brexit had put a border poll and the prospect of a united Ireland back on the agenda, said it was “ridiculous” to claim that unionists were making reconciliation a “precondition for a border poll”.

Wallace Thompson speaks during a pro-unity group Ireland’s Future event at the SSE Arena, Belfast
Wallace Thompson speaking at the Ireland’s Future event at the SSE Arena. PICTURE: BRIAN LAWLESS/PA

Speaking during a discussion entitled ‘Protestant Perspectives’, which also included contributions from former Alliance Party leader Lord John Alderdice, author Claire Mitchell and DUP founding member Wallace Thompson, he said others had claimed not to understand what reconciliation means.

“There’s not a fair minded, rational person in Northern Ireland, who can’t imagine what reconciliation would look like and in my view the vast majority of people here are crying out for it,” he said.

“Then finally, the claim was that reconciliation will happen as if by magic, only after Ireland becomes a unitary state – does anyone seriously believe that 2m unreconciled northerners can be injected into the political and social bloodstream of the progressive liberal democracy to the south of us, and everything will be fine?”

He said there had been a sustained campaign of “sneering and denigrating abuse” aimed at unionists on social media and in mainstream media.

Responding to Mr Adams’ remarks, Ireland’s Future chair Senator Frances Black said the “new phase in change on this island means finding new language, and new understanding”.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald and her predecessor Gerry Adams with David Adams and Wallace Thompson at the SSE Arena. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

“We all come to this issue with an intent to ensure that our future must be better than our past - and we do that by listening and respecting,” she said.

“There will be always be challenges and Ireland’s Future welcomes that. We look forward to more of these discussions - in public and in private.”

Mr Wallace, a former special adviser to Nigel Dodds who described himself as an “evangelical Protestant” and “lifelong supporter” of Ian Paisley, said he had received “terrible abuse” for remarks he made about the inevitability of Irish unity.

In a well received contribution, he said. “My conscience is clear – I have no difficulties setting out what I have been saying in the last two or three years, especially since the Brexit vote and the protocol.

“I am a unionist but I am on a journey; in that journey, it is vitally important that we all talk to each other as we think things through.”

He urged his “nationalist and republican fellow countrymen and woman” to engage with the loyalist, unionist, Protestant community.

Mary Lou McDonald said she supported a citizens’ assembly on Irish unity.

“This can’t just be left to the politicians, although the politicians have to lead on this,” she said.

“We are now in the time where we have to actively make the preparations, we have to actively do the work.”

Her deputy Michelle O’Neill told the event she had a positive relationship with the DUP Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly.

“We have common ground, the common ground is prosperity for everybody,” she said.

“Our common ground is around trying to build our community.”

Ms O’Neill said Westminster had shown it would never serve the interests of people in Northern Ireland, which demonstrated the need for constitutional change.

Alliance MLA Nuala McAllister, who was attending on behalf of her party after leader Naomi Long withdrew, said the was to reform the Stormont power-sharing institutions.

“We do not want to create a divide here where we radicalise on either side,” she said.

In his closing address, Mr Burns said “everything has to be on the table” in a discussion about unity.

“Everyone on the island needs to know that we are serious about respecting differing viewpoints and sincere about trying to accommodate the various traditions on the island – including those most recently arrived,” he said.

“If the benefits to the people of the island in managing their own affairs and destiny in a pluralistic, non-threatening way are laid bare and become apparent, I would wager that most people on this island would think that worthy of consideration and exploration.”