Northern Ireland

Joe Brolly: 'The DUP needs to be called out'

In the second of a two-part interview with Joe Brolly, the pundit, barrister and charity campaigner talks to Aeneas Bonner about the DUP, a united Ireland and his friendship with US President Joe Biden

GAA pundit, barrister and charity campaigner Joe Brolly speaks to The Irish News. Picture by Mal McCann
GAA pundit, barrister and charity campaigner Joe Brolly speaks to The Irish News. Picture by Mal McCann

"I'LL talk about anything," says Joe, as he bites into a sandwich and the tape starts rolling.

No doubt. But let's start with the DUP.

Back in March this year, Joe Brolly found himself muted - not for the first time by RTÉ - moments into an appearance on a Claire Byrne Live programme about a united Ireland.

The presenter intervened as he accused the DUP of homophobia and racism, on the basis that fellow guest and East Derry MP Gregory Campbell was no longer present to respond.

Joe hit back on social media, citing evidence for his claims.

Since then the DUP has engaged in a very public meltdown, ditching two leaders in quick succession and electing a third who is now threatening to collapse Stormont itself.

While Joe (52) remains best known for his Gaelic football activities, having won an All-Ireland with Derry and been a fixture for 20 years on The Sunday Game, he has increasingly been using his public platform to score other points.

And he is unapologetic about his focus on the DUP, saying some of their behaviour needs to be "called out".

If you're reading, Gregory, maybe look away now.

"You have to get to a situation in society where you're blind to religion, you're blind to sexuality, blind to colour. That's the ideal situation," he says.

"And to understand the DUP you have to understand that they were the creation of one man. They were one man, a megalomaniac who had his own Orange lodge, his own political party, founded his own religion. And therefore was a cult, a one-person cult."

He says he met Ian Paisley once.

"I just couldn't believe how big he was, and how, in that way of his, in the way of the celebrated dictators, immensely charismatic. I mean he would have done terrifically well in Italy in the 1930s, or can you imagine how powerful he would have been as an American TV evangelist.

"...So to understand the DUP you have to understand it was Ian Paisley's construct. There was no political strategy, it was just 'no', 'never, never, never' - no to gayness, no to Catholics, no to power-sharing, no to any of the things that make any political system work.

"And therefore filled with all of those hypocrisies that are there when someone tries to present a black and white message, because that's not what human beings are like."

Read more:Part one -  Joe Brolly: 'I don't see myself as a big deal any more'

Ian Paisley with an Ulster Says No banner in January 1986. Picture Pacemaker
Ian Paisley with an Ulster Says No banner in January 1986. Picture Pacemaker

He says while Paisley was skilled at capturing the mood, and offering a simple message to a fearful Protestant population, the "beginning of the end" was when loyalist paramilitaries wanted to make peace.

"The DUP hadn't really got anywhere to go. They were protesting for a while, and they were having marches with less and less success, and Paisley continued to thunder because that's what Paisley does, but really it was getting to the crunch time, well what are we going to do here?

"There's a Stormont, there's a first minister job up for grabs, and of course Paisley did what all megalomaniacs do, he took the big job."

Joe is now warming to the theme.

"And Ian Paisley dies. Well, what happens in a cult whenever somebody dies, who is the raison d'etre, who is the source of the cult, the wellspring of it? Well then, what have you created - you've not created any movement that's got a political strategy, you've just created no, never, no, never, laugh at gay people, laugh at Catholics, laugh at the Irish language, all that stuff, which in the last five years has sounded increasingly pathetic.

"...I remember going up to Stormont to see Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness about organ donation. I had never been up before. And I went down for a cup of coffee, down to the canteen. And I couldn't believe that it was entirely segregated. It was like a dance in Ireland in the 1950s.

Former DUP leader Peter Robinson pictured with Joe Brolly and Shane Finnegan, who he donated a kidney to in 2012. Picture by Hugh Russell
Former DUP leader Peter Robinson pictured with Joe Brolly and Shane Finnegan, who he donated a kidney to in 2012. Picture by Hugh Russell

"You know, the DUP on one side, in one corner, not turning to face anybody, not greeting anybody, not chatting to anybody else, everybody else sort of flung around the canteen. And it emphasised to me something really important, which is Paisley understood that a key part of maintaining this cult was to ensure that nobody was socialising with people outside this cult, because they would see: look, they're just normal human beings, they have the same outlook as I have, they want the same things basically. So it was important to cut the DUP off from the outside world. But it was going to be increasingly difficult to do that.

"...And so over the last four or five years I think particularly serious pressure has started to come on them on social issues. Because young Protestant people aren't interested in this stuff."

He claims there are examples of people in the DUP who are gay and had to "either leave the party or have to continue to pretend".

"And it's a desperately cruel thing, and it's unacceptable, and my point has been that it has to be called out... because that way you highlight the problem, and in fact you help them."

He publicly challenged Arlene Foster to apologise for the party's treatment of the LGBT community after she told a court hearing she was very distressed to be wrongly accused of being a homophobe.

"And then within a few weeks she was abstaining on the gay conversion therapy vote and that was enough to get rid of her.

"And the thing about the DUP, which I've thought a lot about, is that whenever you have a cult like that, which is based around one person's personality, everybody's just in it for self-interest... Because there's no political strategy. And that's why they hate each other.

"I mean they got the knives out for Ian Paisley... and then they got the knives out for Peter Robinson, because he was seen to be too secular, too friendly with Martin McGuinness, moving in the wrong direction.... And you saw it with Arlene, and then very vividly with Edwin. I mean one minute Edwin was a heroic character, and within two weeks, I think I wrote that at least he lasted for a full week longer than it took God to create the world."

GAA pundit, barrister and charity campaigner Joe Brolly speaks to The Irish News. Picture by Mal McCann
GAA pundit, barrister and charity campaigner Joe Brolly speaks to The Irish News. Picture by Mal McCann

He describes the new leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, as "a makeshift, a player... a shapeshifter".

He now presides over a party in its "death throes".

"It can't survive as the juggernaut it was, and I expect you'll see a much smaller right-wing creationist party that will have very, very, very niche appeal."

He believes the DUP has also "blown the chance to create a separate Northern Ireland".

Asked what a united Ireland means to him, he says patriotism is wanting to see people - regardless of their sex or religion - having a good education and doing well.

But in anticipation of Scotland going for independence and the union disintegrating, he suggests initially a 'two-state solution' for Ireland.

"What you could have is a standalone parliament in the north, that would have tax-raising powers, that would actually have to do politics.

"At the minute we don't have to do politics... Stormont's been closed as often as it's been open."

Read more:Part one -  Joe Brolly: 'I don't see myself as a big deal any more'

Picture by Mal McCann
Picture by Mal McCann

If the Dublin government can avoid spooking unionists by talking about a united Ireland, and a referendum allows a return to Europe, then "very quickly the argument for closer ties with the south becomes clear".

"And so I think just over time, organically, it would probably grow into a one-state situation.

"...The Scots are going to set the ball rolling for us anyway, the English hate us, the Brits hate us here - they absolutely loathe the unionist people, they don't see what the point of them is - it's just altogether a much better situation.

"The middle classes, you know, through rugby, through business, all those things, are very integrated already. So the thing now is you need the Ulster Unionists to start really working towards proper progressive politics, because there is a gap in the market now, that the Alliance have increasingly taken."

Personally, Joe has described himself as a "political atheist", although he would certainly be a prize asset for any party if he could be persuaded to run for public office.

For a start, he has the ear of the most powerful man in the world.

When Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the US presidential election, it was somehow not surprising to learn that Joe Brolly skipped the queue of world leaders waiting to congratulate him when he joined a conference call with relations.

Biden has roots in Co Mayo and in 2017 the former US Vice President turned the sod on the Mayo hospice.

"I came in contact with him as the ambassador for hospice. We immediately hit it off and quickly became friendly. Joe and (his brother) Jimmy both came to open our hospice, we invited them.

"I'd be very friendly with Jimmy. I stay in Jimmy's house when I'm going over."

Joe Brolly became friendly with Joe Biden when he turned the sod on the Mayo Hospice
Joe Brolly became friendly with Joe Biden when he turned the sod on the Mayo Hospice

He spent more time with him in a later visit, as he was deciding whether to run for president.

"It's amazing how surprised people are when they learn those facts. But it was just a series of coincidences. In the end the president of America is just a man like any other man."

While Biden has recently earned international opprobrium over Afghanistan, domestically he has been attempting to usher in a new era of progressive politics.

Joe says his great trick is that no-one will say a bad word about him, allowing him to get deals done.

"The $1 trillion bipartisan deal. And the real aim is the $3.5 trillion deal that's going to transform America, it's going to make sure that there's proper child welfare, there's proper welfare for single mothers, you know all the things that we take for granted - proper roads, proper public services.

"There's going to be a massive recalibration there."

At home, too, he sees cause for optimism.

Twenty-three years on from the Good Friday Agreement, peace is entrenched and there is stability.

He says the change can been seen over the Twelfth, where the sectarian and triumphalist element has largely been removed from parading and what is left is a more orderly, modern practice of tradition.

East Belfast now also has a thriving GAA club with a sizeable Protestant membership.

"People's lived experience is changing how we are living. Sectarianism is increasingly being seen as embarrassing and pathetic... I can't remember for example the last time there was a sectarian assault in Belfast courts and I'm a criminal barrister down there."

He says Belfast is now "probably the most peaceful small city in western Europe".

"I mean we saw some images of violence over the summer but they were tiny, they were nothing. I drove up to Lanark Way the following morning. I drove through all the hotspots in the city, there was nothing.

"On Sandy Row people were sitting out in deckchairs enjoying the sun, drinking tea out of flasks. This is a different world now than whenever people were being batoned off the Ormeau Road, people were being assassinated coming out of bars, and fish shops were being blown up. It's a totally different world, and therefore we've got the backdrop now for successful politics."

Picture by Mal McCann
Picture by Mal McCann

And Joe says there is "no alternative but for the DUP to get involved, because the longer they stay out of it, the more we inexorably move towards a different solution for the north".

"It will happen without them. I mean the peace process, everything that has ever happened, every positive development in the history of this state happened without the DUP."

He adds: "Paisley's church is empty now. I bought a house beside Paisley's church and we put our Gaelic posts in the back garden, and Paisley's gardener came over and gave me advice about the garden. He didn't even know what the posts were, thought it was rugby.

"In those days it was like going to an Ulster championship match. Every Sunday morning at Paisley's the cars were everywhere, you could hear him thundering out from that church, and it was packed, you could not get in, standing room only.

"Now it's empty, it's dead, and it's an emblem of what's happening. We're moving towards a more modern, secular future."

Read more:Part one -  Joe Brolly: 'I don't see myself as a big deal any more'