Former British soldier Glenn Bradley explains conversion to cause of Irish unity

What makes a former British soldier advocate for Irish unity? Glenn Bradley tells Political Correspondent John Manley about his journey from a loyalist heartland to joining civic nationalist group Ireland's Future

GLENN Bradley arguably has more reason than most to have an aversion to republicanism.

In 1972, aged five, he was on his way to Sunday school at Woodvale Methodist Church in west Belfast when an IRA car bomb exploded some 300 yards away, causing minor injures but leaving a lasting impact.

Fast forward nine years to the day, Bobby Sands died after 66 days on hunger strike and he remembers vividly the petrol bombing of his school bus by a mob as it passed Ardoyne.

"I literally got off that bus, saying I want to hit back," he recalls.

An intervention by his uncle and later Belfast lord mayor Hugh Smyth prevented the teenager joining the ranks of the UVF, so he instead signed up for the British Army.

"I naively joined the British Army to get the best training possible as a thought I'd come back and take the fight to the IRA," he told The Irish News.

"Obviously, the army had different ambitions for me – my first posting wasn't even back here."

Glen Bradley pictured on duty as a British soldier
Glen Bradley pictured on duty as a British soldier

The 55-year-old spent eight years with the Royal Irish Rangers, including five tours in the north.

In September 1990, while stationed at Gough Barracks in Armagh, his battalion attended a scene on the border where a booby-trapped body had been dumped near the village of Belleeks in south Armagh.

It turned out to be the remains of his uncle, 42-year-old RUC detective constable Louis Robinson, who two days earlier had been returning from a fishing trip in Kerry when he was abducted and tortured by an IRA gang of up to 10, who'd intercepted his car on the main Dublin-Belfast road. A statement later claimed the victim had been "executed" after questioning.

"With the benefit of hindsight, I shouldn't have been anywhere near that operation... it was too personal," he says.

"But I was, and it haunts me to this day... obviously it was me that identified his body on the roadside."

Mr Bradley left the army in 1994, though he continued to serve as a reservist. He joined the Ulster Unionist Party, becoming its constituency chairman in west Belfast and a party officer.

"I was involved in the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, but I wasn't part of the negotiating team," he says.

"I stand by the Good Friday Agreement that was negotiated. I think a lot of our problems today are because it hasn't been implemented."

It could easily be assumed from his back story that Glenn Bradley would be a staunch unionist with a deep hostility towards republicanism. However, the retired businessman is among a growing number of what has been termed 'cultural unionists' who are now receptive to the idea of constitutional change.

Former British soldier Glen Bradley with Irish News political correspondent John Manley. Picture by Mal McCann
Former British soldier Glen Bradley with Irish News political correspondent John Manley. Picture by Mal McCann

The grandfather-of-two recently joined others raised in a Protestant tradition on the stage of the Ulster Hall at Ireland's Future's 'Belongs to You' event.

His involvement with the civic nationalist group dates back several years, with the UK's departure from the EU acting as a "catalyst" when it came to transforming his political perspective.

"I'm a democrat," he responds when asked to explain what appears to have been a Damascene conversion to the cause of Irish unity.

"I've always been a democrat – being a unionist is not something that's injected into someone's DNA, it's a political choice."

He's a critic of Westminster's first past the post system, which has "led to a dominance by English MPs".

"For me Brexit totally tore apart any illusion that we were in a union of equals – Scotland and Northern Ireland forced out of Europe against their will," he said, arguing that such an outcome was "morally reprehensible".

The former soldier also rejects claims about the NHS being the "best in the world".

"My father has vascular dementia; my mother and sister died recently in 2017 and 2018; I've seen what the NHS can do first hand and all credit to the workers but it is not the best service in the world."

Mr Bradley describes the notion that the union provides what is best for its citizens as "utter delusion".

Former British soldier Glen Bradley. Picture by Mal McCann
Former British soldier Glen Bradley. Picture by Mal McCann

"As a democrat, as someone who cherishes my grandchildren and thinks about what my legacy for them is going to be – particularly given the socio-economic political basket case that I was born into – I want to make sure that they have the best opportunities in their lives.

"It would therefore be irresponsible of me not to consider other things beyond the status quo, and therefore, yes, I'm looking at Irish unity – and yes, I accept that at the minute there isn't the plan but there's nothing wrong with discussion."

And what about unionism's response to to the Ireland's Future project?

"I think political unionism is burying its head in the sand, and I think it's a consequence of the recent changes that have been ongoing in this place," he said.

"There's this realisation that they don't dominate the political landscape no more, that they are a minority and I think there's swathes of political unionism are having real trouble coming to terms with that – and it's evident and what's going on in our local politics at the moment."