Ugly undertone to Roscommon evictions gives unionists insight into what they might expect in a ‘new Ireland’

Sinn Fein have been outspoken over the evictions in Strokestown, Co Roscommon, as above at a protest in the town against the handling of a high-profile eviction of the McGann  family. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Sinn Fein have been outspoken over the evictions in Strokestown, Co Roscommon, as above at a protest in the town against the handling of a high-profile eviction of the McGann family. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Thanks to Brexit, many commentators apparently believe that Irish unity is inevitable or even imminent.

Yet, a recent incident in the Republic may have provided ordinary, working unionists in Northern Ireland with an insight into what they can expect in a ‘New Ireland’, particularly if it is shaped by the attitudes of Sinn Féin and its supporters.

There were unpleasant scenes near Strokestown in County Roscommon before Christmas, when a security firm from Lisburn removed three siblings from a family farmhouse, after a bank secured a court order for their eviction.

The episode, caught on camera and shared widely on the internet, was disturbing and there were suggestions that the security guards acted heavy-handedly.

Understandably, the video generated a great deal of public anger.

Irrespective of the circumstances, nobody likes to see people being forcibly removed from their home, especially in the run up to Christmas.

However, much of the reaction and, indeed, much of the coverage in some papers, had a distinctly unpleasant undertone.

There was a special focus on the accent of the security guards, who came from Northern Ireland, and the fact that one of them was heard to state that he was ‘British’, after an onlooker claimed he should be ashamed to evict a “fellow Irish man”.

In an ugly sequel to the repossession, a cattle truck full of ‘vigilantes’ descended on the property to take retribution on the security guards, with the result that three of them were hospitalised and a guard dog killed.

Gardai accused republican elements of exploiting a public outcry over the eviction, in order to conduct a brutal, well-planned assault.

The unspoken tensions beneath this sequence of events were clear to see in the Irish parliament, when Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty condemned the thuggery of the ‘bank’s enforcers’, but failed to mention the later, more serious attack.

After some testy exchanges, the taoiseach observed that, when it comes to the Shinners attitude to the rule of law, “it doesn’t take long for your balaclava to slip”.

It seems unlikely that the republican party’s response to the eviction, and indeed the extent of public anger, was not fuelled by the security guards’ northern unionist identity.

The reaction among Sinn Féin’s army of online supporters, or ‘Shinnerbots’, centred on the men’s apparent links to the British army.

It was insinuated that these links meant they were also likely to be connected to loyalist paramilitaries.

It has since emerged that the firm’s boss probably was a soldier, first with the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) and then with the Royal Irish Regiment.

Some former members of the UDR have been accused of links to paramilitary groups and, in the popular republican imagination, the regiment is often portrayed as an adjunct of armed loyalism.

In truth, it played an important role in preventing Northern Ireland from descending into outright civil war and sustained severe casualties, as its mainly part-time soldiers were targeted viciously by the IRA.

None of this necessarily excuses the conduct of the security company behind the eviction, which will no doubt be investigated by the Gardai for any wrongdoing.

In the Republic, the incident will create a perfectly valid discussion about regulating repossession and how much force is legitimate if people will not leave property willingly.

A report in the Irish Daily Mirror quoted sources in the security industry that had very little good to say about the firm that was involved in the ruckus in Roscommon.

However, from a Northern Ireland perspective, more interesting were the role of Sinn Fein in inflaming opinion, the suspected involvement of republicans in reprisals, the tenor of media coverage and the anti-British hostility that seemed to characterise some of the public reaction.

The political background and the previous employment of the personnel involved should, by rights, have remained irrelevant to this story.

Many unionists in Northern Ireland served with distinction in the armed forces and are proud of their former regiments.

Likewise, they feel that their identity is British, in whole or in part.

Yet, it seems that these simple facts could be considered provocations or aggravating factors, if their job makes them unpopular in an all-Ireland republic.

That will surely make them think longer and harder about the prospect of Irish unity.