I was recently delighted to welcome Father Martin Magill to Bangor. It was my first occasion meeting a Catholic priest and I found him to be genuine, warm and sincerely interested in my community and my vision of Loyalism.
Father Magill came into the heart of a loyalist area, bedecked with Union flags, Ulster flags and flags commemorating the Ulster Volunteer Force of 1912. He drove past a memorial garden to fallen volunteers of the Ulster Volunteer Force, Red Hand Commando and Ulster Defence Association. I am sure Father Magill felt out of his comfort zone, he had nothing to gain from coming to this area to meet with me, but yet he expressed his desire to do so because he valued the benefit of human and indeed uncomfortable conversations.
Father Magill came to engage with me in a human conversation because he feels that reconciliation can best be built by having genuine dialogue and seeking understanding by engaging with people on a human level. He sought no publicity from his visit and nor was there any alternative agenda or Trojan horses at play. His uncomfortable conversation with me was not for the optics or to promote or advance some political agenda- I had to ask the Fathers permission to even publicise the fact he had taken the time to visit.
I showed Father Magill around one of the bonfires in the area, I explained the work that had been put in by young men from the area in fundraising and collecting for the bonfire and the children’s party that will take place on the 11th July. He was genuinely interested in how the bonfire was built and asked questions about the cultural significance; he was keen to ascertain whether we viewed the bonfire as a cultural celebration or commemoration.
One of the local bonfire builders arrived at the site during Father Magill’s visit and spoke with the priest about his love for the bonfire and his culture and the bonfire builder also expressed his commitment and desire to ensure that bonfires remain traditional rather than becoming drink and drug rave parties, with a lot of funding from the local Council. I have long advocated bonfires remain traditional rather than becoming a dance or a rave disco, what has that good to do with Loyalism, Unionism or Protestantism?
The bonfire we were standing at receives no council funding. All donations come from the bonfire builders or the local community themselves. The price of maintaining a traditional bonfire is forfeiting the £2,300 on offer to compromise the traditional nature of the bonfire in favour of a more ‘modern’ and ‘friendly’ bonfire or beacon. The resistance to this Trojan horse scam by the local council was unambiguous and it was unanimous from this bonfire.
I explained the significance of the various flags that adorned every lamppost and expressed our feelings of pride in these flags, the cultural significance behind them but also how the flying of such flags acts as a defiant message from a community and a people who genuinely feel under siege. This is a genuine feeling that those sincerely seeking to build reconciliation must not ignore.
Many people take to social media to trot out the clichés about reconciliation, none more so than Sinn Fein who stage manage ‘uncomfortable conversations’ so as to fit into their ‘reaching out’ narrative and pro-peace process agenda. The Sinn Fein project should be re-named ‘just a wee bit uncomfortable conversations.’
Others pontificate from an ivory tower about how loyalism is the dregs of society and is to blame for all Northern Irelands problems. These same people seek to put themselves on a pesdestal so as they will be recognised as on par with respected academics such as Peter Shirlow, Sophie Long, Dave Magee and Tony Novosel. The fact is they wouldn’t lace the shoelaces of any of the aforementioned academics. I have dealt with all of those I have mentioned, besides Tony Novosel, and never once have I detected sneering pontification or a looking down their nose attitude.
Those respected academics play a positive role by asking difficult questions but doing so by engaging with communities, both loyalist and republican, in face to face genuine dialogue or as Father Magill would describe it, human conversations.
That is the type of reconciliation or peace building that I feel I could be part of, not the political role play of Sinn Fein or the pontificating by those who believe that loyalism is a dirty word, used to describe an underclass of people responsible for holding society back.
A lot of people, especially within the republican and nationalist community, can take a lesson from Father Magill. I am overtly hostile to the Catholic Church; I despise their doctrine and have previously described the Pope as the anti-Christ. I am also unashamedly anti-agreement and an outspoken opponent of mandatory coalition power sharing, yet I found myself having a very human and sincere conversation with a Catholic priest and coming away from that conversation feeling that if there were more within the broader Catholic, Nationalist and Republican community with the attitude and genuine sincerity of Father Magill, then perhaps better relationships could be fostered- even with those who are diametrically opposed.
Sadly I suspect that Father Magill is in a minority, and within his own community I believe that he would be dwarfed by those who seek the destruction and eradication of all I hold dear, and many of those same people are using the honeyed words of peace and reconciliation in their attempts to do so.
Uncomfortable conversations is when a Catholic priest comes into the middle of a loyalist estate and stands for over an hour on a pallet- at a bonfire- conversing with someone such as myself, who has been described as an ‘extremist’ and ‘Protestant fundamentalist’ and talking with bonfire builders, some of whom who have never met a Catholic never mind held a conversation with a priest.
I am pretty sure Father Magill didn’t like or agree with much of what he saw or heard, but he sought to understand why we expressed ourselves in such a way.
I doubt Father Magill will be heading back to North Belfast a loyalist convert, but at least I believe as a result of his desire to engage with those from another community, he will perhaps understand our culture a little bit better. I valued the couple of hours I spent in his company and it gave even me, the most zealous opponent of compromise or reconciliation, some food for thought.