“Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29 year old woman with her whole life in front of her to get us to this point?”
When Father Magill spoke those words you could feel a swelling in the crowd in St Anne’s. From where I was sitting, it looked as though it started at the front and swept backwards. I remember getting to my feet without thinking, my friends on either side doing the same. The clapping felt cathartic, a release from the anger and hurt we’d all been feeling since we took a step inside the church.
Father Magill’s words struck a cord because he voiced what a lot of people were thinking. The reasons behind Northern Ireland’s political impasse are complex but why does tragedy focus the mind like nothing else? Why do our MLAs always do the right thing after the worst has happened?
Father Magill’s words weren’t aimed at individual politicians. Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster were in St Anne’s with Robin Swann, Colum Eastwood, Naomi Long and Claire Bailey. If a few of them were offended, so what? They should feel embarrassed. They should feel shame. They should ponder why people rose to their feet to support Father Magill instead of their own hurt feelings.
It’s surprising that prominent commentators have called Magill out for his words. On this, they don’t need to be defended.The leaders of the five largest political parties are grown adults. I’m pretty sure they’re used to criticism at this point. They’ve probably faced worse on the doors and in their constituency offices than what was said at Church last Wednesday. They’ll be fine.
Coverage of the funeral service has rightly focused on the standing ovation and Father Magill’s criticism of our MLAs. What is notable and disappointing is how other parts of Father Magill’s speech have been passed over for comment:
“The younger generation need jobs. They need a better health service and education. They need a life – not a gun put in their hands.”
“Many young people in the Creggan reasonably believe that, for all the talk of a new generation’s new attitudes and the promise of “moving on” to a brighter future, their own situation is not getting better but, if anything, getting worse.”
Many people across Northern Ireland are suffering because the Assembly isn’t functioning. The institutions returning would certainly be a start as we try to navigate this horror and the uncertainty of the future. The return of devolution, however, won’t be a simple fix to the problems within our society.
Cuts to the healthcare system, welfare reform, job insecurity and poverty are the reality for many people in Northern Ireland. The legacy for this lies at the feet of Westminster and Labour and Conservative governments but also previous Assembly Executives. Westminster dealt Stormont a bad hand when it came to welfare reform but the DUP, Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party can’t deny their hand in it. Bedroom Tax and Family Premium mitigation end next year and will, according to Advice NI, bring about ‘child poverty, food banks and mass evictions.’ That would humiliate me if I was a politician, not Father Magill.
If the Assembly returns, if Foster and O’Neill shake hands and continue on as normal, communities will continue to suffer. People should push for a functioning government in Northern Ireland but they need to fight for more. If our politicians feelings get hurt along the way, it’s a sign that we’re doing something right.
Sarah is a writer and lawyer from Belfast.