Northern Ireland needs a body lobbying for social integration, learning from the success of the Integrated Education Fund in its work promoting integrated schools, says Father Martin Magill. Without an agency pushing the integrated housing agenda, it will be difficult to make sufficient progress, he says. Martin was interviewed in the latest Forward Together podcast.
“I grew up living in a neighbourhood where my next door neighbour was Presbyterian; further on down the road Church of Ireland; further down the road, Methodist,” recalls Martin. “We were various Christian denominations. My home area is people living side by side. For me, that’s one of the most important things. I’m aware, for example, of the Integrated Education Fund and we hear a lot of that. I hear nothing to the same degree on encouraging integrated housing. And I really would like to see the likes of integrated neighbourhoods.”
He continues: “The sort of society I believe that we need to see for the city [of Belfast], Northern Ireland, Ireland, whatever, is where we can live together, where there are various religions…. faiths generally – those with faith and those without faith….. I would like to see a strategic body focusing, especially, on housing.”
Like many other Forward Together interviewees, Martin is positive about the principle of civic engagement. “I might use the old cliché, politics is too important to be left to the politicians alone.” He continues: “I would be very keen that we look again at the whole question of some type of civic forum. For me, there was a huge value in that. I mean, the whole idea of bringing people from a variety of different backgrounds is really important.”
But Martin is concerned at the low level of voter turn-out at local elections. “And yet at the same time, when I’m talking to people… they’re very interested in the type of society they want.” Martin adds: “I think it’s important that people realize they can make a difference, that their views matter, their opinions matter.” And while he has concerns about the outcome of the Republic’s citizens’ assemblies discussions on abortion, he says about the use of the assemblies “there’s something worth exploring there”.
In a previous Forward Together interview, Peter Sheridan of Co-operation Ireland raised the idea of neighbourhood citizens’ assemblies to address the conditions that lead to recruitment of young people by paramilitaries. Martin responds to that idea: “I’m part of a group called Stop Attacks. So, yes, I can see what he would be talking about.” But, he cautions, “sometimes people are reluctant to speak when it comes to that issue.”
Martin is more positive about the concept of participatory budgeting, giving people more control over public spending in their own areas. “I think that could be of real value,” he says. “That’s the sort of direction that I’m going… I think that could be a very useful way of helping us come together as a larger group, as a community.”
Another initiative Martin favours is “community champions” – people who take a lead in making neighbourhoods more diverse. “I would like to see something more strategic. I would like to see what I call community champions. I am aware of people who have purposely chosen to live in areas that wouldn’t be necessarily their first choice. I would know of a number of people. I think we need more of that.”
Martin is also a strong supporter of moves that achieve reconciliation. He gives the example of the meetings between Brighton bomber Patrick Magee and Jo Berry, whose father was killed in the blast. “That acted as a catalyst for people to come and tell their stories,” he recalls. “They wanted to tell their stories.”
One of the advantages of that process of reconciliation is the humanising of those involved, including those who died. Another example of that approach was the inter-faith event where there was a reading of the complete list of those who died in the Troubles. “The focus we wanted was on people’s suffering, rather than getting into the details of how this person died and was this person an innocent victim or a perpetrator or whatever. We instead focused on the people that the loved ones left behind. Irrespective of what he or she or they did, inevitably people would be left to suffer as a consequence of their death.”
Martin also reflected on the reaction to his comments at the funeral of Lyra McKee. “I was completely taken by surprise,” he says. “The reaction I got was in the middle of a sentence. It was probably really that evening that I began to realize, oh, gosh, this has got quite a bit of traction. It’s probably only really in the days afterwards that I then got a sense of just the impact of it. Immediately afterwards, it felt like almost a tsunami of attention: letters, phone calls, emails, it just went on and on and on and on.
“But now, one of the things is that I’m very conscious that I want to make sure I am well grounded. I had to make a big effort to do that. In many ways it really has given me an opportunity out of a really tragic situation to be able to speak into situations.”
There is a sense now, though, that the immediate impact has waned. “I would want to see a real momentum again,” says Martin. “If we go back to the moment in the cathedral – not focusing on me, but focusing on the response that people actually had both inside and outside the cathedral and well beyond that. Our politicians, I really would encourage them not to focus on me, but focus on the response of people. There was something very telling for me. That was like a catalyst moment. I really do believe that needs to be made the most of.”
Martin’s other message to politicians though is about the peace dividend, that Northern Ireland society expected to enjoy after the Good Friday Agreement – but for which many poorer communities are still awaiting. “The peace dividend should be seen as something that we should all enjoy. Not just some of us, but all of us.”
The latest podcast interview is available here. The podcasts are also available on iTunes and Spotify.
- Holywell Trust receives support for the Forward Together Podcast through the Media Grant Scheme and Core Funding Programme of Community Relations Council and Good Relations Core Funding Programme of Derry City and Strabane District Council.
Paul Gosling is editor of ‘Lessons from the Troubles and an Unsettled Peace’, author of ‘A New Ireland’ and ‘The Fall of the Ethical Bank’ and co-author of ‘Abuse of Trust’, the story of a child abuse scandal in Leicestershire. He is engaged by the Holywell Trust charity on peace and reconciliation projects.