Reverend Roy Magee: Presbyterian minister who worked hard to bring Ulster loyalists into the peace process
Tuesday 10 February 2009
The Reverend Roy Magee was one of Northern Ireland's peacemakers, a member of that small, lonely and isolated band who believed that direct personal approaches to the bombers and gunmen would eventually bring peace. His work, and that of others suchas John Hume, eventually paidoff, although the road to today's largely peaceful Belfast took much difficult and dangerous effort, punctuatedby many disappointments and discouragements.
But Magee lived long enough to see his decades of patience and determination eventually rewarded by success, and he was honoured – in some quarters at least – for his role in persuading extreme loyalists to move away from killings. He persevered, in his earnest quiet way, even though many urged him to stop talking to "unreachable" loyalist groups. Critics argued that maintaining contact with them was actively dangerous, since the gunmen might see this as implicit sanction for their violence. But in the end he was vindicated, since the peace process he urged them to join eventually resulted in ceasefires.
One of the tributes to him came from a senior loyalist, Frankie Gallagher, who said: "He was a pillar for people in the loyalist community going through difficult times. If it was not for him there would have been a lot more people killed."
Magee had particular insight into the loyalist mind because he himself came from a north Belfast Protestant ghetto, Ballysillan, which during the Troubles saw plenty of paramilitary activity. His father was a fitter inan engineering firm and Magee followed him in this, working also as an office junior and a rent collector after leaving school at the age of 14. After attending technical college hedeveloped an ambition to become a Presbyterian minister.
When the Troubles broke out in the late 1960s he was a minister in atough loyalist area and joined many residents who took to patrollingthe streets at night. For some, however, these early essentially defensive vigilante activities led on to aggressive violence.
Although Magee himself was never involved in violence he joined Ulster Vanguard, a hardline group which served as an umbrella group covering both political and paramilitary organisations. During those times he made contacts which would prove useful decades later. He was to say: "In a strange way, I look back and think that God was forging relationships that He could use." But long years, filled with thousands of deaths, were to pass before Magee became actively in touch again with loyalists.
In the meantime, one of his grimmest moments came in 1978 when 12 people, seven of them women, were killed by an IRA firebomb atLa Mon House, a country hotel beyond the outskirts of east Belfast. Thedead were incinerated by a fireball which produced an effect similar to napalm. Several of the dead were parishioners of Magee's church: he had to wait during the night with the daughters, aged 12 and 13, of the Nelsons, one of the dead couples. Because of the horrific burns it took days to identify the couple.
Magee said later: "By a process of elimination it was disclosed that what was left in the mortuary, what pieces of charred bone were left, was probably Paul and Dorothy Nelson."
Three years later IRA violence again touched him at a personal level when the IRA shot dead the Reverend Robert Bradford, an MP who was also a Protestant minister. Magee described him as the brother hehad never had.
Such violence left Magee witha sense not that men of violence should be shunned but that someone should talk to them. On the republicanside, it would emerge that from the mid-1980s on, a variety of contactshad been established with Sinn Fein and the IRA.
Those involved in what were then ultra-secret activities included the British and Irish governments and figures in the Catholic Church such as the Redemptorist priest Father Alex Reid. Magee and Reid were later to do much work together. But in the early years few peace feelers were being sent out to loyalist groups such as the Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force. Republicans were always seen as the key to peace, even though loyalists were killing more people than the IRA.
By the early 1990s Magee was immersed in the loyalist paramilitary underworld, telling its leaders thatthe troubles had gone on long enough and that the time for peace wasat hand. This was a tough job, since both the UDA and UVF were regularly gunning down large numbers of Catholic civilians in attacks on pubs and bookies' shops.
Many other potential peacemakers quietly left the picture, sickened and deterred by the flow of blood. But Magee persisted, later explaining, "Even though they may have been vicious people and violent people, they have problems. They have difficulties that need to be addressed."
He added: "My talks began many years ago when the groups were bona fide community organisations. I built up a trust with them. When they got into murder I thought I could use that trust to persuade them to come away from violence."
Part of his problem was that the paramilitary loyalists were legendarily suspicious, often to the point of paranoia. Thus when it looked as though peace might be in prospect this set off not celebrations but alarm bells: there must, they thought, be some sort of sinister secret deal being worked out with the IRA.
The loyalist scene included some elements, such as Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair, who as his nickname correctly suggests, was utterly uninterestedin peace and in fact revelled in continuing conflict. But there were alsomore thoughtful elements in the loyalist ranks, and Magee concentrated on these. It was also evident that – with occasional exceptions such as the late David Ervine – most loyalistswere scarcely capable of providing positive leadership.
This made all the more important the guidance and encouragement supplied by those such as Magee, who helped them analyse what was in their own interests. So insistent was he that some loyalists referred to him as "the Rev Ceasefire."
An important subterranean routeof communication opened in 1993 when an aide to the then IrishPrime Minister, Albert Reynolds,saw Magee on television and recommended contacting him. Reynoldwas to recall: "Roy Magee used to come and see me in my own office.The two of us talked at length, with nobody present, no record kept, so there was a matter of trust between the two of us to build up a good relationship and to make others feel that their voices were being listened to in Dublin as well."
As Magee remembered this period: "I saw it as my duty to speak to him and to relay to him the fears of the Loyalist paramilitaries."
Reynolds said of Magee: "He was very straight-talking, open, very determined in where he was trying to go to. He appreciated that there was a genuine attempt being made by the Irish Government, through me, to recognise the fears of the loyalist community and where they were coming from."
Although loyalist violence wasrunning at a high level, Magee assured Reynolds that opinion was changing and developing within the loyalist underworld. Reynolds acceptedhis assurances that at least some ofthe loyalists wanted to abandon the gun. Eventually in the mid-1990s,first the IRA and then the loyalists declared ceasefires. But these didnot bring complete peace, with occasional killings from both sides and in particular lethal outbreaks of inter-loyalist feuding.
Much of this sprang from internal power struggles based on individual fiefdoms and on who should control racketeering and the drugs trade.As Magee himself said: "Much of what is happening now is in the realmof gangsterism." He none the less agreed to requests to mediate between rival loyalist factions, though most of those involved at that stage were, many regretfully concluded, truly unreachable.
In his final years, when he suffered from Parkinson's disease, Magee received a number of awards in honour of his peacemaking activities. His funeral in Belfast was attended by senior loyalists and by Albert Reynolds. They mingled together, the Protestant paramilitaries and the Irish nationalist leader, in a proximity which would have been unthinkable before Magee began his mission. The presence of both signified the bridge he had helped build between them.
Roy Magee, Presbyterian minister, political activist: born Belfast 3 January 1930; married 1958 Maureen Reynolds (deceased 2007, two children); 2004 OBE; died 31 January 2009.
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