Bonfire 12


I have nothing against responsible bonfires on Eleventh night. It is a part of the culture of a large percentage of our Northern Ireland population. However, when flags and effigies, symbols of the people that God loves and Jesus gave his life for, are set on fire on the bonfires then it screams of a culture of hate. I pray for, and commit myself to, creating better cultures across our land.


Strike the match of supposed tradition

Listen for what the flames tell

In every flag or effigy burning

There’s a crackle of the devil’s yell

This is no cultural celebration

This is the hate of the clan

Sectarianism in petrol and wood

The fires of hell being fanned


So, let’s take all those empty pallets

Old tyres, their tread worn thin

Pile our pride there, way up high

With all our arrogance and sin

Hurl on myths that we’ve been told

All those lies and exaggerations

The caricatures we paint ourselves

That cripple our children and nation

Watch the sparks of repentance fall 

Our Troubles burn in the flickering light

Warmed by loving of even enemies

On a glorious bonfire night. 



(the house was my Grandparents thatched cottage in Galgorm)


I remember the arch going up. My grandfather put it up. Right there in the middle of Galgorm village, right outside my Grandparents thatched cottage. It was a moment in the year. I loved seeing the village landscape change and got so excited when my dad would drive under it for the first time.

Dad put the flag out. All the neighbours did the same. Maine Park was ready for the Twelfth Day.

I would decorate my toy golf club with red and blue tape. It would be criss crossed carefully and we might even add a wee tassel. It was suddenly the band leader’s pole which we twirled through our legs and twisted round our necks and threw as high as we could. The leader of Staffordstown band at the time was the best twirler and thrower; who we all pretended to be!

The Twelfth would be a carnival of sorts. My Grandfather marched with his Orange Lodge and we stood by the side of road waving at who we knew and waiting for Granda to walk by. Maybe some day I might get to carry the strings from the banner at the front of the lodge. 

I moved house in 1969. It was more middle class. No flags! None of my friends threw the pole. At the same time The Troubles started raging and all of the innocence of the above turned a little more sinister.

What am I surmising? Well, the first thing is that none of the above was in any way wrong. It was a cultural thing. I was unaware that it had anything to do with sectarianism or hatred. I even had Catholic friends who came to watch the parades too. 

Somewhere this all got hijacked. When arches and flags go up today and when bands march in certain places there is a different feel, a different intent. I am in no way trying to condone the actions of some who are using the carnival, I so enjoyed, to mark territory and stoke tensions. It is not right, not civil and certainly not Protestant!

Yet, I am asking many of us to stand back, stop for a moment and consider. For many of our Protestant Loyalist communities the Twelfth is still a cultural and neighbourhood event. The young boys love collecting for the bonfire, the young men love the discipline of the bands and can play some good tunes while marching. They love their band uniforms. The arch and the bunting all adds to the colour, flavour and excitement. 

Such communities should be allowed to enjoy their summer festival time. Let us be careful that we don’t just see the tabloid headlines of the few bad news events and miss the many good news stories unreported. I love the image a friend shared of the Romanian community in Ballymena out enjoying the bands with their GAA shirts on! 

Yes, we do need to ask about the way the flags are flown. When a flag is used to intimidate then the flag is desecrated. 

When a band plays insensitively in Catholic areas or outside Catholic Churches we should make it known that they are wrong and are bringing into disrepute the very Protestantism they are claiming to defend. 

When a bonfire is so high that it threatens those living around it, it is irresponsible and should be removed. When effigies of who they claim to be enemies or the Irish flag are burned then it is a blasphemy against God who loves people from every nation. That needs called out.

Barack Obama, in his eulogy to Rev Clementa Pinckney in Charleston in 2015, spoke about the confederate flag and how it is being used in a wrong way to incite fear and hate. He most beautifully and powerfully brought the great Protestant theology of grace to bear on it. It would be an act of grace to bring it down where it offends neighbour, he preached. That would be the mark of a good Protestant.

I look back on my days in Galgorm with fondness. If done in a way that is steeped in grace then not only should our loyalist communities have the right to celebrate their Twelfth but that grace will be the power house that will cause them to celebrate with all their might but gently towards their neighbours. 

Let us pray for community leaders, Church leaders, band leaders and political leaders who can steal back what is a right and a wonderful part of Northern Ireland’s rich tapestry of culture. Love your culture and when you love the God of your culture you will love your neighbour, and even your enemy, in the way you march, fly flags and light bonfires. 

Enjoy the Twelfth!


Lost Lives Church

photo from the film Lost Lives


“The bullets are still travelling.” 

It might have been Northern Irish portrait artist Colin Davidson who said that, while speaking at a 4 Corners Festival event about his Silent Testimony exhibition. 

Colin of course meant that the bullets and indeed bombs that killed people during our Troubles are still having their impact. For those who lost loved ones it is not back then, it is still now. I think that that is another line stolen from Colin.

Today is a Day Of Reflection in Northern Ireland. Every June 21st, the longest day, Healing Through Remembering invite the people of Northern Ireland to reflect on our loss. It will not be on your news bulletins. It is a more private thing. A remembering.

This year I have been reflecting a lot on those who lose loved ones and how the bullets and shrapnel is still impacting hearts and souls and minds. 

The Ballymurphy Massacre Inquest started my mind racing. As each of the families of the ten, who were declared innocent after fifty years, shared their traumatic stories I realised that we were listening to the toll of the Troubles. Too often we count the dead. We catalogue those killed. It is too easy to forget that the bullets are still travelling, the bomb still exploding.

I was suddenly quite emotional, thinking of those left behind. Parents, spouses, children who had to live with the consequences. There were economic consequences. There were empty chair consequences. Yet more than that the psychological impact of the trauma of loved ones killed in such violent and bloody circumstances.

I began to consider those I knew who lost loved ones. 

Today I am thinking of my friend whose mother could never come to terms with his father’s death that she had been far too close a witness. I thought of his brothers who never got over it and died of the consequences far too young, the bullets got them too. I had more admiration for my friend who had made it through.

Today I am thinking of my friend who was left in a wheel chair after his neighbours, the target of the gunmen, never returned so they just riddled him with bullets instead. Turning away from cold blooded revenge he now studies peace building at Queens University Belfast and has contributed immensely for victims and survivors.

Today I am thinking of a former colleague who also lost father. He was only two. I thought of his Godly attitude of forgiveness and reconciliation. My admiration grew and grew reflecting on his desire to look forward to a peaceful future than any kind of vengeance.

Today I am thinking of another friend, his sister and mother. His dad was blown up on the day that his mother was going to share the news that they were expecting him. This is a family that inspires me so much. A mother who somehow left with the most horrendous situation brought two amazing children up to live for reconciliation 

On this day of reflection it is these are the quiet heroes that I am quietly remembering. How did they manage to divert the bullets and shrapnel still flying to find resilience and strength and grace in such circumstances. 

These are the unsung heroes who don’t want sung about who in many ways paid for our peace (might be Colin again) and who now work for our future when the card they were dealt could have led them down so many cul-de-sacs of our past. 

Today I reflection… remember… and pray… 



Patrick Magee writes in his concluding postscript to his honest and open memoir how a moment in the middle of his life changed it. That moment was one of two that defines his life, at least in public terms. 

With the first, this second one would mean nothing. The first is that Patrick Magee is the ‘Brighton Bomber’. He is the IRA man who blew up the Grand Hotel where the Conservative Party delegates were staying during their 1984 Conference. 

Five were killed, some were left disabled and many others injured in the blast. One of those who lost their lives was Conservative MP and Deputy Chief-Whip Anthony Berry. 

Magee’s life changing event was when Berry’s daughter Jo sought him out wanting to understand the motivation of the killer of her father. Brave decision. Challenging for the bomber. Those first few hours in a room with Jo Berry are what Magee describes as perhaps the most significant moment.

It certainly is in the book. If we divide the book into three. We get Magee’s formation personally and politically in family and his experiences of nationalist Belfast, his joining the IRA because he thought then and still thinks now that it was the only way to deal with British and Unionist oppressors. Then there was the experience of Long Kesh as a prisoner. 

We then get his volunteering to be part of IRA campaigns in England, that pivotal moment of the Brighton Bomb and then his time in prison where he starts work on a PhD on how fictional novels about The Troubles misrepresents the Republican narrative and the real reasons for their campaign.

I found all of this a little bit of a trudge. For me it was slow. That might be because of my own upbringing in very different circumstances to Magee’s. I will come back to it though. That might be more important than I found it enjoyable.

For me the third section was where it all came alive. At that meeting with Jo Berry. From then on we have the memoir of a man who becomes a friend of the woman whose father he had killed. The rest of the book is about making space for reconciliation and as someone interested in such things I was fascinated. 

Jo Berry’s courage, grace and generosity of spirit needs huge respect in all of this. She isn't soft writing about their dialogue in her Foreword.  As well as Jo Berry, Magee finds Harvey Thomas also blown up in the bomb reaching out to him. Thomas is motivated to forgive by his Christian faith. Elsewhere forgiveness is recognised a difficult word. 

All these questions fill the last third of the book as Magee and Berry continue their dialogue, find themselves in TV documentaries and speaking at various Universities and Peace platforms. We even find a couple of pages where Patrick and Jo speak at a 4 Corners festival event, though he calls the Festival after the name of that evening’s event - Listening To Our Enemies. More of that in another blog.

I found it all thought provoking and helpful in my own thinking. What was most challenging and most difficult is what is probably most needed.

Patrick Magee is called upon time after time to claim that the IRA military campaign is wrong. It will be a very difficult read if that is what you are looking for. Magee admits the apparent contradictions in himself - “My own conflict is that I stand over my actions and yet profoundly regret the hurt inflicted.”

As well as working tirelessly for peace, in these past 20 years, Patrick Magee has also been keen to be an apologist for the Republican campaign. This is the challenging part of the book. Yet, as we live through all our decade of centenaries and surmise how we might move forward with two very different stories, Magee might just highlight one of the keys to unlock a better future - “The last and perhaps greatest obstacle to a shared future is the battle of narrative.”

As a result of the engagement that both Jo Berry and Harvey Thomas has offered him, Magee has experienced the benefit of dialogue and contact. It has allowed him to humanise the other. I imagine it has been the kind of challenge to him as reading this book might be to many of the victims of the IRA. Narratives need shared. Understanding needs sought. Humanising each other’s other needs to result.

If you are interested in such then take on the challenge of this memoir.



In the midst of some disappointing news in Northern Ireland over the past week, there is something very positive happening.

The week long images of streets on fire across Belfast, and elsewhere, was a horrible reminder of how sectarianism can so quickly raise its ugly head and leave some of our communities polarised and too easily turn to violence.

Brexit, the Northern Ireland protocol and the fall out of the Bobby Storey funeral has unsettled our fault-lines and when politicians seek to play to their voters in such shifts it can get even more dangerous.

Something is different though and I do not want us to miss it. Indeed I long that we notice it, highlight and encourage it.

The Churches are making joint statements and they are being heard. To hear politicians at Westminster quoting church leaders has lifted my soul.

A few years ago I was involved in Peace Talks with the politicians and military leaders of a country with its own divisions and violence. Professor John Brewer was explaining to this group that Northern Ireland’s Troubles were not religious. It was more political and tribal.

Much as I agreed that the murder and bombings of our Troubles were not about justification by faith, how we revere Jesus mother Mary or about what the bread and wine become and do during Communion, I did think that there was religious dimension.

I guess I was actually influenced by John Brewer’s writings about the churches lack of involvement in peace and reconciliation during those horrific years. Yes, we can look to Fr Alec Reid who was so instrumental in getting the IRA into talks and others like Rev Harold Good and Rev Ken Newell along with Fr Gerry Reynolds as contributors to the peace we finally found in the 90s.

However, my argument was that the hierarchy of Churches were not seen as crossing our sectarian boundaries. They skirted around each other, many of their clergy holding back real contributions. As a result though the war on the street was not at all religious, there was a religious apartheid that mirrored the streets, almost endorsed it. 

As well as that it meant that the Churches were not involved in their calling to be peace makers. We have every right to stand accused of a passive complicity.

Something has changed. It is a good thing. We are beginning to see 4 Church leaders together. We are seeing them not just having a civil cup of tea together we are hearing joint statements. During the Troubles, Churches were accused of pastoring their own communities rather than making prophetic statements into the whole community.

We must have it. I am delighted that at the moment we do. Watching Church leaders being honest about their differences but to find common ground where they can make comment about ways to fuel the common good. Standing together. Being photographed together. Speaking together. It challenges the divisions and gives an alternative. Thank you. 



I have just been watching the Northern Ireland Local Assembly discuss the violence that has been on our streets for these past few nights. After the frustration and hopelessness of the images of burning cars and buses and teenagers throwing whatever they could hurl it was a little chink of light.

The Assembly is on Easter break and needed a 30 signature petition to be recalled for a special one off motion to call an end to the violence and to support the PSNI. 

I listened to the speeches from across the parties with some encouragement. All were agreed. All were concerned about those teenagers, drawn in by paramilitaries, in violent actions that could damage their futures. All were seeking dialogue as to the way forward. All were asking for a better future than our past. 

I was drawn back though to the Easter snow falls earlier in the week. I wished to be in Ballycastle but the Covid-19 restrictions said no and so I was reading Jan Carson’s new book The Last Resort. It is set in a Ballycastle caravan park but here I am statically stuck in Belfast.

Then the snow started. Not light flurries but blizzard like, blowing fiercely at right angles. So much of it. I loved it. Watching it out the window was like post Easter show of God’s to keep us amused when there was very little of anything else new to do.

Yet, in all its visual wonder, in all its blow and bluster it was the biggest waste of snow I had ever seen. It wasn’t lying. There was no chance of it lying. What point is there in all the flouncy white flurry if it wasn’t going to stick. 

Maybe it was my Bank Holiday novel reading mindset but I was immediately recalling a Douglas Coupland quote from his novel Hey Nostradamus that goes, “We are judged by our deeds not our wishes. We are the sum of our decisions.” 

My immediate thoughts just hours after we celebrated Easter Sunday and before that remembered Good Friday was of the Church.

That image of snow falling without making a mark and Coupland’s need for deeds reminded me of what James wrote in his New Testament letter, “faith without works is dead” or Jesus going on about people calling him Lord Lord and he didn’t even know who they were or him going on about how it by their fruit you shall know them.

Oh Paul reminds us in Ephesians that we are saved by grace and not works so that no one can boast or become arrogant about it but society can rightfully judge the church by how the energies of Jesus Easter weekend changes the lives of the homeless, the hungry, the sick and the prisoner. 

This afternoon though the snow showers were in my head again as I listened to our politicians toss appropriate words out like floating flurries of goodness. Will they just disappear in the air without any lasting impression? Words without transformation are dead.

What we need now is some reassessment. Sinn Fein need to accept the shocking error of the numbers at Bobby Storey’s funeral. And, before the DUP gloat, Arlene Foster’s refusal to speak to the Chief Constable has implications as to how unionist and loyalists see the police on their streets. The depth charges of these two things have been rippling out. 

If we are going to get the mature dialogue hinted at in today’s speeches then we need to be big and strong enough to confess mistakes and to make a clean sheet for moving forward. Those would ripple much healthier messages across our society that has understandably been thrown by Covid-19 and Brexit.

Today I am praying for every MLA. I am praying that you find the courage and vision to sit down and listen and compromise and find pragmatic ways forward for the common good of us all and let go of the ideologies that are about "just us". "Just us" never brings justice. 

And then to us all… Let us watch to see if these political words land. Let us refuse to be stuck like some static caravan in a Jan Carson novel. Let us hear Douglas Coupland’s quotation in our ears at the ballot box… Let’s not vote for wishes but deeds. Let us vote on the sum of each party’s decisions! 


Fr martin et moi

(Fr Martin Magill's Belfast Telegraph column on Saturday 27 March 2021) 


In a previous article for this column, I referred to an initiative by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) which led to the publication of Considering Grace, a book which explored how Presbyterians responded to the Troubles. To prepare for my contribution this week, I had a phone conversation with Rev Tony Davidson, from First Armagh Presbyterian Church who is the chairperson of “Dealing with the Past” the group within PCI which came up with the idea of the book.

Tony explained to me the approach which the committee took to the project which included  exploring the past -Truthfully, Therapeutically, and Together. He also explained how they went about finding people to contribute to Considering Grace. 

The book itself by Gladys Ganiel and Jamie Yohanis is in my opinion a ‘must read’. It was written by Gladys with Jamie having conducted the majority of the interviews and transcriptions, as well as providing feedback on the drafts.  I won’t say I “enjoyed” it because the authors “spoke to more victims than any other category” or group and it was painful to read about their suffering which for some continues to this day.

I commend the Presbyterian Church In Ireland for the courage and commitment in the way they went about the book knowing that the Church as an institution would not at times come out well in it. At times it doesn’t! In her foreword to Considering Grace, journalist Susan McKay writes: “Many people feel the Church was too timid in the face of the aggressive scorn poured on it by Ian Paisley in his belligerent days as leader of the Free Presbyterians”. There were also comments critical of PCI for its lack of support of its own ministers involved in “peace and reconciliation”. Two ministers working in North Belfast said this: “We didn’t feel supported by the Presbyterian Church as such. No one centrally contacted us during tense periods, and that was hard.” 

The issue of peacemaking was touched on throughout the book with a certain theme running through the comments well captured by this statement: 

“Quiet peacemakers persisted because they believed churches could contribute to peace. But for this to be fully realised, they believed churches must make peacemaking central to their missions, rather than treating it as an ‘optional add-on’.”

Standing back from the project and whilst acknowledging the criticism of PCI, I believe the Church needs credit for doing so. As I look at our society so many organisations resort to spin and presenting themselves in the best light, here we have PCI having the humility to embark on a project which would bring to light criticism from its own people. How many other organisations have done the same? Let me throw out this - what about some of the other Churches, adopting a similar approach and see what comes of it? 

Considering Grace presented various challenges such as how does a worshipping community respond when a traumatic event happened in the previous week. Several people gave examples of violence taking place in their community and no reference made to it at the Sunday worship. 

Aaron (not his real name) had this to say about dealing the past: “Somebody needs to have some vision and take some leadership on how to deal with the past, because it’s not going away, is it?” 

In this well written book, Considering Grace we have the example of the Presbyterian Church In Ireland showing leadership and offering one way of dealing with the past. 

This week’s scripture verses come from the book and were quoted by people who spoke to Jamie or Gladys: 

Monday: Matthew 28:20

Tuesday: Ephesians 3:20

Wednesday: Philippians 4:7

Thursday: Proverbs 3:5

Friday: Romans 12:19 


Peace Day

The stories of Jesus birth and the theology within is not just for Christmas. It is for all year round!

The peace that the angels sang about that first Christmas is not some Christina side show but at the core of Jesus incarnation and the purposes of God.

My favourite band Over The Rhine have been exemplary at the first. They make records like Blood Oranges In The Snow. It is not just another great Christmas album. It is another great album - period (as their fellow Americans would say!).

I love that record and it was indeed a song on it that opened up the importance of peace in God's redemption plan in ways I had not got the full impact of before. A few of the lines jumped out from the rest of the brilliance and torpedoed its way into my soul surmising. 

As they sang…

“I hope that we can still believe

The Christ child holds a gift for us

Are we able to receive

Peace on earth this Christmas”

… something clicked. It is not a new line. I have been living with this line most of my life. I cannot remember a time in my childhood when I didn’t hear it at Christmas time. I heard it for years before I even believed that what it was talking about was any kind of reality. For the last thirty years I have worked the phrase annually. One of my other favourite bands U2 even had a song called this and I have written about that song.

However, in this song that near over familiar line, “Peace on earth this Christmas”, struck a chord as loud as any Jimmy Page strum and as spiritually powerful as an Old Testament prophet or actually a New Testament angel on the night God came to earth! 

“Peace, Steve, Peace” is what my soul kept repeating. It is not about justice or vengeance, it is not about proving who was right or wrong. It is not about us and them and us winning. The point of this mission that God had in coming to earth was peace. That peace was not just for my soul. It was about peace on earth. Anyone following this Jesus whose birth is heralded in this angel’s song should be all about peace. 

This of course is not an out of the blue declaration of a God reaching for some Plan B or C. The Old Testament was all about this peace; shalom is how the Jewish people said it. Shalom was God’s intention in the law given, for the King’s to achieve and for the prophets to critique the lack of. A favourite verse on the subject that I have blogged often is Jeremiah 29:7 “And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace.” (NKJV)

Those who claim to follow the baby born when the angels sang need to find that priority of peace. That God’s people would seek shalom wherever they were was a way of being God’s holy nation, a people set apart, different, in all the right ways, from the other nations. We need to not blend in to the world’s intuitive response to seek to be proven right, in control and avenging all who would come against us. We need to be about that ministry of reconciliation that God told us we would be about just as we are connected to God himself through that same ministry of his peace making.

On this International Peace Day, I commit afresh to the Gospel priority and commit to it with renewed courage, hope and all the grace that is intrinsic to the baby born and sadly often lacking on our streets, political buildings and even our churches - all the year round!

SHOUT THEIR NAMES OUT LOUD (For Those Who Were Killed in The Omagh Bomb)

Omagh poem


Sitting somewhere in middle America

I am transported by a song

From a screen it booms me back 

To the place that I belong

And the singer cries to God

Like its some cathartic prayer

Lamentation and hopefulness, one

A hundred thousand hands in the sir

And these tears rolling down my face

Remember the wisdom a student says

This long road to peace is longer

After you’ve used bloody and violent ways


The singer shouts their names out loud

Like a sacred vow

A holy somehow

That our hearts would bow

To a grace healed now.


Gareth Conway

Mary Grimes

Brenda Logue

Esther Gibson

Avril Monaghan and 

Her daughter, Maria Monaghan

Adrian Gallagher

Anne McCombe

Alan Radford

Elizabeth Rush

Lorraine Wilson

Deborah Cartwright

Julie Hughes

Jolene Marlow

Samantha McFarland

Veda Short

Geraldine Breslin

Olive Hawkes

Brian McCrory

Sean McGrath

Fred White 

His son, Brian White

Breda Devine

Philomena Skelton

James Barker 

Oran Doherty 

Sean McLoughlin

Fernando Blasco Baselga

Rocio Abad Ramos


Yes, shout their names out loud

Like a sacred vow

A holy somehow

That our hearts would bow

To a grace healed now...


"...No more

No more

No more..."










I have just finished Colum McCann’s astounding novel Apeirogon and above everything else that struck me was a Rumi quotation - “Out beyond the ideas of wrong doing and right doing, there is a field. I will meet you there”.


Surely, of all our Northern Irish politicians John Hume got closer towards that field than most of the rest. Though I grew up to be suspicious of the nationalist SDLP it was a lazy binary politics that heaped John Hume on the other side of the barricade amongst the IRA.


Fr Martin Magill have long debated with Sinn Fein that there was a better way to take the anger and frustration at the injustice and inequality of the Protestant state for a Protestant people that Northern Ireland was built on. Why violence we ask?


John Hume was the one who took the Martin Luther King Jr road rather than the ANC route. Hume didn’t believe in the violence. He worked for peace. I always think of that day that Fr Alec Reid brought him the envelope containing the conditions by which the IRA would enter talks. 


Fr Alec had just attempted the kiss of life on two British soldiers, brutally murdered at an IRA funeral outside Casement Park. He had to get a new envelope at Clonard Monastery before driving to give it to John Hume because there was blood from the soldiers on the original. 


In that one afternoon, yet another tragic one in our Troubles, with paramilitaries and British soldiers and bloody murder there was a priest and a politician seeking the field beyond the right and wrong.


It is that evening that I thank God for when I watch my children grow up in a different Northern Ireland than I did. That day ended with a dawning after the darkest of beginnings. 


David Trimble would join that process on down the road and again today I was giving thanks for his courage. The most difficult thing in bringing two intransigent sides together especially after decades bloodshed, murder and grief is to bring your suspicious, hurting side along with you. On Good Friday 1998 Hume and Trimble achieve that rarest of things in Irish history. They well deserved their Nobel Peace Prize.


That field at the other side of whoever has their opinion of right and wrong. Oh I dream about it, I try to imagine it and I attempt to make my own tiny contribution on our journey towards it. John Hume gave us all a huge leap down that road. He did it for all of us, whoever we are, wherever we are from and whatever we think about him. 


I know many on the side of the barricade that I grew up might not see that today but I believe that when we get past our right and wrong we will come to understand that.