Stormont NI No Entry


Tonight is not a good night in our wee country. Tomorrow we await strikes across the land, strikes that will impact us all but at this stage we might all be up for finding a picket line to stand in solidarity. 

We are all fed up. No government is causing us a collapsing health service, our school system stretched, lack of housing and so much more. 

For political principles the population suffers on and on.

Today we all feel that it might be over. Our institutions seem beyond repair. We shout in anger. We scream in frustration. We sigh in resignation. 

I rewrote this...



Pragmatic and imaginative

Visions of our future

Flourishing together

Not crushing the petals



We know now

Almost finally know

It will not trickle down

It is dammed up, 

High on the hill

By lock keepers, 

Captive to Ulster thran

Impoverished of give and take

Of listening, understanding and empathy.

Dammed up 

By the gouged out rotten trees of history 

Churned up by trauma and blame

Dammed up

By the rusty armalites and armoured tanks

Dammed up 

By the stagnancy of fear 

That strategically refuses to erode the old banks

To create new directions 

For the carrying of fresh water



It will not trickle down

Dammed up

It will damn us at the bottom

Leave us in hopelessness 

Begging the question

When will we flood peace up the hill

Power hosing down the mess of who we were

Pumping fresh springs of who we can be

Bursting through all that is dammed up?


Peace flows up.



Fr Alec 5



Wednesday, 29 November 7.30pm in Clonard Church

includes a showing of the documentary 14 DAYS (60 minutes)

Light refreshments in the monastery after. All welcome.

14 Days is an amazing piece of documentary.

When the directors, Dermot Lavery and Jonathan Golden from Doubleband Films, started thinking about remembering the worst 14 days in the Northern Irish Troubles they felt that it was too inflammatory.

In that short time span three unarmed members of the IRA were murdered in Gibraltar as they planned a bombing. That they were shot and not arrested raised tensions in Republican communities.

At their funerals a mad loyalist terrorist Michael Stone started shooting and throwing hand grenades, killing three and injuring sixty mourners.

Then at the funeral of two of those victims two British soldiers got somehow caught up in the huge cortege and were dragged from their car and murdered.

It was a time of bloody carnage and poisonous tension. Both sides could have been enraged at the remembering. In the midst of all this Dermot and Jonathan started to investigate Fr Alec Reid’s story.

They discovered a Catholic priest pastoring his own community in mourning and doing what he could to stop the violence getting worse. Reid tried to save the British soldiers by covering them with his own body from the terrorists seeking vengeance. He was told to leave or he would be shot and then returned to find the soldiers, now dead, attempting the kiss of life. He was photographed kneeling over them with their blood on his face.

That was almost a story... and then... the eureka moment. As Jonathan researched Fr Alec’s story the modest priest suddenly mentioned “the letter”. What letter? Well it seems that Fr Alec was at the second funerals in order to pick up a letter from Gerry Adams to hand to John Hume.

The letter was the terms for negotiations and a way into a peace process. Fr Alec had that letter in his pocket when he gave the British soldiers the last rites. Indeed he explained that he had to change the envelope because there was blood on it.

After that day when most of us would have gone home traumatised Fr Alec Reid drove to Derry with a letter from Sinn Fein to the SDLP that set out the building blocks for what in six years time would yield a cease fire and the peace process we enjoy the fruits of today.

Dermot and Jonathan had their way to tell the story of that dark fortnight. They had the light that was flickering into life at that darkest of times. Fr Alec Reid had redemption in his blood stained hands. It is responsible and prophetic journalism that is so often so sadly lacking.


Irish Heartache

It was more than a Rugby World Cup Quarter Final. It was so much more than a Rugby match. It was more than just a defeat. This defeat was seismic.

This was more than than the fact that this the only time in the history of Irish Rugby that we had an opportunity to win the World Cup. I mean more than that this was the one and only chance in the history of the island that we could win something of this sporting magnitude. 

We were top of the world rankings. We hadn't lost in a long time. We beat the reigning champions South Africa in the group stages. We had even got used to beating the All Blacks. Then it was all gone. 

At the final whistle, after lots of late optimism, there seemed a silent disbelief on the pitch, in the stadium and everywhere in Ireland. No Zombie pumping out, just the hush of coming to terms. It was hard to take. Heartbreak. Not only no trophy but we are still the only rated team to never make the World Cup Semi Finals. Argentina have made their third!

I was surmising so much more. This was not only a loss for a rugby team. I would like to Surmise that it was a lost opportunity for the entire island of Ireland political, socially, culturally and every other way.

I mean, can you imagine the mood across the island of Ireland if we won a major sporting cup. I remember the mood in the north when Northern Ireland qualified for the 1982 soccer World Cup Quarter Finals. That win over Spain. Gerry Armstrong. Billy Bingham.

I remember the atmosphere in the Republic of Ireland qualified for the 1990 soccer World Cup Quarter Finals. That penalty shoot out over Romania. Packie Bonner. David O'Leary. Jackie Charlton. 

So, can you imagine the entire island, both north and south celebrating together a World Cup Final victory. The motorcade across 32 counties. What would it have done to relationships across borders? Across old divisions? Everyone celebrating together everyone's win. I had this aching hope. 

I could only perceive that it would have speeded up the breaking down of tensions that are still alive and well across the island. I was hoping that such a once in a generation event might have had an impetus towards healing and sent the island down new relational paths. 

The sporting pain of defeat only lasted a short time BUT had we achieved what had been actually possible in two weeks time I think the implications would have rippled out across Ireland for generations to come.

We lost more than a Rugby World Cup Quarter Final... 





Prof John Brewer officially retired from Queen's University Belfast this past week. John has been a huge influence and friend to Fr Martin Magill and myself in our efforts at peace making. This is my blog from 10 years ago, a day or two after John had spoken in Fitzroy. I repost it as my own Tribute.


Professor John Brewer’s talk at Fitzroy’s monthly Faith On Trial, on Sunday night, was fascinating, inspiring and at times controversially confrontational. Brewer is the now the Professor of Post Conflict Studies at Queen University, Belfast and as a sociologist has spent a lot of time researching religion and the Northern Irish Troubles.

John's last two books are a case in point; Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland (with Francis Teeney and Gareth Higgins), Ex-Combatants, Religion and Peace in Northern Ireland (with David Mitchell and Gerard Leavey). Both books are of huge importance to a group of disciples of Jesus, like the one who met on Sunday night, as they ask how to engage with our peculiar Northern Irish divisions.

Brewer began this particular night with various readings from the latter of these two books. Before that, he laid out the Biblical context of such a book with a reading of the sheep and the goats parable of Jesus in Matthew 25. His clear call from this passage was that Jesus would have been in tough places and that prisons, included in that Gospel text, were tough places. His conclusion was that a group of Church going activists would want to be where Jesus called us to and that this passage linked us with the ex-combatants of both the loyalist and republican movements.

His readings from the Ex Combatants... book were fascinating. Both loyalist and republican communities had a rich social imagings of religion deep down. For some it was a reason to be involved in the cause. One Catholic combatant quoted, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice” from Jesus Beatitudes as a reason to be involved in the movement.

Others spoke of how they believed that faith in God had helped them through the hard times of prison or even protected them in cars riddled with bullets. Some prayed for all prisoners and prison wardens even though they admitted that had they had guns they would have shot those whom they were praying for.

Yet others testified to finding Christian faith as a conversion moment away from the violence. Brewer added that a lot of guilt and shame of past actions was down to religious belief. These combatants had not a lot of good things to say about the Church. They felt that they were shunned and seen as scum by the Church of the Jesus who made clear that those who entered heaven would ne the visitors of the prisoner!

That other book, Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland, had been critical of the established Church’s involvement in peace and reconciliation.Brewer was keen to make a distinction between some Church people being very involved and the Church establishment’s lack of leadership. He differentiated between “prophetic presence” and “prophetic leadership.”

Indeed he recognized that he was in Fitzroy a church that had been a “prophetic presence” but he was provocatively asking where the main Churches had been in opening up public conversations about forgiveness and hope. Were we prepared to go into those tough places and hear these stories that he was sharing tonight and be surprised at the influence of religion on those wrapped up in the violence of our past, to engage and bring grace and personal and social reconciliation to such people; people, that we need to remember from Brewer’s Biblical text, Jesus was keen to be around.

My thoughts? I believe that Brewer’s work is very important to the Christian response to the Troubles and the post conflict work of reconciliation. I have long been concerned that we are too complacent in this “peace time”. I have concerns over our established Church’s desire to be involved.

Fitzroy has been an anathema for many other Presbyterians simply by being involved in the tough places. I am not confident that the establishment will give a strong or prophetic lead out of fear of being damned liberal or ecumenical or other words used to stone those passionate about this Biblical mandate.

To counter that, I guess, my predecessor in Fitzroy, Ken Newell, was elected Moderator but I doubt that that would happen now. I also need to add that leaders in Presbyterianism have been present in the recent flags protest though I am not sure how courageous or imaginative or radical the prophetic leadership role.

For me personally I am convinced that I have more freedom, and perhaps less media or church distractions, by going under the radar in being a “prophetic presence.” Having said that fear of my denomination and the media have caused me to compromise my following of Jesus into the tough places many times.

To go back to the spiritual wisdom of the republican quoted earlier. I would strongly argue that he had the outworking of his Biblical exegesis wrong in using it for violence and murder but I think his actual exegesis was shrewd and the reason that Brewer is a long way away from experiencing his desired established Church involvement.

It might be down to that quotation, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice...” Most translations have translated that word “justice” as “righteousness.” However, the republican has a surprising theological buddy in the eminent Reformed scholar Nicholas Wolterstorff. Wolterstorff argues convincingly in his book Justice: Rights and Wrongs that the Greek here might be closer to justice than righteousness.

That of course changes emphasis from personal piety to, a more in keeping with Calvin’s dream, social redemption. While we can be distracted in the personal the mess and struggle of the tough places can be excused. What is of no doubt whatever after tonight is that it is time for some of us to give a opportunity for listening.

It is time for Churches like Fitzroy to engage in meaningful grace driven ways. To be accused of being cold to and dismissive of these ex combatants is an indictment on the Gospel and much more like the goats than the sheep in Matthew 25.

Could I ask of Professor Brewer that these two valuable books might be made available at a price that a minister or any other Christian for that matter can afford. Books like these should have a wider audience and influence than just in the Academy.

I would love to read Ex-Combatants, Religion and Peace in Northern Ireland but haven’t £50 to spend on such things. I found Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland very helpful in a series of talks I gave in the U.S. last year but had to borrow it from the Union College library. I found it so helpful that I would like it as an everyday reference.

To conclude can I add that when I first asked for the said book, a book that criticised the established Church’s involvement in reconciliation, the Presbyterian library didn’t have it and had to order it in! Oh dear! Maybe the thesis of the book proven in where the book wasn’t stocked!


MLK Washington

Today (August 28, 2023) is 60th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have A Dream speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. 2023 being this 60th year was why this year’s 4 Corners Festival back in February had the title Dreams…Visions For Belfast. 

The day takes me back to the 50th Anniversary in 2013 when we were privileged to have political activist, author and speaker Jim Wallis in Fitzroy.

It was hearing that speech on August 23rd 1963, as a fourteen year old boy living in a very white world, that changed Jim’s life. Were it not for that speech Jim might not have been inspiring us to put Jesus on the streets, living the transforming command of Scripture to love our neighbour and giving us the spiritual stamina to decide for hope when all seems hopeless.

Jim used the speech very poignantly. He began by suggesting that it was the anniversary of King’s “I have a complaint” speech! Of course it wasn’t and the difference between a “compliant” and a “dream” is profound. There are many things we can complain about and protest against. 

It is easy to complain but it is in dreaming that people bring about social change. Dreaming is about imagining how change looks. The Bible has told us this a long, long time ago; “your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”

After Jim spoke we opened the meeting to the floor and John Brewer, then the Professor of Post Conflict Studies at Queen’s University, made us aware that at the very same time as we were listening to Jim there was a meeting at Stormont to celebrate the "I Have A Dream" speech. 

John shared how that seemed a little incongruous with the lack of imagination that we have heard publicly from our politicians over recent years. John then went on to say how refreshing it was to be listening to the hopefulness of Jim’s talk.

Early the next day I was with Jim Wallis for a Breakfast meeting with church, community and political leaders, hosted by the late, and dearly missed, Glenn Jordan at Skainos in East Belfast. I got chatting to the then Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle who had been one of the instigators of that Stormont meeting that John Brewer had referred to.

Chris gave me an alternative perspective. He felt strongly that it was a very appropriate time to gather our political leaders to ponder on King’s speech. He shared some of, what he felt were, the similarities between King’s gathering in Washington and our own current impasse. 

So, I left the breakfast thinking that, though it might have been almost a hypocrisy for our leaders to be remembering such a historical moment of social progress and reconciliation at a time when they were failing to lead us in that way, that maybe a meditation on that speech at this time could only be useful; almost hopeful!

Jim Wallis’s message to us, over three different events in Belfast in 2013, was that we the ordinary people need to give a space and the mandate to our politicians for change. 

President JF Kennedy was not a supporter of King’s Washington gathering. The political leaders in Washington felt that it would need some time to bring the country to the place that King was dreaming of. 

However, what the Washington gathering of 250,000 people did was to give the politicians the encouragement to move faster. 

Jim was inspiring those of us meeting in Fitzroy to be a ground swell of change that would give the necessary collateral to those who met at Stormont to make our future together better! Where does that begin. Well, moving from “I have a complaint” to “I have a dream” is where it starts.

As I have written and spoken, in the decade between, I don’t believe that the peace and prosperity that Jeremiah asked us to pray for will drip down the hill from Stormont. It will have to flow up. It won’t be in our complaints that we move the politicians but by our dreams. This 60th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech will remind us of that today.



It is 25 years of the Drumcree standoff. An Orange Lodge wanting to continue a march. A Catholic community not welcoming them through. We want to pray for safety at Drumcree and over all the Twelfth Parades. We want to pray for contact, listening, negotiation and compromise where there are contentious issues. We encourage the Orange Order as they attempt to rid their parades of anti social behaviour. 

I remember the days when my summer began when my dad drove under the arch that my Granda built. I remember watching the bonfire from the window of my first flat even though I was too young to go down to it. I remember watching my Granda march.

Since then sectarianism has hijacked a cultural celebration. I hope the best of our Northern Irishness comes out this week in a peaceful passing off of parades and no effigies or flags on the bonfires.

Here is a poem and then a prayer...


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


Instead,  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. 


Let us pray.

Lord we come before the God of peace

Of love and of grace

We worship you as holy

Utterly different than what we know

Or have intuition toward

A God who became one of us

Gave up all

To take on flesh

In a manger

To wash feet

To die, "the Lamb Of God who takes away the sin of the world"

Lord we seek your presence

In this our Twelfth week in Northern Ireland

We pray for safety

Safety for those building bonfires

Those around bonfires

Those who control bonfires

And the neighbourhoods around bonfires

We pray for safety for the security forces and fire service

We also pray for safety for the parades

We pray for grace and tolerance from those marching

And from those in the neighbourhoods they walk through

May there be peace on our streets

And no headlines on our TVs.


Lord, we yearn for your presence this week

Lord interrupt and remove the hate and sectariansim

As well as the flags and effigies from the bonfires

Instead Lord, pile up our false caricatures

Our myths and lies and exaggerations of one another

May we stop the cycle

To repent from generations of animosity

To become peacemakers

Lovers of the enemy

Followers of Jesus in the Kingdom of God

Lord interrupt with your love and peace

And that holy justice that lays down its own life for the crimes committed against it

Lord may your will be done

On the streets of Northern Ireland this week

In the name of the King of Kings.




Reflection 22

As I walked down to pick up my piece of cloth at the part of the liturgy called An Offering of Patches, I was thinking of Thomas Spence and John Rodgers, aged 11 and 13, who vanished at a bus stop outside St John’s Church on the Falls Road back in 1974. Lyra McKee was writing a book about them when she herself became a victim of our divisions, decades later. 

I set the patch of cloth between my hands and held it tight, thinking of parents and families and school friends who never found out what happened to Thomas and John not so much victims of paramilitaries as victims of the times they grew up in. Kidnapped during a time when the police had no time to concentrate on them with the bloody mayhem of The Troubles going on around them.

An Offering of Patches was part of a Service of Lament organised by the Corrymeela Community and hosted by St Anne’s Cathedral. Led by clergy and members of Victims Support groups the service prayed deep into the loss and brokenness of our Troubles and indeed continued divisions. Sister Geraldine Smith shared a reflection on Psalm 85 that speaks of “Mercy and Truth have met each other. Justice and peace have kissed.”

We then sought the Hope Of Lament of which the Offering of Patches was a part. We ended with a Commitment:


Together, we commit to a society of peace and justice

Showing the courage to reject violence

By standing with and listening to victims and survivors

And calling the Church again

To the power of love, grace and forgiveness

Which alone break our cycle of violence.


It was a very moving hour, stopping for silence at exactly 12 noon on the longest day of the year. To reflect.

I have been using The Longest Day as a Day of Reflection on our conflict in and about Northern Ireland since Paul Gallagher asked Fr Martin Magill and I to help with a reflection in Lenadoon in 2012. 

We need this practice known wider. We need more reflection. We need, religiously once a year, to remember the brokenness and then find hope in a God of love and justice and peace. 

If you haven’t already today I encourage you. Take 5 minutes. Reflect. Maybe read Psalm 85. Maybe find Deacon Blue’s song Take Me To The Place as a way in. I used that song’s poignancy and sense of lament back in 2012. Remember those like the lost boys that I remembered as I did my friends who lost fathers. Commit to peace. 

A SERVICE OF LAMENT - for Northern Ireland's Day Of Remembering

Lament 23


A number of years ago Healing Through Remembering created the idea of a Day Of Private Reflection on June 21st, the longest day, every year to honour the people who were killed in the conflict in and about Northern Ireland or affected by it in any way.

This year all are welcome to join us for "Courage to Lament", an ecumenical service at St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast. Using the biblical practice of lament, this service will offer a space to reflect on the conflict in and about Northern Ireland and the future that is before us. It will seek to create a space to acknowledge our deep pain and hurt, to reflect on what we might have done or might still do, and to commit ourselves to ensure such suffering and loss never happens again.
I found last year's service very beneficial. I am honoured to be taking part this time.


22.5.23 - Hume

There was a lot of talk about the Good Friday Agreement a few weeks ago. Maybe too much talk. For me the more important day was May 22nd 1998. This was the day that the people of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would vote on the agreement. A Referendum on whether we agreed or disagreed with our politicians.

Leading up to the vote, some of the anti-agreement parties had been trying to convince the people that this was a sell-out to terrorism and to vote no. Some of the strongest arguments came from evangelical Christians who supposedly followed a Bible that teaches them “to make every effort to live at peace with all men” (Heb. 12:14) and to “love their enemies and do good to those who persecute you” (Luke 6:27, 28).

Things were touch and go as to how the Referendum might go when something significant happened. Two young men Conal McDevitt and David Kerr worked for the two major political leaders John Hume and David Trimble. They came up with a cunning imaginative and ambitious idea, a last minute grab for the media headlines. 

What if U2 and Northern Irish band Ash did a concert for peace in Belfast. It was quickly brought together and one of the most iconic photographs of that peace process is Bono holding up the hands of Hume and Trimble, much like Bob Marley did with Jamaican politicians Michael Manley and opponent Edward Seaga in 1978.  

I remember sitting at home watching the news and and suddenly the tears were tripping me. On my TV screen being beamed across the world was Bono, Hume and Trimble. It this tangible hope. 

On May 22nd 94% in the Republic of Ireland and 71% in Northern Ireland voted for that Agreement. In her balanced and informative book Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People, Susan McKay describes the two men holding Bono’s hands: “They looked awkward, but it was a winning gesture which had revived a floundering campaign.” 

I think back on that night today. It is hard to not conclude that the 29% who voted against it then is still the 29% holding us back now. Yet, how we have moved forward. Northern Ireland in most places is different than it was 25 years ago today. We need to build on that peace. It needs to be more than political it needs to become societal. 

We also need to invest in education and jobs in the difficult working class areas that will feel left behind in what other might call a peace dividend. We need to build on the prosperity of the entire country. 

So let us stay committed to that decision we made. No one said that it would be easy. Many had to give up their hopes of justice as well as the heartache of murdered loved ones. Political positions had to be compromised. Some lost their political careers. Peace on an island at conflict for centuries didn’t come cheap or easy.

I commit to that mark I made.


George Mitchell statue

What did I make of the recent events to mark 25 years of the Good Friday Agreement? It is a question I was asked this past few days.

There were a few days when I was a sceptic. It seemed like a lot of talk. A lot of words. Indeed, it made me start critiquing our 4 Corners Festival. Were we just a talk shop too?

A friend who lost his father to an IRA bomb Tweeted a question about who had been invited. Had anyone in these great Queen’s University halls experienced the loss and trauma that he and his family had.

I felt he was on to something. I was asking, as many were, if this was a big bunch of politicians and celebrities patting themselves on the back for things they did a quarter of a century ago? Was it a little much looking back?

Over the past week, I have shifted my opinion. A few years ago I got to ghost write the memoirs of Trevor Stevenson the founder of Fields Of Life, an NGO building schools and drilling for water in East Africa. The reason for the book was that Trevor believed that it was a positive thing in any organisation to mark landmarks.

So, I think it was a good thing to look back. Not only that but when I looked back I saw so much to be thankful for. What was achieved in 1998 was remarkable, miraculous indeed. In all the words I was being encouraged and inspired to continue to hope that our present difficulties can be overcome. It also energised me to continue in my own little contribution to peace and reconciliation.

This energy was most fuelled at the Recommitment to The Agreement that Corrymeela held at Clonard Monastery. Again there was a large swathe of political celebrity but there was also the grass roots peacemakers. Young people spoke with passion and vision and one of our veterans Rev Dr Harold Good gave us the wisdom of maturity. “Jesus changed the inevitable” was a quote to take home. 

Yet, I felt that that event and some of the other reflections were a little premature. For me, though the Good Friday Agreement was a wonderful work of peacemaking and courageous compromise, it was not what we should be recommitting to. 

Six weeks after the Agreement, after six weeks of debate, argument and vitriol, 71% of an 81% turn out voted to implement the Agreement. This is what I want to recommit to. What I decided on that day. 

All of this is, of course, happening at another difficult political time in Northern Ireland. The DUP have brought our local Stormont government down over the Brexit protocol. Sinn Fein did a similar thing a few years ago. 

With Stormont down Northern Ireland is in a bad place. Funding for many organisations is frozen and many are losing their jobs, the recent economic crisis has left lots of people feeling the pinch. Education needs funded and our health service is on its knees.

Can I add my meaningless voice to the more important voices that pleaded with the DUP to get Stormont up and running again. The longer this goes and the worse the country gets the harder it will be to fix. 

I remember that that 29% who voted against the Agreement was probably predominately DUP. I wonder should we have a 25th Anniversary Referendum to see whether the majority would like Stormont whether the DUP take their seats or not! I personally hope that they do. We are stronger all together.

My final result. I am planning meetings and eager to continue making that wee contribution to keep on keeping on to make our wee country peaceful and prosperous for all.