November 29th, 1994
St. Columban’s College, Dalgan Park, Navan
Rev. Roy Magee (Presbyterian Ministry, Dundonald)
Billy Mitchell (Progressive Unionist Party)
Eddie Kinner (Progressive Unionist Party)
Chaired by John Clancy (Meath Peace Group)
Editor’s Note: This talk took place a few weeks after the announcement of the loyalist ceasefire in October. Through the agency of Rev. Roy Magee and Isobel Hylands of the Lurgan Interfriendship group, some members of the Meath Peace Group met with members of the Progressive Unionist Party in Belfast prior to the ceasefire and it was agreed that they would send representatives to speak in Dalgan after their ceasefire was announced. 9 PUP representatives including several ex-prisoners came to Dalgan (for most of these it was their first time south of the border). Over 70 people attended the talk and the audience included several people from Northern Ireland who had travelled especially for the talk. Aftermath: in the months following, Billy Mitchell came back several times to talk with secondary school students in schools in Navan and Trim. The talk was not recorded.
1. Rev. Roy Magee (Presbyterian Ministry, Dundonald):
“Building the peace and resolving the conflict” are the greatest challenges facing all of us today, according to Rev. Roy Magee, who was one of the speakers at a meeting organised by the Meath Peace Group in St. Columban’s College, Dalgan Park, Navan, on November 29th 1994, on “the Way Forward”. The other speakers were Billy Mitchell and Eddie Kinner of the Progressive Unionist Party.
Rev. Magee, who mediated with the loyalist paramilitaries and helped bring about the loyalist ceasefire in October, said that up to now there had been no serious attempt to resolve the conflict and he stressed the need and urgency to take up the challenge now, or stand condemned in the eyes of our children. “We have the choice, ” he said, “either to actively seek to resolve the conflict, or contribute to the conditions giving rise to conflict. None of us is blameless, we may not have pulled the trigger or planted the bomb, but can we stand uncondemned? ”
He spoke of the walls of division – walls of nationalism, religion, politics, culture and tribalism. Many see the demolition of these walls as a threat to their existence and are afraid, many feel that the conflict can never be resolved, he said, but he believed that movement towards resolution is possible and that the ceasefires had given us the opportunity to do this. He felt that both governments had not yet begun to address the conflict. They should seek help from outside experts to help to get the two sides talking, he said.
Recalling the atrocities of the Shankill and Greysteel just one year ago, he said that the ceasefires had come about because of ordinary people on both sides saying “this has got to stop”. Criticising the negative attitude of some politicians and churchmen to the ceasefire announcements, he said “the ceasefires may be fragile, but they are light years ahead of people being murdered and maimed.” It was the duty of every citizen to be constructive, he said, and he appealed to politicians and media especially to be “sensitive in everything they say and do”. We must be building on the peace process now, he said, and we must stress the importance of this to our politicians – “people’s lives are at stake and we must do everything possible to secure the peace”.
There must be determination to move forward, but not with too much haste, he continued. The Downing Street Declaration had paved the way for movement, he said, and he praised the work of Albert Reynolds and Dick Spring in this process. The tragedy in Northern Ireland is that “we cannot agree to differ”, but this has to be overcome . “We need to recognise the legitimacy of each other’s aspirations and put in place legislation that will accommodate them”, he said. He deplored the fact that children were not given the opportunity to mix at primary level – it was too late at secondary school stage to redress this, he said.
Prisoners: Turning to the question of prisoners, he suggested the use of the release on licence system. He knew this was very difficult for many people, but if we want to move forward, we must show forgiveness, he said. The licence system should ensure that prisoners would be re-arrested if killings or punishment beatings resumed.
Policing: On the RUC, Rev. Magee said they would need retraining – they were not experienced in peace time work – but dismantling the force was not the answer.
Fringe unionist parties: On whether loyalist fringe parties should be allowed to take part in negotiations, he said that these parties were more statesmanlike than many of the mainstream politicians – their response to the Declaration was positive and constructive. The loyalist paramilitaries were not the extremists on the unionist side, he said. They broke the law and caused great heartbreak, but many did it in response to the rhetoric of the politicians, many of whom, he asserted, had secretly condoned and encouraged the killings.
Rev. Magee spoke of the damaging effects of institutional violence, of bad planning and appalling living conditions in urban areas, of the lack of power in local government, the need to empower local communities, and the urgent need to address the problem of young people who had been involved in paramilitary activity.
“We need a massive injection of funds so that we can set in place job-creation schemes and resettlement offices manned by people in their own areas”, and “we need unequivocal assurances from both governments that they will actively pursue those who get involved in terrorist activities. Never again should a small minority of ruthless people hold Northern Ireland to ransom”, he said.
2. Billy Mitchell and Eddie Kinner (P.U.P.) (extracts)
The speakers from the Progressive Unionist Party, representing working-class Protestants in the Greater Shankill area, then addressed the meeting. Speaking frankly and openly, they explained how, as ex-prisoners, they had come together with many others after the Shankill bombing, determined to work for an end to the violence . Along with many others at that time, they felt that that they were not being represented by the unionist leadership and joined the Progressive Unionists in order to highlight the positive aspects of unionism and provide proper representation for the working class and underclass. They spoke of their determination to build the peace and to use the past, and their past experiences, to improve the future. They spoke of the need for reform of the RUC, but, unlike Sinn Fein, they do not want the force to be dismantled.
“We need a police service accountable to the people”, Mr Mitchell said.
Decommissioning: The PUP members felt this should not be a precondition for talks – the problem would have to be addressed, illegal arms were unacceptable, but much confidence-building would have to be done first. They believed that social deprivation and educational disadvantages were the greatest danger to the peace now. According to Billy Mitchell, politicians in the Republic should look towards satisfying the aspirations of working class people – they were the ones who had suffered the mostin the last 25 years, he said, and the ones with the greatest to offer. Issues that really matter should be tackled at the Forum, he said, and reconciliation should be levelled at working class people. “Unless these issues are tackled, there can be no peace”.
Forum for Peace and Reconciliation: Asked if the Progressive Unionists would ever consider making a submission to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation [in Dublin Castle], Mr Mitchell replied that until the unionist people in general found the Forum acceptable, they could not really take part. They needed to pace themselves and work with their own communities first. They were a small party and could be marginalised, he said.
Mr. Mitchell spoke of his aspiration for a pluralist State with structures built in to protect the individual and the family. Describing himself as a “Christian socialist”, he believed everyone had the right to free expression and religious belief, and the political structures should represent all the people.
The Progressive Unionists were diametrically opposed to violence, he said, and were not the political representatives of the UVF. Their main job at the moment was to politicise former paramilitaries and find a new way forward for Northern Ireland. The Progressive Unionists advocated a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and sharing of responsibility at all levels.
Identity: Mr. Mitchell said he had no problem about his Irishness. He was an Irishman who “happened to be British”. He said that we in the Republic should be able to acknowledge our British dimension.
Questions: There were many questions but regrettably these were not recorded. An SDLP member from Fermanagh, spoke of the transformation of life in N.I. since the ceasefires, and thanked the speakers for the part they had played in this. She said she was very interested to hear the views of the people of the Shankill – it was refreshing to see people who are prepared to “listen and open up”.
Closing words: on behalf of the Meath Peace Group, Julitta Clancy thanked the speakers and paid special tribute to Rev. Magee for all he had done to bring about the ceasefire. Local representatives Brian Fitzgerald, TD and Cllr. Phil Cantwell of Trim UDC, also welcomed the speakers. Deputy Fitzgerald said that the question of resettlement had to be addressed by both Governments. He welcomed the enlightened thinking coming from the loyalist parties and appealed to Rev. Magee and the people whose views he represented, to consider bringing their views to the Forum.
Meath Peace Group report: December 1994
Compiled and edited by Julitta Clancy
Contact names 1994: Julitta Clancy, Parsonstown, Batterstown, Co. Meath; Anne Nolan, Gernonstown, Slane, Co. Meath; Susan Devane, Slane; Felicity Cuthbert, Kilcloon; Philomena Boylan-Stewart, Longwod; Pauline Ryan, Navan.
Plans for further talks:
1) Tuesday, 7th February 1995, to be addressed by a community worker from West Belfast and two representatives of Sinn Fein; 2) Tuesday, 28th February, to be addressed by representatives of the DUP.
Other News: The first Meath Peace Group/Interaction youth exchange took place on December 2nd-4th 1994, with young people from Batterstown, Kilcloon, Klbride, Slane and Drogheda joining a cross-community group from Craigavon, Co. Armagh. Youth leaders from Meath also travelled with the group. A return weekend is planned for May 1995 in Navan. Exhibition: At the invitation of the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, members of the Meath Peace Group brought the exhibition “Count the Costs” to the Cathedral, where it went on display at the end of November. The exhibition, which lists the names of all who have died as a result of the political situation in N.I. since 1969, was compiled by Isobel Hylands, of Lurgan, Co. Armagh, and has been shown in schools and churches in Meath, Drogheda, Dublin, Maynooth and Limerick over the last year. At the invitation of the Warrington Project, the exhibition was also brought to Warrington schools in November.