Fr Magill’s message was well meaning, but it has only served to create a superficial momentum aiming for political utopia

Belfast Cathedral rose in applause at Fr Magill's contribution, not because everyone agreed with the political message, but because it was the popular thing to do. That our political leaders would sub-contract their judgement out to the emotional collective response of the gathered group is a worrying state of affairs.

Jamie Bryson


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At the funeral of Lyra McKee the hall burst into applause following the well publicised contribution of Fr Martin Magill. I like Fr Magill, he is a fundamentally decent man and someone who genuinely believes in trying to understand all sides. A few years ago he came to a bonfire in Bangor, and received severe criticism for doing so. He generously spent considerable time at the foot of the bonfire discussing with young bonfire builders why this aspect of culture meant so much to them. In true Christian spirit, he did not come to condemn or to judge, but to understand and listen.

His contribution at Lyra McKee’s funeral was undoubtedly designed to bring a Christian message and it delivered in that regard. It was not I assume meant to be a political message, despite the fact that is precisely- probably by accident rather than design-what it turned out to be.

The hall rose in applause not because everyone agreed with Fr Magill’s inadvertently political analysis, but rather because it was the popular thing to do. Look at the body language of many of the political leaders at the front; they didn’t spontaneously rise to their feet of their own accord but rather joined the applause because everyone else was joining in. Our political leaders, on both sides, sub contracted their own thought process out to the emotional reaction of the crowd.

Those who didn’t automatically rise in applause quite obviously had difficulties with the political realities missed by Fr Magill’s message, but they did not register their opposition to the contribution because to do so would have been deeply unpopular and exposed anyone who refused to stand up as an ‘outsider’, as someone outside of the popular mood; a dangerous place to be in the area of social media mob rule.

Fr Magill spoke about politicians and others coming together; it appeared as a call for the collective ‘us’ as a society to come together. This is intellectually dishonest, we are together. We live together, work together, socialise together and support peace together. The ‘coming together’ Fr Magill envisaged by his message was a political coming together; this is in of itself a political aspiration, namely a harmonised utopia. It would be to sub contract individual preference, objectives and aspirations to a collective utopian agenda. This is of course impossible, as communism has shown over generations.

The utopian society envisaged by Fr Magill’s message existed briefly in the cathedral as everyone joined in harmony to coalesce around one popular contribution. The unworkable and false nature of such momentum is however exposed by the fact that at least some of those on their feet applauding were reluctant participants in the collective validation of the message. A quick look at Arlene Foster and Mary-Lou McDonald’s body language would indicate they were hostages to a tidal wave of spontaneous populism, rather than genuine converts to the envisaged political utopia. This, deep down, will have caused resentment.

There will also have been many in the cathedral that are not religious, some who may even be atheists who spend a not inconsiderable amount of time online and in discussing ridiculing Christianity. They were not therefore rising in applause at a Christian message- as Fr Magill likely intended- but rather to the inadvertent political trajectory of the comments. They applauded the utopian vision because it chimes with their own political viewpoint; their embracing of the message was therefore in of itself political.

The Government responded by announcing yet another talks process. Cue another popular wave of pretending that such a process has a chance of success. Everyone is expected to join in the collective ‘hope’ that we can reach utopia in the form of the collective will (albeit forced in some instances) of those applauding in the cathedral being transported into a political reality. Such an aspiration is foolish and intellectually dishonest; people are quite literally lying to themselves because it is the popular thing to do.

We can all agree on peace, quantified as the absence of violence. That is a human, rational and moral position. Such a commitment transcends political differences and is shared by the majority. We will never agree on the political process because Northern Ireland has a majority of people wedded to their constitutional objective; that majority is divided into two large blocs; one unionist and one nationalist. That is the core political issue from which everything else flows.

Unionism and Nationalism as political ideals cannot co-exist within any settlement because to settle the question would require that one triumphs over the other. For such a settlement to be final one bloc, unionist or nationalist, would have to permanently surrender their core political aspiration.

It is for the same reason that the Belfast Agreement always was, and always will be, unworkable as a political process. A process by its very definition has a beginning and an end, you cannot have a process with no trajectory; if there is a settled status quo it is a settlement, if it is a system working towards an objective then it is a process. In Northern Ireland a political process will therefore either have an objective of working towards Irish unity or working towards maintaining the union, it is impossible that a process can do both. That, in simple terms, is why mandatory coalition can never work.

The challenge is to ensure that the reality that our process is unworkable does not lead to any kind of moving away from the collective commitment to peace. That, I believe, was actually the core message Fr Magill wished to get across.

We must however encourage some independent thinking; a whole industry of peace processors have made careers out of parroting intellectually vacuous buzzwords and travelling the world telling the story of our wonderful agreement. It is time that bubble was burst, we have relative peace in Northern Ireland, but we remain politically at war. The agreement is unworkable and all the talking in the world will not alter a basic fact; you cannot reconcile two diametrically opposed objectives without one triumphing over the other.

The slogan-possessed utopians are in overdrive; this in turn creates a superficial momentum towards an irrational objective. The truth is that these talks , like those before them, are the very definition of madness. That a large chunk of our society continues to embrace doing the same thing over and over again is a clear sign that many have succumbed to the madness of being swept up with superficial momentum.

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