Bridge builder

Former Presbyterian Moderator John Dunlop speaks to Martin O’Brien

In terms of a public persona The Very Reverend John Dunlop is probably the nearest thing the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has to a Cardinal Archbishop.

 However, given the nature of Presbyterianism and its innate ‘mistrust of centralised power’ –  as he once put it –  the fact that Dr Dunlop  has stood out as a giant in the Church and a respected opinion-former in the North for around a  quarter of a century, is something with which neither he nor his denomination is  entirely comfortable.

“Remember I am just an ordinary Presbyterian minister and that’s what I want to remain,” he insisted many times to journalists, including this writer, as they sought a public comment on the latest hot button issues of the day which more often than not related to the Troubles or the latest political controversy.

Largest Church

His Church, the largest Protestant denomination in the North, has “….suspicion of centralised power, which manifests itself in opposition both to executive bishops and to the giving of responsibility to individuals rather than to boards and committees within the government of the Church”.

The quotes are from Dr Dunlop himself in his book, A Precarious Belonging: Presbyterians and the Conflict in Ireland (Blackstaff) – widely recognised as an important exposition of the identity of modern Irish Presbyterians.

At home with his wife, Rosemary, on the northern outskirts of Belfast he stresses he’s “now just a retired Presbyterian minister”  but he’s still in demand as a public speaker and a regular contributor to the influential Thought for the Day slot on BBC Radio Ulster and other current affairs programmes. Virtually every Sunday he has a preaching engagement a good distance from home anywhere in Ireland.   


John Dunlop (74), recipient of numerous national and international awards for his service to community relations, including a CBE from the Queen in 2004, is the son of a civil servant born into a solid Presbyterian family just outside Newry, Co. Down.

He is not the sort to court publicity often declining to comment feeling he had nothing useful to say.  But when he does speak he is listened to as others aren’t. His words are invariably measured yet not lacking in Ulster Protestant directness and possessing a prophetic quality well above the average in this divided land. 

His public profile as an astute, rational and balanced voice has mitigated the publicity deficit Presbyterians inevitably suffered from changing their Moderator or principal public representative every year leaving the Catholic and Church of Ireland primates of the day to respectively forge a sustained corporate identity.

John Dunlop served as Moderator in 1992-93 and immediately attained wide attention of a kind rarely if ever enjoyed by the holder of the post.

Within weeks of his election The Independent (London) sought an interview in which he told Ireland correspondent David McKittrick: “What I want to see is Presbyterianism freed from its intellectual preoccupation with being besieged so that it can make its contributions in a wider way. It is in everybody’s interests that these bridges of understanding and friendship be built.”

Mutual respect

McKittrick, arguably the North’s most knowledgeable and authoritative journalist of his generation concluded: “If the political talks are ever to succeed, all sides will need to display the sensitivity, mutual respect and willingness to coexist which John Dunlop displays.”

Knowing from his early teens he wanted to be a minister he first studied philosophy “as a good preparation for theology later” in New College Edinburgh before attending Queen’s University Belfast at the age of 19 in 1958, less than a month before the election of Pope John XXIII.

Belfast’s Clonard monastery website states: “Our Guest Preachers at Clonard have helped to bring about a profound change in inter-Church relations. During the January 1980 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Rev. John Dunlop, a Presbyterian minister, was the first person from the Protestant tradition to preach in Clonard.”

That would  be a fitting footnote in any 20th-Century history of inter-Church relations here  because  Dr Dunlop is an  ecumenical pioneer and  two things  immediately strike one as being worthy of note.  

Firstly his ecumenism goes right back to Blessed Pope John XXXIII and the heady days of Vatican II and secondly, the extent to which the Council transformed his understanding of Catholicism.

John Dunlop speaks compellingly about Vatican II and the Popes of the last 60 years. And with a sense of sadness about the understandable lack of inter-action between Catholics and Protestants before the Council.

“Vatican II was a watershed, it changed things.”

Before it he understood the Catholic Church “as an imperialist community of power in Ireland implementing policies of mixed marriages that clearly decimated the Protestant communities”.

Vatican II

“My perceptions changed during Vatican II and also at Queen’s meeting students for the Catholic priesthood. And by theologians like Enda McDonagh and Gabriel Daly who showed that there were discussions going on behind the walls of the institutional Church.” 

He fondly recalls that three such students, including the future Bishop Anthony Farquhar, were the first guests he and Rosemary entertained in their home after their marriage.

He describes Pope John as a person he could “identify with as a Christian and a Catholic rather than Pope” whom he could “relate to empathetically” and was deeply touched by reading his Journal of a Soul.

He admired Blessed John Paul II “a very formidable and very powerful person with a very Christological centre who probably hung on for too long”.

He is clearly excited by Pope Francis “with his emphasis on the Gospel, on the compassion, forgiveness and mercy of God. He is more generous than some Protestants to frailty and talks as if he is a Christian first, not a Catholic first.”

The Sixties was “a decade of possibilities, the most hopeful decade in the history of Northern Ireland” with Vatican II and the reforming premiership of Captain Terence O’Neill, standing out in particular.  “Then in 1968 we lost the plot tragically and unnecessarily” but by that time he was a parish minister in Jamaica where he worked for 10 years.

He says there were “various misjudgements” and is specifically critical of the Rev Ian Paisley.

Reform movements

“The reform movements which were necessary were resisted by Paisley demonstrating up and down the streets. That which should have been accommodated was resisted. I think Paisley has a lot of responsibility for that.”

He immediately adds: “I don’t think that the nationalist, Catholic, republican population in Ireland understood in those days what is was like to be a Protestant minority in Ireland.”

He resents how the Northern Protestant community generally were depicted in the media “as a discriminating gang of bigots” as if nationalist were free of “any negative contribution”.

A long term admirer of Seamus Heaney he quotes him whenever he gets a chance – which is often.

Ahead of the Haass negotiations, on parades and flags the parties “must find a compromise and stand over it,” he says.

On the third issue, the past he’s “in a minority position” arguing that the release of prisoners under the Good Friday Agreement “drew a line under the past and opened the way to a new and inclusive future. That line needs to be reinforced instead of being erased.” 


“In a great many cases the truth about the past will prove to be inaccessible and thus justice will be unavailable. We need to face that fact.

 “I am more interested in writing the next chapter [than revisiting] the last chapter which was full of agony.”

John Dunlop served with his friend Fr Oliver Crilly on the Independent Review of Parades and Marches. Fr Crilly paid him the ultimate tribute, writing that if John Dunlop “wrote the blueprint for a solution to the Northern Ireland situation, I could sign it without reading it” because “he would go to any lengths” to look after “his own people’s interests [and] my interests as well”.

That helps explain why John Dunlop is a giant in Irish Church circles, however uncomfortable that description may be for some people, even himself.