‘First and foremost a Belfast man’

Martin O’Brien meets a Catholic unionist

The much loved and much misunderstood Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich would have had Jim McDonald in mind when he stressed in a rare BBC interview almost four months before his death that he was Archbishop and All-Ireland Primate of all Catholics “including those who are monarchists and unionists”.

That last interview the cardinal gave before he died, broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Newsbreak programme on January 21, 1990 – which I arranged and produced – was in my mind when I interviewed   Jim McDonald CBE, LVO, KCSG, GCHS, JP, DL in his Belfast home.

Cardinal Ó Fiaich, was making a point of recognising and respecting a reality that some would prefer    to overlook, namely that a significant minority of Catholics support the link with Britain and are no less Catholic for so doing.

Jim McDonald, (76), first  chairman of The Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross Foundation,   Chancellor of the Papal Orders in Ireland and Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, born and brought up off the Falls Road close to Clonard Monastery, is such a person.

His is the story of an outspoken respected maverick who chose a different path from most of his peers at St Mary’s Christian Brothers Grammar School and in the Confraternity at Clonard.

He was one of a family of eight boys raised “in a very Catholic family with my mother going to Mass daily in Clonard”.

It was a time free of the type of “nationalist aggression later displayed by the Provisionals”.

Jim McDonald has shown courage and independence of thought in the face of personal tragedy. 

Committed Catholic, holder of two papal knighthoods, former military watchdog in Northern Ireland, he is a monarchist and a unionist, with a small ‘u’ because in his view there is no Unionist political party “sufficiently pluralist and moderate” deserving of his support.

Against devolution, anywhere in principle, as it may lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom, he thinks that 108 is far too many politicians at Stormont, that they have still to learn the art of politics and that local ministers should somehow “serve apprenticeships” under a British Secretary of State.

His experience of the Republic convinced him “they are a different people and the only thing that binds us together is our Catholicism which is under severe pressure”.

Bereaved in the Troubles yet devoid of bitterness he says that paramilitaries and soldiers and police who have committed crimes should be prosecuted and serve lengthy prison terms.   

A qualified accountant with a strong professional track record, and a loyal subject, one only detects resentment when he reflects on the two occasions in the mid-Seventies he was blocked from top jobs simply because he was a Catholic.

As a victim of religious discrimination he stresses that neither injustice nor “the supposed unification of the country” ever justified “taking a life or surrendering a life”.

He remembers “as if it was yesterday” being denied the post of director of finance at timber merchants J.P. Corry, having held the lesser paid post of chief accountant for 10 years.

 “One of the directors told me I am sorry we can’t have a fellow like you at the boardroom table.”

Later he applied for a senior post in the Northern Ireland Dairy Council and blocked again because of his religion.

At interview it dawned on him “they are trying to find out what foot I dug with”.

A panel member said: “Look, young fella, we have been trying to find out what you are and you have been messing us about.”

His work for the Prince’s Trust and attendance at a course in Buckingham Palace on the handling of royal visits cut no ice.

He was finally asked what school he went to and told them.  

“I then said I bought my milk from Northern Diaries and I didn’t ask my milkman what religion he was or what religion the bloody cows were that gave him his milk.”

Two of his brothers, Sean and Ronald, who owned a Belfast garage, were murdered with their 16-year-old apprentice, Tony McGrady, by the UVF in a sectarian outrage in 1973.

Their killers should still “serve proper sentences” but he accepts that “at some point” a line will have to be drawn under the past “because we are not going to find the truth”.

Last October, shortly after he stepped down as chairman of the RUC GC Foundation, after 11 years in the unpaid effectively full-time post, he suffered a heart attack, spending seven weeks in hospital after a quadruple bypass operation and made a full recovery. The Foundation was set up by Act of Parliament to “mark the sacrifices and honour the achievements of the RUC”.

Jim McDonald, dedicated to the concept of voluntary public service, has the distinction of holding honours respectively conferred under the authority of both the Pope and the Queen.

He points out that he is probably the only person who is both a LVO, Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order- awarded for distinguished personal service to the Sovereign – and a Knight Commander of the Order of St Gregory the Great, awarded by Pope John Paul II for charity work in Ireland.

The LVO was in recognition of his work for the sovereign’s eldest son, the Prince of Wales or more particularly the Prince’s Trust, the charity which Charles founded to help young people.

As early as 1990 Jim McDonald was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre recognising charity work in the Holy Land, and he was later promoted to Knight Grand Cross of the same Order.

He cherishes a letter from Prince Charles, the Patron of the RUC GC Foundation on his retirement last year.

The Prince expressed “my warmest appreciation” for his “outstanding work” recalling he “has known Jim in various guises for – almost unbelievably – over 30 years… I am more grateful than I can possibly say for Jim’s long and faithful service and his unwavering good humour”.

Jim McDonald certainly does have a sense of humour but he speaks with the directness of a person not likely to suffer fools   gladly or tolerate poor standards.

He hails Pope Francis “as a breath of fresh air” but says he has an incredibly daunting task of reform given the “unwieldy” nature of the Church.  

“The horrific abuse scandals have put my faith in the institutional Church under great pressure. I cannot get my head round how a priest could molest children and then celebrate Mass. That strikes at the heart of Catholicism.”

Jim McDonald likes to adapt a famous quote from the poet John Hewitt to describe his identity, stating he is “first and foremost a Belfast man”, an Ulsterman, British and Irish “which are inter-changeable” and European.

As a maverick in his own time one suspects Hewitt would recognise Jim McDonald, now considering a PhD on the living conditions of the RIC and early Garda Siochana and RUC, as a kindred spirit.