‘If I wasn’t a Catholic, I would not be the politician I am’

Alban Maginness MLA discusses the importance of his faith

Alban Maginness MLA for North Belfast, SDLP Justice Spokesperson and party bigwig for more than 30 years is something of a  refreshing rarity in  politics – a senior  politician unafraid to  talk about the role of faith in his life and how it  informs his worldview.

For Mr Maginness, who made history in 1997 by becoming the first Catholic and the first nationalist to be elected First Citizen since Belfast received its Royal Charter around the time of the Plantation of Ulster in 1613, religion is important.

“It is ridiculous to assume that religion is something private and not pertinent to the formation of political views.”

“If I wasn’t a Catholic, if I wasn’t a Christian, I do not think I would be the politician that I am because I think that faith has shaped and formed my political outlook  which is one of social justice, of  social  democracy, and more importantly within the context of Northern Ireland that of [being a] reconciler.”

He is quite clear that as a Catholic and a Christian he has no choice but to work for reconciliation.

“My belief is that in this society we have got to reconcile both political traditions. We have got to end the animosity and the divisions that have kept us apart for generations pre-dating Partition.”

No illusion

But the lively 63-year-old  who intends to seek re-election in the next Assembly poll in less than two years’ time is under no illusion as to how resistant the North itself is to the reconciliation he yearns for. 

Yet hope springs eternal: “It’s hard work, you need to keep at it. One of the great Christian virtues is hope. You believe in hope because you believe that you can change things, that you can transform people’s minds and their hearts and that things can be better, that there is a redemptive quality in humanity which can change things.”

A party member since 1972, when he took part in the civil rights march which ended in the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, there are unapologetic religious undertones to his language as he describes the journey all peoples  on this island have been engaged in to a greater or lesser extent over many decades or longer.

And especially since the seminal Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which bore the fingerprints of the SDLP and its visionary leader, John Hume most of all.

Articulate, cogent and persuasive, and considered pre-eminently suited for the post of Justice Minister if the DUP and Sinn Féin ever agree for it to be decided under the d’Hondt system like the other ministries, he uses words such as “hope” and “forgiveness” and “redemptive”, that makes him stand out from those who inhabit what they may consider to be a secular comfort zone.

Mr Maginness, a barrister by profession who became a full-time politician when the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement finally stuttered into place, represents North Belfast in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

It is  a constituency that suffered grievously during the Troubles and includes Ardoyne,  the scene of some of the most contentious Orange parades each July and its  Holy Cross  girls primary school where  young pupils endured an appalling gauntlet of  sectarian abuse that outraged people around the world in the early Noughties.

Personal ambition

Married to Carmel with a family of five daughters and three boys, Alban Maginness  was brought up in Holywood, Co. Down and educated at St Malachy’s College and at both the University of Ulster and at Queen’s University before being called to the Bar of Northern Ireland  and later to the Irish Bar.

Politics and the Bar went hand in hand for a time but what was the allure of politics when concentration on the law could have led to lucrative earnings as a senior counsel and possible progression to a judgeship?

“It wasn’t for personal ambition or advancement. I and my family decided we wanted to make a contribution by trying to transform the conflicted nature of political relationships through the SDLP. It was important someone did that job and I did with other colleagues. I was not alone.”

Mr Maginness is rightly proud of his place in the history of Belfast as the City’s first Catholic and first nationalist Lord Mayor in 1997-98, his election made possible by the main unionist parties losing their overall majority and the Alliance Party holding the balance of power. 

“It was a very exciting moment but also a scary  moment because you didn’t know what was going to happen and even the City Hall staff were apprehensive about a Catholic in the post.”

A striking feature of Northern politics over the past decade and a half has been Sinn Féin’s rise at the expense of the SDLP with the larger party being seen to have stolen its clothes.


The SDLP has recently laboured to establish clear blue water between itself and Sinn Féin while still proving more resilient than many had supposed.

One clear distinction between the two parties, it is argued, (and not the only one) is the SDLP’s credentials as  a pro-life party which Mr Maginness treasures, extolling Pope St John Paul II’s warning about a “culture of death” in Evangelium Vitae (1995). 

Last year a Sinn Féin petition of concern defeated an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, co-sponsored by Alban Maginness and DUP MLA Paul Givan that would have created a new offence of ending the life of an unborn child in private clinics, a move prompted by the opening of the Marie Stopes centre in Belfast.

If the SDLP ever wobbles in its pro-life commitment – and there are moves under way by the  Justice Minister to liberalise abortion legislation possibly in regard to fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and incest – Alban Maginness will be among those to the fore in the party upholding the right to life of the most vulnerable person of all, the unborn baby in the womb.

“The SDLP has been robustly pro-life and I believe it will maintain that position even though there are elements outside the party, including a very powerful media, who would like the party to change its position.”

Alban Maginness is opposed to same sex marriage – which is effectively vetoed by the DUP in the North – but he explains that a decision by the SDLP’s 14 strong Assembly Group currently prevents him from voting according to his conscience on the matter in the Assembly. So with five other members of the group he abstained in a vote on the issue on April 29.

“The party has made that decision and I dissent from it and it is unsatisfactory and I have been given the option of abstaining. I believe in party discipline.”


He says the policy that prohibits the type of free vote granted to parliamentarians in Westminster and the Scottish Parliament may be changed but he accepts things as they stand.

He states that “an unintended consequence” of the passing of marriage equality legislation in the North would be the putting at risk of public funding to organisations such as Accord and Family Care, the Catholic adoption service.

What he could never do, he says in answer to a question, is to abstain on a vote on abortion.

“I would have to oppose it and would do so unapologetically.”

Alban Maginness is a frank, thoughtful and passionate person and not one who takes himself too seriously.

Leaving his home in his north Belfast constituency one sensed that he is a person who actually enhances politics.