Speaking truth to power

Speaking truth to power Fr Martin Magill
A Belfast-based priest remains modest about how his words pricked the conscience of politicians, writes Colm Fitzpatrick


When a Belfast-based priest gave the homily at the funeral of a murdered journalist last month, it wasn’t expected that his words would have any long-term effect. The remarks would, of course, touch the hearts and minds of those who knew and loved her, but probably be forgotten by those in attendance at the church exit.

This, however, was not to be the case. Instead, the powerful words of Fr Martin Magill in tribute to 29-year-old Lyra McKee reverberated not just within the church walls, but out to an entire island longing for hope in a time of anguish.

Northern Ireland’s political leaders were some of the many who gathered in Belfast’s St Anne’s Cathedral for a special ecumenical funeral service in memory of Ms McKee, who was murdered by a dissident republican group on April 18 in Derry. Her death shocked the country, not least because as a self-described “ceasefire baby”, she became the victim of an issue which she had spoken in her life so passionately about.


But her death also provoked anger; exasperated with the deadlocked political parties who were able to stand in solidarity with one another in the church, but unable to do so in Stormont.

This frustration prompted Fr Magill to say to the congregation: “I commend our political leaders for standing together in Creggan on Good Friday. I am however left with a question: ‘Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her to get us to this point?’” Before he even finished the sentence, people in the pews rose to their feet applauding this lucid remark, including the politicians to whom the comment was directed, eventually.

Speaking to The Irish Catholic about this watershed point in Northern Ireland’s history, Fr Magill says that the reaction to the homily indicates the presence of a general dissatisfaction and vexation at the North’s current failing political situation.

“They started clapping, people started standing. And suddenly, they gave power to what I had said. I had clearly tapped into something,” he explains.

The moment has been played continuously on radio and television for the last week, but as Fr Magill is keen to stress, it’s important to remember that behind the standing ovation is a sobering message about the future trajectory of the country.

“My question referred to the five main parties – I think it got a bit lost in the last few days, that the different party leaders stood together. That needs to be acknowledged. It was very clear that people wanted that, working together, standing together, for them to be working through whatever issues are holding them back,” Fr Magill says.

“I’m certainly not going to say you need to be doing x, y and z, because I’m not a politician, I’ve no desire to be a politician, I’ve no expertise, I’m certainly not going to give any guidance on how they do that, but it’s very clear that people are frustrated, they want to work through whatever difficulties they’re facing.”

Frustration is, perhaps, one of the tamer words to describe the emotions of Northern Irish citizens at this time, given that Stormont has been left in limbo for well over two years. There have been numerous failed attempts to restore power but divisive issues like the status of the Irish language and same-sex marriage continue to remain sticking points.

As a result, no significant legislative developments have been implemented in almost 30 months, leaving people disenfranchised at a government who has let them down at every turn.

For Fr Magill, this failure extends far beyond the current political stalemate as many communities are still waiting on the social and economic progress that was envisaged following the signing on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

“Imagine what difference the peace process has made over 21 years; of course I’m going to acknowledge the fact that there are people living today, and that’s obviously the primary benefit of it. But at the same time, there’s maybe certain areas of Belfast or Derry, or other places and other towns – there are a lot of places in Northern Ireland – that haven’t seen any real benefit,” he tells this newspaper.

One demographic that has been particularly affected by a government at constant loggerheads, Fr Magill stresses, are young people. Quoting a friend of Ms McKee in his homily, Fr Magill says: “The younger generation need jobs, they need a better health service and education. They need a life, not a gun put in their hands’,” noting that there is a clear correlation between these areas of attacks and social deprivation.

“All our young people need a life that gives them an aspiration for the future.

“As our politicians we need you to be working together to make that happen so that especially for those living in deprived areas that they will feel the peace process is working for them as well – and especially for young people living in these communities.”


Fr Magill’s words seem to have had some effect, as last Friday Prime Minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made a joint statement announcing an agreement to establish a new “process of political talks involving all the main political parties in Northern Ireland, together with the UK and Irish governments” in the aim of re-establishing Stormont.

The new talks, which have been welcomed by both Sinn Féin and DUP leaders, are set to begin on May 7. It is hoped that they will be the impetus for restoring the political institutions in the North, and create a framework where voters are fully represented.

While Fr Magill describes Ms McKee’s death primarily as a tragedy, the collective response to her story has been unexpected and “amazing”, as strangers of different faith traditions and political backgrounds have stood together in calling for a better future for the generations of today and tomorrow. It is the hope that this long-awaited call will finally be heard loud and clear by leaders of the country.

“My prayer is that out of this horrific situation, again thinking about the whole time of it – Holy Thursday into Good Friday, celebrating resurrection – that it’s actually a doorway.

“It gives us another chance, it gives us an opportunity of something new, new hope and I suppose I’m obviously imbued by the whole Easter spirit, and I think there’s an opportunity here that all of us can take.”