BELFAST – When asking someone “in-the-know” in Northern Ireland which Catholic personality is leading the charge in terms of reconciliation and activism in society, odds are the answer will be Father Martin Magill.
The high public profile of the 56-year-old priest offers a clear contrast with the laid-back, cheery persona that welcomed Crux Aug. 16 at his parish at St. John’s on Falls Road, Belfast. Caught between a funeral and a wedding celebration, Magill kindly offered coffee and cakes with a healthy side of candor.
Concerning the institutional Church’s role in Northern Irish society, the priest said that there is “not much support” for local initiatives aimed at cementing the fragile peace achieved by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
“If it were a grade in school, I’d write ‘room for improvement’,” he said. “Some lay Catholics are very good, but there’s no strategic, coordinated, focused approach. I personally think we’re not doing very well.”
In the wake of the Good Friday accord, which led to a sizable reduction of violence between Protestant and Catholic factions in the country, Magill said there was “a certain complacency” both within the Church and across society to hand over matters to the local government.
“The hard work to deal with the legacy of the past should have begun,” he said, but “the effort was just to keep the machine going.”
Though violence and terrorist attacks are no longer a staple of daily life in Northern Ireland, sectarianism remains healthy. He said those who through either conflict or circumstance were pushed into urban pockets of deprivation and disenfranchisement, both Catholic and Protestant, now pay the price – especially the young.
According to Magill, the lack of Church investment in reconciliation is evident not only in terms of funding for projects – which he says is lacking – but also in terms of deploying priests and personnel to address it. He said that when he asked his bishop to be assigned to youth work, for instance, he was turned down.
(In all fairness, priestly vocations have been dwindling in Ireland as a whole, and the general impression in the Diocese of Down and Connor is that everyone is “really busy.”)
Magill returned to Belfast following a 11-month break in the eastern part of the country, during which time he wrote a book on the Poor Clares sisters. Before that he had become well known for his work with young people in West Belfast who are increasingly seduced by the appeal of drugs and alcohol.
Between 2001 and 2016, Magill said, over 3,500 people died as a consequence of alcohol consumption, setting a new record in the region, according to data collected by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra). As it happens, that’s precisely the same number of people who died in “the Troubles,” referring to Northern Ireland’s 30-year period of Catholic/Protestant conflict.
The ongoing crisis costs the government about $320 million a year, experts say, and hospitals are increasingly burdened by growing numbers of alcohol related patients.
Drug overdoses have also seen a spike, with 14 people dying due to drug abuse in Northern Ireland just between June and July of this year. Between 2006 and 2016, more than 1,000 people lost their lives as a consequence of drug abuse.
Magill is committed to realizing his dream of creating a regional unit in Northern Ireland to address growing addiction-related issues for youth under 18-years old.
His vision includes outreach on the streets and a rehabilitation center that would take people in for up to six months.
The key word, he says, is that the location be “rurban,” meaning far enough from Belfast to avoid recovering addicts going to local bars and buying drugs and close enough for them to have access to hospitals and services in case they fall ill or overdose.
The aim is to get both the churches, Protestant and Catholic alike, involved along with the local government. Such partnerships will be necessary considering that the construction of the facility alone would cost up to $2.5 million, Magill said.
An equally critical challenge, he continued, will be the ongoing expenditure of keeping the 20-30 person staff necessary to lead the operation. Church involvement is necessary, Magill said, and not only for reasons of social justice.
“Given some of the dreadful crimes that priests and nuns committed, I would like to see some sort of reparations,” the priest said, referring to the sexual abuse crisis that hit Ireland staring in 2009.
For the Church to give up some of its infrastructure, especially in light of diminishing vocations, to fund a good social cause would be a step in the right direction to rebuild trust in the community.
“I don’t think it’s sufficiently talked about,” he said.
Magill began his activism in 1998, in the context of a newly pacified Northern Ireland, when he was sent to Nativity parish, a largely Republican and Catholic area that is severely deprived. It was then that he became interested in the frequent “car crimes” in the area, where people – usually young – would steal cars, use them to perform adrenaline-pumping acrobatics and then torch them.
As he approached those young people, he discovered that alcohol and drug abuse was rampant. Many of them had suffered trauma related to paramilitary attacks, the bloodiness of “the troubles” as well as domestic violence.
For a long time, the IRA acted as a rough-and-tumble police force, punishing sometimes aggressively young people who fell out of line. But Magill believes the present vacuum is an opportunity for the Church to get on the field for something that matters.
“Our project is that instead of dealing with substance abuse as a crime issue, it could be dealt with as a health issue,” he said.
With that, Magill was off to celebrate a wedding for a couple from the parish, having devoted much of his morning to a funeral for a recently deceased Mercy sister. That, in a nutshell, seemed to capture Magill’s spirit – an activist whose crusades are rooted in a pastor’s closeness to his people.