John Dallat SDLP MLA described the failure of Limavady Council on Monday night to confer the Freedom of the Borough on the Rev David Armstrong and Fr Kevin Mullan as a “night of shame”. He is wrong.
The nights of shame were 24 years ago when bigots forced the Rev Armstrong out of the town for the terrible sin of crossing the street to shake hands with Fr Mullan as he celebrated Christmas Mass.
Just think of that for a moment. The Rev Armstrong (below), then was a Presbyterian minister. What he performed was a simple Christian greeting to a fellow Christian at one of the calendar highlights of the Christian year.
For that he was forced into exile. He got death threats from loyalist paramilitaries, but then what do you expect from a pig but a grunt. That was no surprise. The real shame was that many people in his own congregation, people who then would call themselves Christian and who probably still do, forced him out or just stood by as he went.
The Rev Armstrong went and later re-trained as an Anglican clergyman and now practices his faith in Co Cork. He is well out of Limavady and away from its noble burghers.
This week the SDLP proposed that the Freedom of the Borough be given to the two clergymen as a form of repentance for the past. The proposal, unsurprisingly, failed. Although passed by eight votes to six, it did not get the required two-thirds majority to gain acceptance.
The six unionist councillors who voted against the motion did themselves no favours and left themselves wide open to accusations of narrow mindedness.
They did not speak during the debate on the motion and they declined, by and large, to explain their motivation immediately afterwards.
One of them actually made a very defensible argument against the granting of the Freedom of the Borough to the two clergymen. He pointed out that other clergymen have also contributed greatly over the years to healing community division in the area after horrific murderous attacks, such as the Droppin’ Well Inn bombing and the shooting of revellers in Greysteel.
Other potential beneficiaries were the men and women of the emergency services who have performed sterling work on behalf of the whole community over the decades of violence and everyday tragedy. Where, he wondered, would you stop if you started conferring the Freedom of the Borough on people deemed worthy of the honour?
That is a very valid point and one he should have made in the council chamber. Instead, he sat dumb like the rest of his colleagues and let others point the finger at them and talk of a “night of shame”. Unionists are constantly being wrong-footed by more nimble opponents and always end up looking like unreconstructed bigots.
The failure to get the motion passed was at odds with the confidence of its proposer, Councillor Michael Coyle, who, the previous week, said he was fairly sure the proposal would be accepted. Was that just wishful thinking? Had he broached the idea with unionist councillors before putting it forward? If he did and was told they were against it, what was his point — merely to show those councillors in a bad light? Did he discuss the idea with the two clergymen and did they want to be made Freemen of Limavady? Whatever the answer to those questions, the net result is that the town has had its reputation dragged through the mud again. The reaction to the two clergymen’s gesture of friendship 24 years ago was unforgivable then, but the charade over the Freedom of the Borough is little better now.
Community relations have been damaged and two honourable men reminded of a great hurt for little more than a few political points being scored.