Belfast Telegraph

Queen's visit is a massive test for the peace process

Dublin trips are welcoming for loyalist Jackie McDonald. He tells Brian Rowan he hopes it's the same for our monarch

For the loyalist leader Jackie McDonald it has become a regular journey - a visit to Dublin as guest of President Mary McAleese and her husband Martin.

And, yesterday, the UDA 'brigadier' once more made the trip south. "They broke down a lot of barriers and opened a lot of doors for us," McDonald tells the Belfast Telegraph.

Opened doors to loyalists in the south, at a time when many doors in Northern Ireland remained shut.

He recalls his first visit to Dublin some years ago as a guest of the Irish President: "Sixty of us went down," he says. "Some had reservations." But Mary and Martin made them so welcome.

"Getting back on the bus, they [the loyalist visitors] were saying, when are we coming back again?"

In that same period, in the north, McDonald says things were very different. The Secretary of State "didn't want to know us" and the Chief Constable "wanted to put us in jail".

But, in the developing peace process, Dublin has not been a cold house for loyalists. It has been a place where McDonald and others have been made welcome - a place where important relationships have been built.

And the loyalist believes that in the period ahead there is an opportunity to make yet more progress.

He is talking about the planned visit by the Queen. "I wouldn't like to see the Queen come to Dublin and it causing trouble," he says.

"I would love to see her being made welcome, and the same whenever the Pope comes here [to Northern Ireland]. It's a great opportunity for both traditions to show how much we've moved on," he says.

But McDonald knows there are those who are intent on protesting, and he also knows what that will mean.

"The downside is, if there are protests against one, then there will be protests against the other," he warns. "And that will show we are not prepared to complete the journey."

The Queen's visit is being viewed as a big moment - an occasion that, in the words of one Irish politician, could "seal the peace process".

But McDonald is saying it will also be a test of that process - a moment in which people will see how much or how little has changed.

In recent years, he has taken a number of risks and has been ahead of many in the UDA posse, some would argue too far ahead.

It is not just about those visits to Dublin, including being part of a delegation several years ago that met then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

There is much more to peace building - bigger challenges, such as the visit he made to the Falls Road and the West Belfast Festival last August.

Not just McDonald but other loyalists including John Bunting, Winston 'Winkie' Rea and William 'Plum' Smith who were prepared to step outside their own comfort zones and into the same room and the same space as republican leaders Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams.

It was a big moment - not a cosy conversation.

McDonald was later criticised for shaking hands with McGuinness, but challenged one of his critics to think about what it was like for McGuinness to shake his hand.

The point McDonald was making was that the UDA had killed many Catholics, had killed members of Sinn Fein and had targeted their families.

And that the photograph had to be seen not just as McDonald shaking hands with the now Deputy First Minister, but McGuinness shaking McDonald's hand.

Many loyalists have not yet found their place in the peace process. Indeed, there are those who are not looking for that place, and who are more comfortable in the hidden corners of an old world.

They will be lost there.

Peace building is about risk taking and about meeting challenges. It is not about the easy option.

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