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A former hippie who was once jailed for rioting and raised a Catholic but now a member of the Church of Ireland, Paul McLaughlin on his work to help those in mixed marriages and how lack of political leadership is fuelling sectarianism

The development officer with the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association on why his ambition is for there to be no need for the organisation for which he works

By Lindy McDowell

He went to school with Gerry Adams, but Paul McLaughlin's life followed a very different trajectory.

A self-confessed peace-loving hippie in his youth, he was once arrested in a bizarre case of mistaken identity. One of the unsung heroes of Northern Ireland, as development officer with the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association (NIMMA) he's fought for years against the sectarianism that blights lives - and love.

Married to Julie, McLaughlin previously worked as a PR executive with British Telecom, latterly BT. He was also to the forefront of the campaign to save his then-church, St Joseph's in Sailortown, after the Catholic Church decided to close it down.

That campaign was ultimately unsuccessful. Here, he talks about the challenges that still face mixed families in Northern Ireland and reveals that despite NIMMA's substantial and vital contribution in providing support, the organisation receives no funding from Stormont.

Q. Where did you grow up?

A. I was born in 1953 and I grew up in Ballymurphy. It was very much a working class upbringing, the four of us - I've one brother and two sisters - and my mother Sally and my father Tommy. My father was a barman.

He was also an ex-serviceman who'd been in the Navy during the war. So we had maybe a slightly different type of upbringing to some in the same area. They were decent churchgoing Catholics, my parents, But not 'Holy Joes'. My father would be what you could call Christian socialist. My mother was also very left-wing. We were brought up with the old British Labour Party. My da had been round the world three times. He said to me he got his eyes opened, that it makes you realise what a small place this is. Our parents brought us up to always treat other people with respect. After the 11-plus I went to St Mary's Christian Brothers. Gerry Adams went to the same school at the same time, although he was a few years older than me. I always say that's another thing I have in common with Gerry - I was never in the IRA either! I enjoyed sport. I enjoyed school. But then, just coming up to A-levels, I got arrested.

Q. What was that about?

A. I was supposed to be meeting a girl on the Whiterock Road. She didn't turn up but an Army foot patrol did. It was around 11pm. I was arrested, beaten and appeared in court the next day charged with riotous behaviour and incitement to riot.

Q. Was there even a riot in the area?

A. There must have been, but I wasn't there. I only came out later so I didn't know what was going on. Back then I was a hippie with long hair. Everybody knew I was a hippie. When the soldiers came upon me and started hitting me with the batons they were calling me by a different name. That threw me. I was trying to explain: "You've got the wrong guy." But it didn't come out right. I was arrested and they remanded me in custody to Crumlin Road Gaol for a week.

Q. That must have been awful...

A. It was absolutely dreadful. My hair was ruined. That bit was quite funny. In court it wasn't so funny. This soldier got up and claimed he'd identified me. Anyway, I went into the Crum and there were quite a few from Ballymurphy in at the time. They were amazed when they saw me. They were calling out: "What the f*** are you doing in here?". I'd never been in a riot or thrown a stone or anything like that in my life. The next day you were supposed to have a bath. You had to queue up with about 20 other guys with this little towel, naked. And when I got to the bath, it was the same bath that everybody else was getting into. I said to the guy who looked like Fulton Mackay, the prison warder in Porridge: "I can't get into that, it's filthy." He went nuts. The wee moustache was dancing up and down on his face. He said: "You will get into it."

There was another guy with him called McClelland who was very nice. Eventually I did get into it. I asked for shampoo. Your man went mad. He said to use the soap. I said: "I can't. It gives me split ends." Then I asked for the hairdryer. The other man McClelland was down on his hands and knees laughing. Eventually, when I appeared in court the following week, I was remanded on bail. A couple of weeks later I appeared again. The young chap from the Anglian Regiment had claimed to have identified me at 100 yards, in the dark, in November, at 11 o'clock at night when the lights of the Land Rover were pointing in the opposite direction - and there hadn't been any street lights for three months. The case was thrown out.

The guy they were looking for had similar hair. But he was about four inches shorter than me. I was cleared. But that experience really threw me for a long time. I had nightmares. When the exams came around I just wasn't interested. It was dreadful for my parents.

My dad, though, was a very funny guy. When he'd come up to visit me he'd said: "You're sitting there like George Raft." But my poor mother was distracted. We hadn't been brought up to get involved in things like that. I'd kept away from it. And yet I was the first in our school, as far as I know, to get arrested. I was arrested before Gerry Adams, even. There's a certain irony there.

Q. The experience meant your education and A-levels were disrupted. So where did you go after school?

A. I joined the Civil Service. I hadn't much choice. I stayed there for three years and then I joined the Post Office. Later on I trained in-house in London on the Post Office newspaper - BT, as it became. I loved the work. It's something I would have liked to have done when I was younger.

Q. How did you get involved with NIMMA?

A. After I retired from BT I spent a lot of time with my folks who were getting older. During that time I did a lot of voluntary work with St Joseph's in Sailortown. I still kept doing PR work which was good, I kept my hand in there. Then sadly my mum and dad died within about six months of each other. I realised I needed something more to do. I saw the job advertised and applied for it.

Q. Although you were brought up a Catholic you joined the Church of Ireland. Why?

A. This was about 10 years ago around the time of the campaign to save St Joseph's. The Catholic Church, doing what it always did, had split the group, negotiating with one half of the group while not negotiating with the other half. The half which was more secular - who weren't fussed about whether there was ever any religious service in the church again - they signed up for a covenant which said there would never be any worship in it. So, to me, there was no point hanging on after that. Around that time I got speaking to a Church of Ireland canon. I was looking for something else. I have always fervently believed that women should have the opportunity to be priests and that priests should have the opportunity to get married. I also felt that women were treated as second class citizens within the Roman Catholic fiefdom.

The more I read about the Church of Ireland, the more I realised that all those things that were important to me were there. This fella said to me: "If you were to join, you bring everything with you." I did. I joined St George's in High Street. St George's is very high church. It's more Catholic than the RCs. I'm very comfortable there. It's an eclectic bunch. People come from different backgrounds but we're all very comfortable.

Q. In 2018 do you think society here is now more accepting of mixed marriages?

A. Well, it's got easier to make one - the nuts and bolts of it - thanks to the work of a lot of NIMMA people over 40 years. There's no longer this dreadful written promise you had to make that your children would be brought up Catholic. That was fundamentalism. The Catholic Church was doing that up to 30 years ago and getting away with it. The Protestant Churches, I think, tended to be reactive rather than proactive. They tended to sit back and say nothing instead of coming out and saying: "This is wrong." In Protestant Churches you've also got the fundamentalists. And, as in the anti-abortion debate, those fundamentalists have more in common with conservative Catholics than all those of us in the middle ground. So yes, it's easier to make a mixed relationship.

But we all know the sectarianism that still exists, particularly in working class areas. Even in the countryside. It's underneath the surface, but it's still there, even in middle class areas. But in working class areas it's dreadful. Nothing's really changed. Certain parts of Belfast are no-go areas for people of certain denominations. And so it is with mixed marriages. It's also a class thing. It's wonderful if you can pick and choose where you want to live. If you're in a mixed relationship and you can afford a house on the Stranmillis Road, you'll not have a problem.

But if you're in social housing, then like 95% of social housing, you're in an area that's one denomination or the other. Chances are it's going to be very difficult to find a shared neighbourhood. This is something that NIMMA's been working at for years. We've now got a number of shared neighbourhoods around the province. And most of them are operating really well. Full credit to them. But we still have paramilitaries running certain areas. And while you have paramilitaries you will always have problems.

Q. Some couples have left Northern Ireland in the past. Have they found it easier?

A. When you leave Northern Ireland you leave the problem behind. But the problem is still there. It's just put in suspended animation. I spoke to one couple for a book I'm currently working on about mixed marriage couples who'd moved away. This couple had been away from here for 35 years. But after they spoke to me - and their family back here found out that they had - it caused such ructions that they asked me to delete everything. It was unreal. The guy actually said: "I want you to destroy my emails as if I never contacted you."

Q. Do you feel politicians could do more to combat sectarianism?

A. I think there's a total lack of leadership, a total lack of statesmanship. The two parties that basically control our country, they have absolutely no interest in any sharing - any genuine sharing. Their constituencies are hardcore. Their messages are very, very unyielding messages that appeal to baser instincts. They're not saying: "Try and compromise - try and accommodate this other person. Show a wee bit of Christianity or show a wee bit of humanity." You're not hearing those sort of messages. It's all us and them'uns. Nothing's changed. I was told by a guy - I won't even say which side it was - after I'd written a book about the children of mixed marriages where I'd described them as "doubly enriched" in that they had a foot in both camps and an understanding of the two identities in this place, this character, this so-called politician asked me: "Why would I be interested in any dilution of my identity?" He regarded any offspring of a mixed relationship as "diluting" the bloodstock. I just thought: "Dear God."

There are still problems with housing here and there are not enough integrated schools. And yes, you can blame the politicians for that. There was a commitment under the Good Friday Agreement that there would be massive investment in the integrated sector. That hasn't happened. We would have lots of enquiries from couples who want their children to go to integrated schools. That's all well and good if you're in the Greater Belfast area, where there are slightly more of them. But west of the Bann, for example, they're very, very sparse. We need more integrated schools. I would go as far as to say we need all integrated schools and pre-schools. I'm being told by teachers that even in integrated secondary schools it's hard to break down the cliques that started in primary school. These community schemes where they bring kids away together, that's all well and good for a week or two. But then they go back to their ghettos and never see each other again. And they're coming under all that peer pressure.

Q. So are you pessimistic about future?

A. No. I'm optimistic because I'm always optimistic. And also because I've seen young people in action. For instance, I was down in Erne College where the kids were doing workshops on one of our books. I heard more sense from 14 and 15-year-olds there than I have from many adults in the last 30 years. They were talking about gender and homophobia and identity and culture in a reasonable fashion. So I would be optimistic for our young people.

Q. And the number of mixed relationships is increasing...

A. According to a survey carried out here it's estimated that over one in five relationships here is now mixed. That's more than 20%.

That's a substantial community in itself. But it isn't notated anywhere. What we need is a section on the Northern Ireland census form that reflects this - a box you tick that says you're 'mixed'. In NIMMA we campaigned for a similar box on all housing application forms so that housing associations would be aware that a couple were "mixed" and that certain areas might be more suitable for them. That legislation was brought in about three years ago.

Q. NIMMA plays a crucial role in this still divided community. Where does your funding come from?

A. We live from hand to mouth. A little money from the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin. And the rest of our funding is from different charitable trusts across the UK.

We get nothing from the government here. We applied several times before they went on "holiday" but were told: "We don't have a funding stream for people like you." They do, however, have funding streams for other sorts of people. I did joke one day that maybe if NIMMA started up a paramilitary wing... we need the institutions up and running again here. But how the hell we get that, I don't know.

Q. To people outside of Northern Ireland, the need for an organisation like NIMMA must seem strange. How do you view the future?

A. I met Prince Charles about five years ago. He came to St George's and we had a wee stall up. He was wonderful. And so was she (Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall). He asked me about mixed marriages and said: "How can anybody even tell what religion you are?" And I told him you just get each other to say the alphabet. You only need to get as far as "h". He started to laugh and said: "That's absurd!" And I said: "Well, you do like The Goons, don't you?" Overall, I'd like to think that within a few years, making a mixed marriage would just be normal. The great ambition of NIMMA is that one day there will be no need for us. Our aim, unusually for any organisation, is to put ourselves out of business.

Paul McLaughlin is the author of two books published by NIMMA (£5 each.) Mixed Emotions recounts the experience of people who married across Northern Ireland's religious divide. Both Sides Now features the stories of those who grew up the children of mixed relationships. A third book Exiles For Love, based on the accounts of mixed couples who were forced to leave Northern Ireland, is due for publication in the autumn. The books and a wide range of support services are available from www.nimma.org.uk

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