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Why Bishop of Clogher wrote to Boris Johnson over Brexit and his fears for the Irish border



Bishop of Clogher John McDowell with Archbishop of York John Sentamu

Bishop of Clogher John McDowell with Archbishop of York John Sentamu

Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Prime Minister Boris Johnson

AFP/Getty Images


Bishop of Clogher John McDowell with Archbishop of York John Sentamu

Bishop of Clogher Rev John McDowell tells Donna Deeney about why he wrote to Boris Johnson about Brexit and his concerns for the Irish border.

Q: Tell me about your childhood?

A: I was born in east Belfast and grew up there. I came from a family of ordinary working class people in the Cregagh area.

I have a twin brother, Jim, who is in Australia and a much older brother, Robert, and sister, Jean, who are 10 and 20 years older than me.

My father Jim worked in the aircraft factory for most of his life.

My mother Jean, by and large, stayed at home but did a little bit of work at Queen's.

Q: What was life like growing up there?

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A: I was born in 1956 so I had 11 or 12 years before the Troubles began.

Perhaps it is a bit of an idyllic retrospective but it seemed like a tremendously happy place for us to grow up.

Even with the very dark background of the Troubles when they came, we still managed to have a pretty good, ordinary life with lots of good relationships.


The bishop at the pulpit

The bishop at the pulpit

The bishop at the pulpit

In those days housing estates were a great deal more mixed than they are now, there was an opportunity to form friendships across the community.

It was an age of promise that unfortunately didn't fulfil its promise.

Q: When did you decide to enter religious life? Had you considered other paths beforehand?

A: I went to university at Queen's and I read medieval history and then I went to work almost immediately at Shorts in a commercial capacity in the missiles system division.

They sent me back to university to the School of Economics. I came back after that and worked for Shorts and for the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) for about 12 years before I offered myself for ordination. That had been in the back of my mind for most of that period.

I enjoyed the jobs I had been doing but it came to the stage where I thought I had better do something about this underlying vocation before it was too late.


The bishop with his wife Mary and their daughter Dorothy

The bishop with his wife Mary and their daughter Dorothy

The bishop with his wife Mary and their daughter Dorothy

I was married to Mary by then, so I needed to make the decision.

That was when I was around 36 because I was ordained when I was 40.

Q: You were appointed Bishop in 2011. Were you surprised when you got the call, what did your wife and daughter think?

A: I was surprised because I didn't know I was being considered.

I just got the call to say I had been elected by the House of Bishops to be Bishop of Clogher and would I accept, which of course I did. I was really honoured.

My wife comes from a long line of clergy so she had more of an understanding of what it all meant more than I did. My daughter was just finished her first year at grammar school at that stage in Belfast, so she was a little bit less encouraged at the time, but it only took her a very short space of time to realise it was a great honour and privilege to be offered the position.

In the end Co Fermanagh turned out very well for her, she loved school there and thrived.

Q: Before taking up your position as Bishop of Clogher Diocese, you were in an east Belfast parish. How much of an adjustment was moving to a rural setting?

A: I was a curate in Antrim town and had two country parishes outside Coleraine and so I was used to a certain amount of country ministry, but Fermanagh is a very different place.


The bishop with DUP leader Arlene Foster

The bishop with DUP leader Arlene Foster

The bishop with DUP leader Arlene Foster

It is a border place, it has its very distinctive character so it did take me quite a while to adjust.

I think I was reasonably good at taking time to get to know the place.

We settled in and it didn't take too long for us to get integrated into the community.

Q: Politicians and business leaders here have already stressed the potential damage to Northern Ireland from a no-deal Brexit during Theresa May's time as PM, and yet no agreement was reached. Why did you decide to write to Boris Johnson?

A: I was getting concerned, like a lot of people, watching what was happening from a distance, thinking that when we turn the next corner of the maze we will find a way out, but it just wasn't happening.

Also the border was being talked about as though it was some sort of mathematical theory that some very clever person was going to come up with the answer to, and that would be that, but it's not. It is a place where people are trying to live and integrate.


The bishop with Linda Brunt, Harry Anderson and Joe McAlpine

The bishop with Linda Brunt, Harry Anderson and Joe McAlpine

The bishop with Linda Brunt, Harry Anderson and Joe McAlpine

More importantly, the border, while it has been a line on a map since 1921, it is the most potent and controversial fact of political life in Northern Ireland.

Everything in politics is worked out against its background and I was one of those people who was very relieved in 1998 when the Agreement took not just the gun but took the border out of politics.

For it to be brought back into things in the way that it was, it seemed to me to be a very perilous thing to do.

The fact is that English ministrations and people in important positions in England are very detached from reality in Northern Ireland. I don't think they understand it.

Q: Do you think Boris Johnston cares about the effect a hard or no-deal Brexit will have on people living in Northern Ireland, especially in border areas?

A: I wrote the letter and at the time I hadn't realised there were all sorts of letters, not just about the border, that had been written to him.

The Church is not an influential institution any longer, nor in many ways should it be in political life, but I wanted to say, as someone who has lived along the border for long enough to see what achievements have been made by an international cross-border treaty, two countries - Ireland and the United Kingdom - living closely together, it would be very easy to think that was just a small achievement put together 20 years ago and we can fix it if it starts to go badly wrong.

But it is much, much more than that. It was that sort of moral or ethical point that I was making to say that there are consequences to actions, particularly in Ireland, that aren't easy to see.

Q: You have suggested it would be irresponsible or careless for his Government to proceed without a clear Brexit plan. How concerned are you at the apparent lack of a plan just weeks away from October 31?

A: I am concerned in that there is no doubt an amount of no-deal planning is being enhanced more than it was. But what no-deal planning does is stop the house burning down, it doesn't actually build another house. What an agreement does is build the foundation for building the other house.

Even the phrase "no-deal" is a bit of a misnomer because you can go out on October 31 but you are going to have to come back in again at some time in the future to work out what that future relationship is going to be.

Q: You also talked about the damage to the Good Friday Agreement from a no-deal Brexit. Last Monday there was the attempted murder of police officers in Co Fermanagh. Do you fear a surge in these type of attacks?

A: I don't know what way all the balls that are in the air will come down, but what I do know is that if you have the Northern Ireland Civil Service - a very sober, responsible body - putting in a report two months ago saying that there will likely be 40,000 jobs at risk in a no-deal Brexit - that kind of economic disruption causes huge social dislocation.

It also undermines democratic politics and opens the possibility for people of evil intentions but also for society in such a way that people get very disaffected with a process that has only delivered them into a bit more misery.

Q: Did you get a reply to your letter to the PM?

A: No I didn't, nor did I expect to. I know that it was picked up by people in Government. I was very lucky in that it had a pretty good life in the Twittersphere for a while and on Facebook.

I didn't want the opportunity to pass without someone from the Church saying something, even if it was a modest something.

I didn't really expect a reply, but I have no doubt it is somewhere in the great cake mix.

Q: The political instability in Northern Ireland will see same-sex marriage and abortion introduced here through Westminster without any input from our own politicians. What are your feelings on that?

A: I think, like the vast majority of people either for or against the introduction of those two measures or some kind of modification of them, it would be highly preferable that it was left to the devolved administration to do.

At the same time, how long can you go on without having an administration and still expect the powers that are devolved to hang there waiting for you to come some day and pick them up?

Both of those measures are controversial and I would much rather have a local debate about them and maybe that is still possible.

I don't know if I would feel terribly justified in saying just because it is devolved it has to come this way, if the people who should be in the devolved administration can't find a way of getting themselves there.

Q: Your diocese straddles the border where on one side both same-sex marriage and abortion is legal but for now is illegal on the other side. Has this impacted on the way you minister in your diocese?

A: Only in the sense that even when abortion and same-sex marriage were outlawed in both jurisdictions and in particular with abortion that people could travel to England to have an abortion.

It should always have been part of, or one of the factors in the debate, that you can't just export your problems all the time.

You can't not take care of people who want taken care of in a certain way in terms of abortion.

The more recent reforms in the Republic have brought that home a lot more closely.

I am not sure about the movements of going backwards and forwards, I suspect the legalisation in the Republic hasn't had much time to bed itself in for people in the Republic to use it, never mind for people in Northern Ireland to use it.

It is an important factor in the debate that people living at point X on the border can move two miles and get that medical service there.

I think generally, pastorally, dealing with people who find themselves in that position of abortion is that you never judge - 'what would I do in a similar situation'.

Q: The numbers of people, particularly young people, who are religious or attend church are falling. What do you think could be done to address this or is it not important that people attend traditional church services as much?

A: Becoming obsessed with numbers is not a good thing.

The Church isn't asked to be successful in those terms, it is asked to be successful in terms of being as faithful as possible to the message it was given and to work out the ethical implications of that message for their own day and own time.

If we try to do that honestly and try to understand the proper place of the Church in a pluralist society then we will be all right.

We are never going to be as influential as we were, thanks be to God. We are never going to be as important to people in power as we once were, thanks be to God.

I think that if we will be faithful to what we are called to do we will more than survive, but that is going to require us - the Church - to say we didn't do things well in the past and we should never again have some sort of privileged access to somebody.

And if we have things to say we have to learn they will not be the first word or the last word, they will just be a word.

That is our contribution to the good of society and if we say them in a way that we can stand over and reason and if they are true to the founder of Christianity then I think we will have once again a valued place in Irish society, north and south.

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