Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Northern Ireland politicians should draw on the wisdom of inspirational priest

Father Eugene O'Neill
Father Eugene O'Neill

Editor's Viewpoint

Sometimes the headlines about the bad news in our province are most depressing, but there is also good news and inspiring stories such as that outlined today in our extended interview with Fr Eugene O’Neill, the parish priest of the historic St Patrick’s Catholic Church in Donegall Street, Belfast.

At a time when our politicians at Stormont are trying to find a way forward, each one of them could do worse than study his words.

His life and Christian vocation is an example of how we all might learn to live with one another with much more comfort and mutual respect.

The interview is an illuminating insight into his life. It also shows how often the traditional community lines in our province can be crossed over, to our mutual benefit.

His grandfather from Glenravel fought in the Irish War of Independence, but despite this he felt able to return to his native North and to reach an accommodation, and indeed a friendship, with his Protestant neighbours.

Eugene O’Neill, the young boy who grew up to be a priest, once wore an Orange sash. It was supplied by a friend of his grandfather, and the young Eugene wore it to the bemusement of family and neighbours.

Fr O’Neill served at Harryville in Ballymena during the toxic protests by local loyalists, and he recognised fully the protective role played by armed police who sat with him and his congregation during Mass.

The same cleric, who now finds himself in such a pivotal role in St Patrick’s — where before his arrival a few years earlier there were shameful scenes as Orange marchers and bands filed past — has the generosity to reach out to that constituency to acknowledge the importance of the Orange culture and band music for that community.

Northern Ireland is a place where people feel defined by their identity. It is something behind which they can take cover when feeling threatened.

However, Fr O’Neill’s wise words, drawn from his vast experience on interfaces and in community politics, as well as the challenges of parish life, show how identity does not have to be exclusive and ‘other’.

Instead we can try to see the positives in identities other than our own. Often the best way to do this is to begin by being curious, by finding out more about people and reaching out to them. Who knows? We might even discover something of a shared identity.

Depending on our political background, we might like to re-assure ourselves that we have friends across the water or across the border. The hard reality is that, for the most part here, we are on our own.

In the final analysis we only have each other so we badly need to reach the accommodation and understanding to allow us to build a shared identity.

The past is a place none of us can return to, and much less inhabit. Fr O’Neill tells us in his interview of a moving encounter with a woman whose son had been murdered by the Shankill Butchers.

Just as Fr O’Neill and a select few on all sides are doing, we need to walk the walk towards greater understanding and mutual acceptance.

Sadly, when people here start to talk, whether politicians or ordinary individuals, they often do so from behind walls. In 2019, some 21 years after

the Good Friday Agreement, we still need to start dismantling those barricades, and to find a way to work together and move forward together.

The Stormont talks are still in session. They are the people who represent us and who can move from behind their walls and lead us all towards a better future. They really must do so.

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