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Roy Magee (1930 - 2009):
Cleric, Presbyterian; peace negotiator

Roy Magee

The Rev Roy Magee was one of the most seminal figures in the prolix, often secret, always delicate negotiations and dialogues which eventually produced the ceasefire of Loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland in 1994. This was one of the most significant milestones in the years-long, tortuous but ultimately successful peace process, and a sine qua non of the 1998 Belfast Agreement. This was what very many saw as the culmination of that process and the basis for the effective end of the destructive Troubles in Ulster.

Robert James Magee was, said some, able to achieve this partly because he himself came from a Loyalist area of Belfast, Ballysillan. His father was a textile worker, and Magee worked in that trade, among others, after he left the Boys' Model School in his mid-teens; he was also an apprentice fitter, then an office junior in a real estate office. He obtained an Ordinary National Certificate at Belfast College of Technology, but decided to become a Presbyterian minister, and after Magee College, Londonderry and the University of Dublin (BA), he was ordained in 1958.

He was Minister of Sinclair Seaman's Presbyterian Church, Belfast in the late 1960s, when the Troubles flared up again. This church, one of Belfast's best-known and designed by one of its most distinguished architects, Charles Lanyon, is located in the "Docks" area of central Belfast, which put it very much at an urban crossroads and especially between "harder" Protestant and Catholic areas.  The atmosphere in the area around the church was tense, especially at night when vigilantes from both sides and in both senses lurked round the streets. A feature of Belfast at that time, as in many similar situations, was that although the civil strife and violence was based on denominational religious differences, all sides respected clergy, and Magee was asked on occasion to mediate between vigilante groups from both sides. In 1975 he moved to Dundonald, on the eastern edge of Belfast. Wherever he went, he was concerned amongst other things with the bad effects of low incomes on especially young people - not simply unemployment, but that in Belfast having no job or prospect of one often drew people into paramilitary groups and heir activities. He described himself once as a "spiritual policeman", enforcing not the ordinary civil law but that of God.

While therefore repelled by violence, he recognised some of its causes in Northern Ireland, and some were political, and he himself was not opposed for example to the successful 1974 Ulster Workers' Council strike, which was largely a Protestant/Unionist mass opposition to proposed new governmental arrangements which would effectively have reduced the political power of that part of the population, and even worse for them, would have involved the Irish government in Dublin having input of some kind as of right in Northern Ireland, anathema at that time. Magee was even described once as an "unofficial chaplain" to the Ulster Defence Association, a group which in the early 1970s had just been formed and had a not inconsiderable level of poplar support. But the hard edge to paramilitary groupings was too often blatant sectarian murder. One notorious example was when the IRA attacked a restaurant, killing12 diners by incinerating them. Magee would recall sitting with two children whose parents had been in the restaurant and who were waiting for news of them, but they had been burned beyond recognition. The pattern of violence in Ulster was often such that such actions were likely to produce reaction in kind.

Magee's work with community groups in low income areas brought him into contact with people whose everyday lives were not improved by what some saw as local gangsterism on the part of those who might have begun with more lofty motives, and he ascribed the level of trust he enjoyed with such groups to their common political outlook as well as their work in common. There was also his time round Sinclair Seaman's Church; and it must not be forgotten, his pastoral mission as a minister of the gospel of peace. As the Troubles wore on, he decided to act to try to persuade people away from violence for political ends. There were similar movements on the nationalist side, which involved amongst other things, clergy arranging, facilitating or actively taking part in highly secret "contacts", later "talks" (these seemingly innocuous terms can be laden with significance in a province where at this, a proposed meeting between political enemies who were to say the least highly suspicious of each other were described, wryly but accurately, as "talks about talks about talks"). Even at a time when many despaired at dealing with people who would, for example, fire a machine gun indiscriminately into a bar, Magee stated: "Even though they may have been vicious people and violent people, they have problems. They have difficulties that need to be addressed."

Effectively, Magee became a kind of intermediary between Loyalist paramilitaries and the Government, later also the Irish Government, who he knew had to understand what motivated Loyalism, and what they would be prepared to put up with politically. One significant practical concession he was able to wrest from the British Government was they ended their ban on Loyalist paramilitary leaders meeting Loyalist paramilitary prisoners, a ban which was obstructing dialogue and debate and helped those "outside" to persuade those "inside" of the virtues of ending violent campaigns. But there had to a quid pro quo, or several, and in the early 1990s, the British and Irish Governments were preparing a major joint statement on the future of Northern Ireland which - no easy task - was intended to satisfy two positions, unionism and nationalism, which were, theoretically at least, defined in contradistinction to each other. Magee built up a positive relationship with the incumbent Irish Prime Minister, Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, and was able to persuade him to introduce a clause on religious freedom into the upcoming statement. This statement became the now famous Downing Street Declaration of 1993. In 1994 came first, an IRA ceasefire (properly, a "complete cessation of military activities"); loyalist paramilitaries, now represented by the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) who were rather used, many would say, to responding to IRA violence with violence, "responded" to this IRA move with their own ceasefire, their statement of which included a statement of "true and abject remorse", though also that the ceasefire continuing was conditional on that of the IRA. Despite these conditions, 1994 was seen by almost all as a highly positive year for Northern Ireland. Magee was highly praised in all quarters for his contribution.

In 1995 he retired from active ministry and took up a post at the University of Ulster, a Research Fellow in Conflict Resolution. The peace process was still in turbulent seas: in 1996 the IRA announced that their cessation had ended and exploded bombs, killing several people. However, this proved a temporary setback and by April 1998, the Belfast Agreement was agreed by politicians and endorsed electorally. Some paramilitary violence would continue, though this was usually not internecine and so not generally seen as a threat to "peace" in Northern Ireland. Magee would occasionally be called upon to mediate. Nevertheless his lasting legacy is generally seen as his efforts in the early 1990s, and it was in 1995 that he accepted a Tipperary Peace Award, presented to him by the United States Ambassador to Ireland; he received another US distinction, a Peacemaker in Action Award from the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, New York City.

Roy Magee was described by one loyalist this way: "He was a pillar for people in the loyalist community going through difficult times. If it was not for him there would have been a lot more people killed." In this way, he achieved a lot of what he set out to achieve. As he himself put it: "What I do is nothing more and nothing less than an extension of my pastoral work." On his death, The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, Rev Dr Donald Patton stated: "While his peace making brought him to wider public attention Roy was also fully committed to the Presbyterian congregations where he served as a much-loved pastor and diligent preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

Roy Magee was appointed OBE in 2005.

Born: 3 January 1930
Died: 1 February 2009
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann

Obituaries: The Daily Telegraph; The Guardian; The Times; The Independent;; L Kirkpatrick Presbyterians in Ireland