Why are Unionist leaders not standing side by side with Rev. Gary Mason? – asks Brian Rowan

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The late David Ervine. Image courtesy of: MT Hurson, Harrison Photography


Many still talk about that moment – and that image – that dates back to January 2007.

It was the day Gerry Adams stepped onto the Newtowards Road in east Belfast – crossed enemy lines – to attend the funeral service of the loyalist David Ervine.

Gary Mason was the minister that day – his church packed for what was a remarkable occasion and, for many, it was a confirmation of a growing peace.

Not just that Adams was there, and not just that loyalist leaders were there – both UVF and UDA, but also the many others.

Then Chief Constable Hugh Orde, the Secretary of State in that period Peter Hain and former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds.

Adams and Ervine’s widow Jeanette hugged on the steps of the church, and the Sinn Fein President spoke a few words to a line of UVF men as he walked to his car with party colleague Alex Maskey.

If you were looking for a sign that things were changing – were different – then you could see it on that road and on that day.

Now, fast forward to the events of Thursday – the Skainos Centre daubed with sectarian graffiti and then a protest against a reconciliation event involving Patrick Magee and Jo Berry.

Magee’s name will forever be associated with the Brighton bomb of 1984 when the IRA tried to kill Margaret Thatcher.

Ms Berry’s father was killed in the blast, and in one of those remarkable happenings of peace building she now speaks at reconciliation events with Magee.

Thursday’s protest in east Belfast was aimed primarily at him, but also at anyone else who got in the way.

So, Mason’s mission centre became the target of the graffiti painters and the protesters.

A local politician who tried to speak to them had beer thrown round him but, despite the intimidation, Mason ensured the event went ahead.

He describes himself as a “critical friend” of the loyalist paramilitaries.

In other words he is someone prepared to have the difficult conversations from which others hide.

Now, those loyalist leaders and others need to stand with Mason in a very public show-of-support.

The UVF and the PUP need to publicly distance themselves and disown those criminals who have sullied the name of loyalism in east Belfast.

Some of them were part of what happened outside the Skainos Centre on Thursday.

Unionist political leaders Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt also need to stand publicly with Mason.

So, too the churches, the Orange Order and those with community influence.

It should be a moment when those still trying to dominate that east Belfast community for their own selfish interests are finally shunned and isolated.

Think about how loyalists are treated when they travel to speak at events in nationalist areas.

I remember Jackie McDonald speaking on the Falls Road a few years ago, saying that in 1994 he wanted more Catholics killed before the Combined Loyalist Military Command responded to the IRA ceasefire.

He was heard as he spoke his truth and his feelings – adding that with hindsight he was glad he hadn’t got his way.

All sides – republican, loyalist, intelligence, security – were responsible for horrific actions, and politicians and governments can’t wash their hands of what happened.

It wasn’t about one side, and it isn’t about one community’s hurt.

Gary Mason knows what peace-building is about.

It is about doing the hard things.

He has written and spoken recently about trying to comfort people on the day of the Shankill bomb and, in his role as a hospital chaplain at that time, seeing what bombs can do.

His peace-building role is about trying to make sure there are no more bombs.

So, he talks not just to his own community, but across the different lines.

One example can be found several months ago when unionist politicians declined a Sinn Fein invitation to a conference to discuss “a city of equals”.


Rev Dr Gary Mason

Rev Dr Gary Mason


Mason turned up.

This far into the peace process, the two communities still don’t know each other – still don’t hear each other; still don’t think through the consequences of actions.

At that Sinn Fein conference and, in conversations with republicans since, Mason has explained how the City Hall vote on the Union flag has played within his community – how it has soured relations.

Others have taken another approach – feeding the hysteria of cultural war and creating a mood where in some places the clowns have taken over the circus.

It has spread beyond east Belfast.

At the weekend, the police again had to put metal and human walls between marchers and protesters.

The city’s image is being battered and bruised, and leadership is needed before it is too late.

Who will stand with Gary Mason and for his message that the wars are over?

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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at www.merrionpress.ie


  1. There is perhaps an unwillingness and an element of fear for those representatives of Unionism to stand shoulder to shoulder with Rev Gary Mason. I commend him for seeing the event through.
    The fact that the Brighton bomber and the daughter of a victim shared a platform and spoke to an assembled audience was nearly overshadowed. Without dismissing the feelings of those outside the community centre you have to look at, accept and acknowledge the event and the ethos of what actually took place inside. The event is what any reconciliation requires in terms of acceptance, openness, courage and the capacity to acknowledge, listen and understand. Gary knows this very well.

    The event at the Skainos Centre should be an acceptable part of difficult, sensitive and exploratory conversations and dialogues that should be allowed to take place in our society. It is extremely important that there is also a balance though in terms of those wishing to object and challenge but also the rights of those who wish to attend, participate and actively taking part in reconciliation events or forums.

    Listening to your enemies, living with your oppressor, acknowledging hurt and moving on are difficult and emotive – those willing to do just that should be encouraged and allowed to do so without such negative and ugly scenes like those on Thursday.

    What did take place on Thursday evening is without doubt courageous peacebuilding work and I very much applaud it for what it offers and what it means to others – it can offer hope. I have been to a number of similar sessions hosted in West Belfast were former loyalist prisoners have exhibited, performed, spoken and engaged and unlike East Belfast however the atmosphere, welcome and acceptance there was very different and something that is unusually unique to this part of the world. We have to move on and this is not just for some – but by more of us and the transformative process does require doing uncomfortable things – saying no and protesting is undemanding and detrimental to what Gary and others are attempting – Unionist leaders have to support him rather than being silent and absent.

    • Barry – we both know Davy Ervine would have been in the middle of that conversation and event on Thursday. It is what leadership is about. He was welcomed when he travelled across the lines and he welcomed others to his neck of the woods. Like Mason he understood that it is beyond ceasefires that peace-building begins and that means talking to and listening to the other. There is too much playing these days to a very small crowd and a small mood. And there is an absence of leadership on that road. Thanks for your contribution. Barney

  2. Pádraig Ó Tuama on

    The first thing Gary Mason said this morning when he was introduced by William Crawley on BBC Ulster’s Sunday Sequence was that this event was not organised by himself; or indeed either Skainos or EBM.

    The event was run by the 4 Corners Festival. This week’s reporting, here and elsewhere, has often omitted the organisers of the event and I think it’s important to note that the event was organised by the 4 Corners Festival (www.4cornersfestival.com). It was hosted at the Skainos Centre and Gary was one of the people in a facilitative role that night – together with the Rev. Dr. Lesley Carroll and others.

    This isn’t to take away from Gary’s, Skainos’ or EBM’s important witness and role, but it’s important to acknowledge all parties involved.

  3. By the way The UVF murdered my mum….Irvine the finest politician I ever met,integrity, honesty, fearless…time to heal comrades the hate must be put in the dustbin of history

  4. Well Spoken Barney
    Where indeed are the voices of the duly elected public representatives of unionism ?
    Particularly those who claim to be the defenders of “civil and religious liberty” ! I was one of the many who ‘ran the gauntlet’ to enter the Skainos Centre on Thursday evening when we were subjected to a barrage of abuse and expletives from an incoherent and largely hooded rabble. While without permission, was this an understandable expression of legitimate fear and frustration ? If so, one would rightly have expected their sympathetic elected representatives to stand with them – but not one in sight !
    If on the other hand this was an unruly mob, fuelled by raw naked sectarianism, whose primary motive was to exploit this opportunity for an attack upon the PSNI, then it should be named for what it was. But once again, deafening SILENCE from unionist public representatives. What a missed opportunity for them to stand with Gary and the good folk at Skainos and declare unambiguously, ” not in our name” !

    • Harold – you witnessed that moment in 2007 and the very different scenes and atmosphere of last Thursday. I couldn’t make it last week, but you’re right that it should be named and called for what it was. Peter Robinson made a statement, but there is a need for a moment and an image that speaks a thousand words – including ‘not in our name’. Barney

  5. PS from
    Harold Good
    If those to whom we refer as ‘duly elected public representatives’ are primarily concerned with electoral advantage, they would do well to listen to the voices inside the auditorium, rather than the unrepresentative mob outside. They might then have the confidence to give true leadership.
    Harold Good

  6. Barney,

    As you well know difficult conversations with former enemies happen daily, usually, below the radar and the 4 Corners Festival Event hosted by EBM was a welcome opportunity to bring such conversations to the public arena.

    A ship is not built to sit in a harbor and so peace building with reconciliation is not completed by sitting back safely, back slapping one another because ‘all agree’.

    Just as Peace Architects did the heavy lifting back in ’94 – ’97 (and before) it is once again time for courageous individuals of integrity to travel out into un-chartered water eradicating ignorance & building trust in these time’s of equal partnership. I know from experience that Gary is amongst those architects, and he is rightly lauded in your article.

    When a dog ‘yaps’ a lot or barks continually we don’t view it as good and I am continually lost why sectarian ranting by mobs or shouting by non-mandated wannabees is viewed as legitimately ‘good’ by some in political Unionism. I’m aware of one local east Belfast elected representative who had the audacity to try justify what went on at Skainos as legitimate protest?

    You correctly point out to Barry that Davy would have been in that room leading debate and challenging mindset evolution and I wholly agree. I also cannot help but wonder what Gusty and Billy Mitchell would have made of the ‘loyalists’ protesting.

    The 4 Corners Festival, EBM and Gary are to be highly commended in their bravery. As Malcolm Wilson once stated, Reconciliation requires changes of heart and spirit as well as social and economic change. It requires symbolic as well as practical action… now let all Political Parties support these events: Busting myth, rising above propaganda and building trust.

  7. Find it hard to comprehend this love in for what is one of the most immoral members of the clergy that EBM has ever had.

  8. Stephen Cooper on

    Brian, a shared future with those who wish to destroy NI? Is that really what you are advocating? Bomber magee and the rest of the murdering cowardly scum cannot even bring themselves to say sorry, which would be the first step to be taken seriously for any prospect of reconciliation. If republicans really want to build peace, (which I don’t believe for a minute), they need to discard the lies and deceit of their past and engage honestly and with integrity, and pigs will fly…
    The main reason why no elected reps were there is because the uup and dup are not accepted in some loyalist areas and the distance is growing.
    Harold, perhaps the protestors were expressing their disgust at having an unrepentant terrorist participating in more window dressing for the immoral so called ‘peace process’ with the blessing of gullible fools within the clergy and others who cannot see the woods for the trees and the obvious strategy of republicans who see each ‘agreement’ as a transitory post and not at all in any way a settlement.
    If you think that murderers who insist their actions were justified deserve a place anywhere except prison, then I despair at your lack of principle and moral values.

  9. Obviously these gentlemen don’t know the real Gary Mason and have only got involved in the Gary Mason Empire. 1 Timothy 6:9

  10. Great piece Brian. For all of the noble efforts of a minority of church leaders, the response of civil society over the past few years has a lot to answer for. Elements of the ‘Yes’ coalition have reverted to ritual nods, such as the trade union-led demonstration at City Hall. A permissive environment within which party leaders can take risks will only emerge when there is a hinterland of political activism dedicated to the creation of a civil discourse (with clear lines around what is acceptable and not acceptable in terms of party political rhetoric and tactics). The East Belfast electoral battle between Robinson’s DUP and the incumbent Alliance Party, which helped ignite the current round of retrenchment, is only an example of a much wider and embedded dynamic that sees politicians take one step forward and then two steps back. Where is the ‘Yes’ Coalition Today?

  11. The two communities do know each other, work with each other and socialise with each other. Its onky a small minority on both sides who are entrenched in their own camps, through fear, mistrust, hatred or a lack of opportunity to engage with each other.

  12. Paul Gallagher on

    There was a packed house at the Skainos centre last week for
    the Four Corners event, which featured Patrick Magee and Jo Berry talking about
    their experiences after the Brighton Bomb in 1984. There may have been even more there but for the ‘protest’ that was taking place at the front doors. There were many different people from all backgrounds in the audience and this came to the fore during the Q&A session afterwards.

    One woman, Mary Brady, stood up holding a picture of her husband. She told the audience that her husband, Patrick Brady, was killed ‘in retaliation’ for the 1984 bombing. It brought to me the tit for tat, cycle of vengeful violence that has traumatised
    our community for years. Killing after killing after killing.

    Thankfully, to some degree this has ceased. There are still families out there who are
    suffering and will continue to suffer until violence is seen as having no place
    in our society and in our body politic.

    Another speaker that night was Jim Wilson who is well known in East Belfast and makes frequent appearances on the Nolan Show. He had said that he came along on the night to confront Patrick Magee and all that he represents. He came to challenge the Republican justification for ‘the war’. He did this in the face of a very vocal, aggressive and antagonistic crowd of masked and abusive protesters who had gathered outside the event.

    Looking back on his question and observations, I feel that he may have had other motives than just confrontation. I feel like many others who were there that
    night that he had come to listen. He had come to hear the other story. He had
    come to pose himself questions. Not just about how the IRA decided that violent armed struggle could be justified but how could loyalists justify their armed actions. The dialogue between Jim Wilson and Patrick Magee was one of both men looking in the mirror and seeing each other. Wilson asked Magee to justify the war, Magee responded that he could see no other way at the time. The same questions could have been asked of both men and both would have given the same answers. Jim Wilson stated that there was no justification for the IRA campaign but I think that he failed to recognise that
    this could be true of the loyalist justifications for their war.

    Nevertheless, they were there in the same room, together. They may not agree with each other on theirpolitical identity but they were talking. They had entered into dialogue. They were in a room in East Belfast talking about the past, present and

    I was there too. That is the purpose of the Four Corners Festival. To bring people from across the four corners of our city to the other corner. To places they have never
    visited before. To take them out of their comfort zone and to meet new people. To open our city up. To hear the difficult conversations and to ask the hard questions. I felt good that I had been welcomed into the safe place that was the Skainos centre. The same could not be said of the perimeter.

    When my girlfriend and I left the building we met Mary Brady. She was attempting to get back to her car. It was parked beside what was now the scene of a riot. We took her in my car past this scene. Riot police on oneside of the Newtownards Road and a screaming torrent of abuse and missiles on the other side. When Mary got out of the
    car there was questioning and suspicion of who were were and whether we had
    been in the Skainos Centre but we were able to evade and make our escape back
    to the relative safety of the West.

    This will not put me off visiting all parts of my city to engage in reconciliation and peacebuilding and I hope that others will do the same. Furthermore, I hope that those who are engaged in peacebuilding and dialogue in their ‘own’ parts of Belfast are undeterred by those who would try to silence them with fireworks, bricks, kicks, intimidation and abuse.

    • Paul – People still find it hard to come out of their own corners – and these conversations are always challenging and should never be cosy. These events make a contribution to some better understanding not just of what happened but why. The communities were traumatised by the ‘killing after killing after killing’ that you describe. And the story of this place is not just about one side or one community’s hurt. I wasn’t there last Thursday, but have been in many similar rooms and what we hear is that what happened should never happen again. That is an important message – the important message.

      • Paul Gallagher on

        I totally agree Barney. I just wish that some of those outside with loud voices and closed ears could have been inside on the night. There needs to be more of an outreach and this needs to continue for as long as it takes. Until the message of non repetition is heard loud and clear then the peace building must continue. No more war. No more fear. No more hate.

  13. For me the real hero of this event was Jo Berry who’s father was murdered; and she is able to sit with the murderer, a truely awsome witness in the midst of all this

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