Archbishop John McDowell: 'Unionists need to engage with a changing world'

Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh John McDowell talks to Paul McFadden about the mood in the Protestant-unionist-loyalist community

Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh John McDowell with secretary of state Chris Heaton-Harris ahead of a service to prepare for the coronation of King Charles III. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh John McDowell with secretary of state Chris Heaton-Harris ahead of a service to prepare for the coronation of King Charles III. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh John McDowell with secretary of state Chris Heaton-Harris ahead of a service to prepare for the coronation of King Charles III. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

"ONE of the problems with being a bishop or, indeed, being an archbishop, is that you're not in and out of people's homes the way you used to be."

The Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Reverend John McDowell, is discussing the challenges of reconciliation, as well as the mood in the Protestant-unionist-loyalist (PUL) community, among whom he has grown up, lived, worked and served for over 60 years – a lifetime during which unionism's once apparently unassailable majority at Stormont has dissipated.

"When I was in parish ministry and visiting maybe three or four people a day, every day, different types of people, you were getting a very, very clear view of what was on their mind at the time," he says when we meet in Armagh.

"It's much less so now. But there's no doubt – well, there's always a doubt, in a sense – that there is a nervousness and defensiveness again within that broad PUL community."

Read More

  • Tom Kelly: Unionism needs a Lemass, not another Craig (premium)
  • Chris Donnelly: Unionists' entitlement mindset needs dismantled (premium)
  • Border poll clarification calls expected after nationalism outpolls unionism

He might not be in and out of people's homes so much nowadays but the Primate still gets around. His diary last month included a prominent role in the coronation service at Westminster Abbey; chairing the General Synod in Wexford; and attending the GAA's Ulster football final at Clones.

Archbishop McDowell was at pains, in our conversation, not to come across as a political spokesperson, though he accepts that a majority of Church of Ireland people in Northern Ireland "would be unionist".

"I don't speak in that context – there are plenty of people out there who get paid good money to do that," he stresses.

In any case, the political allegiances of Church of Ireland members are none of his business, he adds: "If I'm a leader in any sense, it's as a disciple of Jesus Christ with other disciples of Jesus Christ."

Still, his political antennae have detected within that broad PUL community a sense of being let down and even, in some cases, of betrayal.

"You know, on that famous occasion when Boris Johnson said, 'If anybody sends you a customs declaration, tear it up,' that was just misleading people. So, I think they have a right to feel aggrieved at that," says the Archbishop.

"But anybody who thought that you could be part of a trading bloc which had become a kind of a political bloc as well, for 40 odd years, and for there to be no difficult consequences after that – especially in a place with a land border – I mean, that was just silly, really, and people should never have believed it."

Nonetheless, there was a sense of being 'let down', and of a "crisis of relationship with the government of the United Kingdom".

In July 2019, while he was still Bishop of Clogher, the Primate wrote an open letter to the then-new prime minister, Boris Johnson, warning of the "incalculable consequences" of a no-deal Brexit.

Four years and two prime ministers later, Archbishop McDowell sounds rueful. "My own view about the whole process, from the [Northern Ireland] Protocol and Brexit through, was if the [Withdrawal Agreement] Joint Committee had been allowed to do its work and had been taken seriously from the start by everybody – particularly by the UK government – that a great many of these matters could have been sorted out simply, almost as technical matters."

It is 'unfortunate' that neither the Joint Committee nor the Joint Working Group were "allowed to function properly", he says.

These weren't the only things stopped in their tracks. The DUP has been blocking the formation of an Executive and the functioning of the Assembly for over a year, in protest against post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland. Critical spending decisions are being made by civil servants rather than locally elected politicians.

"It obviously undermines the idea of a democratically run place," the Archbishop says. "I think there are really very relatively small numbers of people who don't want to see Stormont working.

"I think that's on all sides. I mean, the DUP are a devolutionist party and they have been for a very, very long time, but the danger is that the longer you stay out, and the more frequently that the breakdowns happen, then the credibility of the institutions becomes undermined."

Archbishop McDowell endorses Senator George Mitchell's warning, made during the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April, about "the one hundred percenters".

"A lot of people have said, to the DUP particularly... there has to be some kind of acceptance that other people have interests, and they have to be taken into account," he says.

Despite Stormont's dysfunctionality, the dissident republican murder attempt on Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell and rumblings from loyalist paramilitaries, Archbishop McDowell does not foresee a return to large-scale violence.

"Obviously, there's an increased threat and the threat which the loyalist paramilitaries pose is to their own communities," he says.

"As I have repeatedly said, they wreck their own front room and they are not political players in any sense; they are criminals and extortionists and drug dealers, by and large.

"That's what characterises them. If they were in the Republic, they'd be called the Hutch and Kinahan gangs.

"Obviously, there's a slightly more sinister threat in some ways – politically sinister – from the extreme end of dissident republicanism, but I really don't believe that the republican-nationalist community have very much sympathy for that at all.

"[I believe] that the republican-nationalist community are more or less entirely bought into the peace process and to purely peaceful means of attaining an end."

Traditionally, Archbishop McDowell suggests, unionism has had a predisposition towards the status quo and not actually moving towards something.

"But now, even the status quo looks a bit uncertain or unstable, if the status quo, for instance, is the Windsor Framework," he says.

"As long as I can remember, unionist leaders have talked about 'selling the Union' – that is selling the Union to people who you wouldn't necessarily think are natural unionists – but that has never, ever been done in any significant or positive way.

"That's partly because northern Irish ideas of Britishness and Great Britain's ideas on Britishness are quite different and have a different emphasis."

These are difficult days for unionism. "I have no doubt that there are many people who think that the whole PUL nervousness is a kind of fabricated grievance, or exaggerated," Archbishop McDowell says.

"That's probably because they haven't had an opportunity to engage or because the PUL community hasn't engaged with them. It's difficult because some of the people who are now saying, 'We want to engage with you and accommodate you', are those who were trying to drive you into the sea 20 years ago.

"Now, it is 20 years ago, but nevertheless that's a long memory and it'll take a long time for that [to go] but it can't be done without engagement – and you can only engage when you're confident that you have something distinctive to say and something distinctive to contribute.

"I suppose the person who really did that best was [the late former Progressive Unionist Party leader and fellow east Belfast man] David Ervine, who engaged and felt that the culture which he represented was as rich as any other culture – that Belfast working class loyalist culture wasn't just to do with a certain range of slogans."

Archbishop McDowell does have one piece of advice for the PUL community: "Engagement is the only way to achieve anything, so it's to engage with the world around you and how it's changing, but also to recognise that history isn't something just to be studied and endured, as though there is an inevitability about it.

"History is something that you make by little decisions, but if the little decisions you make are only made in your own bubble, they'll not affect anybody else."

This interview was conducted as part of the Journey in Self Belief project, 'A space for the Protestant community to embrace and create the future'.