Mary McAleese reflects on role of religion in the North in new TV series

A new documentary to mark the centenary of Partition, With God on Our Side, airs on RTÉ tonight (Monday, November 15)
Mary McAleese reflects on role of religion in the North in new TV series

Mary McAleese with Pat Hume, filming the documentary With God On Our Side. Pat died in September, aged 83

BORN in the north Belfast community of Ardoyne, Mary McAleese’s family experienced first-hand the trauma of the Troubles.

Her father’s bar was fire-bombed, her deaf brother, John, was beaten to within an inch of his life by Loyalist thugs, and eventually, the family was forced to leave their home, after it was strafed with machine-gun fire in a sectarian attack.

The former President of Ireland is all too aware, though, that no community has a monopoly on grief or grievance. 

The Troubles touched every family in Northern Ireland, and many beyond, and she therefore based her presidency on building bridges — between Protestant and Catholic, Nationalist and Unionist, Ireland and Britain.

In a new documentary to mark the centenary of Partition, With God On Our Side, on RTÉ1 on Monday at 9.35pm, Mary McAleese meets politicians and peacemakers, perpetrators and victims of violence, to ask what role religion played in creating, and resolving, conflict in Northern Ireland, and whether it still has a role to play in building peace, in a more secular, diverse, post-Brexit society.

In a series of encounters — with politicians and peacemakers, with perpetrators and victims of violence — she asks what religion has done for us, and to us, and assesses the role it could yet play in sustaining peace.

In the last interview before her death, Pat Hume, widow of the late Nobel Peace Laureate, John, discusses the faith and vision that sustained them both.

Mary also finds common ground with her ex-student, the former DUP First Minister, Arlene Foster, whose family, like her own, was forced from their home by paramilitaries, but who sees a positive role for faith in building mutual understanding between communities.

In the documentary, she also talks to former Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, and The Rev Harold Good, who was trusted by all sides to verify weapons de-commissioning.

Russell Watton, who was given three life sentences for a Loyalist gun attack on a Catholic bar, and Seana Walsh, who served three sentences for his role in the IRA and was a close friend of the hunger striker, Bobby Sands, also share their stories.

Mary’s journey is interspersed with conversations with Isaac Swindell, a Belfast taxi driver and tour guide, and she also meets a group of young people, born after the Good Friday Agreement, for whom the old Protestant/Catholic, British/Irish labels are no longer adequate.

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