Peace line pastor: Despite recent street violence one of First Minister’s dreams is coming true - people from across the peace line are quietly building relationships

A pastor whose church is situated on the west Belfast peace line says that one of the First Minister’s dreams is already happening - with people quietly reaching across the divide in a genuine attempt to build relationships and move things forward.

Tuesday, 13th April 2021, 6:30 am

Pastor Jack McKee of New Life Church was speaking after prolonged street violence in recent days on the peace line and in other areas of Northern Ireland.

His New Life Church is located right on the peace line between the Shankill and Falls Roads in west Belfast.

“In normal times we have about 4000 people coming into that centre every week,” said Pastor McKee. “Some 25-30% would be from the nationalist community and rest from the unionist community. We are very active within both the Shankill and with sister projects on the Falls.”

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Pastor Jack McKee says the First Minister's dream of people from across communities meeting quietly to discuss their differences is already happening. Photo: Photo Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Press

He grew up on the Shankill and has pastored there for almost 40 years.

“I do believe the people of the Shankill and the Falls community - the vast majority on both sides of that dividing wall - genuinely want to be able to reach out and in a very sincere way work out their differences and work towards a better Northern Ireland,” he told the News Letter.

“When Arlene Foster was appointed First Minister one of her comments was that she dreamed of facilities where people could gather without fear of intimidation and talk over coffee. But while that was her dream there are people literally living that dream because it is happening on the ground in certain centres. People are reaching out to each other and talking over coffee in a very genuine attempt to build relationships and move things forward.”So I believe what we are seeing on the streets does not reflect the genuine heartfelt feeling of most of the people across our divide.”

He does identify as a unionist and says he would not like to enter a united Ireland.

“Personally I wouldn’t like the situation. I don’t believe it is what we need or that there is any great benefit. I believe a new Northern Ireland is a more possible and positive way forward.” 

Asked if nationality has the final say on the sense of identity and security of Irish or unionist Christians, he uses the Apostle Paul as an example.

“His first allegiance was to Christ although he also made it clear he was also Hebrew and then at other times he would show his Roman passport.

“So a Christian’s first identity is to Christ but they should also know their identity in terms of their humanity and nationality. So I have no problem with a Christian identifying as British or Irish.

“I have no issues with someone coming to our church who is an Irish nationalist or anyone who wants to bring about a united Ireland. What I do have an issue with is someone who decides to do that with force.”

“And I think that is one of the major issues in unionism - when we see all these things collectively coming together people feel there is an erosion of their Britishness.

”People feel it would not happen in any other part of the UK except Northern Ireland. And that is what stirs the pot and people’s emotions.”

Driving into his church each day he currently sees Irish tricolours flying in a manner which he believes is intended to goad young loyalists.

“I have no issues with the Irish flag - people need to respect the flag of any nation. But on my way into church now I see people flying the Irish flag for no other reason but just to goad people.”

He is “totally taken aback” that street violence flared up so quickly in recent days, attributing it to anger related to the Irish Sea customs border and the aftermath of the Bobby Storey funeral.

But he does not see that paramilitaries are responsible.

On Wednesday night he saw members of paramilitary groups standing in the background during street violence.

“I feel they could have helped to stop it but I don’t think the evidence is there for this to have been organised. Unfortunately social media is too easy a platform for young people to access and to invite others to come and meet them at a flashpoint. And then within a matter of moments you could have a riot on your hands.

“I don’t think it was orchestrated by paramilitaries. They are not stopping it but then that is the job of the police. But I certainly don’t see any evidence at all that paramilitaries were behind the violence.”

The Department of Education urged youth facilities to open in areas of street violence over the past week to get young people off the streets.

“So we opened up and organised drop-ins and activities for young people to come off the streets,” he said.

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Alistair Bushe