New form of dialogue needed on Brexit, Fr Aidan Troy says
North in danger of backsliding on peace, says priest who helped solve Holy Cross conflict
Fr Aidan Troy in Derry: “Unless you’ve stood in the middle of the absolute breakdown of community relations you will never understand how dangerous the situation is now.” Photograph: Trevor McBride
Father Aidan Troy knows better than most what sectarianism looks like. For 12 weeks in 2001, the Passionist priest walked the pupils of Holy Cross Girls in Ardoyne, north Belfast, to school past loyalist protestors who spat and shouted, hurled sectarian abuse and threw missiles – including a pipe bomb as well as balloons filled with urine.
“I will never forget the intensity of that,” says Fr Troy. “Every morning when I walked up that road, in my heart I was saying a prayer that we’d come back down it.”
Today, it is those experiences in Ardoyne that inform his “visceral” fear of the consequences of Brexit.
“I feel the danger. I don’t only think the danger, I actually feel this danger.”
“Unless you’ve stood in the middle of the absolute breakdown of community relations you will never understand how dangerous the situation is now.”
Now parish priest at St Joseph’s in Paris – the city’s English-speaking parish – Fr Troy returned to Northern Ireland this week to lead a retreat in the Long Tower church in Derry.
Built on the site of Derry’s great medieval church, the Teampall Mór, the Long Tower overlooks not just the Bogside and Brandywell, but Donegal; for Fr Troy, it has been a reminder of how closely the two areas are interlinked, and how far the North has come.
“Look at the distance we have come from every night on the television, ‘will keyholders please go back to their premises’, from all those clearways where they put barriers across at night.
“We could go back. I know there’s a school of thought that says no way, and I hope they’re right, but I just have this feeling that we have to be careful we don’t do anything that could bring it back to that.”
In 2001 Fr Troy arrived in Ardoyne from Rome less than a month before the protests broke out; he recalls reading on the internet about trouble at a Belfast school, and wondering if it would be Holy Cross.
“It was sectarian, and it was after the Good Friday [Belfast] agreement so it was completely out of sync. That was supposed to be over,” he says.
“I am so, so worried about the present situation. How will we ever re-stitch the Good Friday agreement together again if it unwinds?
“If there’s even a light presence on the Border, I’m sorry, there is no such thing. It would have its effects in Ardoyne, all over the North.
“I say that with enormous ignorance, I am only a priest, but I am a fanatical lover of what has been achieved [through the peace process], and I therefore I would stake my life on not allowing anything to happen.”
Fr Troy has already done so. In Ardoyne, he received death threats; once, he was warned of “intelligence” that he was to be killed that weekend. “I remember going to bed that night and waking up that morning and saying to myself, ‘This is for real. This could be it.’”
After much negotiation, the protests were eventually suspended, though it “probably it took the guts of two years to settle”.
He knew they had succeeded when girls from Holy Cross and Wheatfield Primary – a Protestant school across the road – travelled to Boston together to play basketball.
“It took us two years to resolve what was a totally localised conflict,” says Fr Troy, “and that took the effort of Stormont, of Westminster, of Dublin.
“Now, you imagine widening that and bringing in other factors.”
For Fr Troy, the key to the resolution of Holy Cross was the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes. He believes Northern Ireland “still stands as one of the shining lights for the world in terms of peace”, and that Brexit needs its own George Mitchell.
“I fully respect the [Brexit] referendum but I think the people have to be asked again. There’s that old saying, buying a pig in a poke.
“There has to be a new form of dialogue – just rearranging the pieces isn’t going to do it.
“I don’t know what the answer is, but I feel it’s something like saying nobody is wrong, but nobody has the solution.”
Among the consequences of Brexit have been a “damaged” Belfast Agreement: “I don’t know what the critical tipping point is, but at the moment you could not say it is in its integrity.
“Without any doubt it has already undone, and that’s why I’m so concerned.”
This is exacerbated by the continued lack of a devolved government at Stormont.
“Everything is in abeyance at the moment and you can see it,” says Fr Troy.
“We are the crucial players in Brexit, and I find it almost an embarrassment that we don’t have an Assembly.
“I think the sooner we could have people of goodwill of all political hues coming together and saying we will at least provide a forum, the better.
“I also find it gives confidence to us citizens, sort of like saying yes, somebody’s looking after the shop. At the moment, there’s a feeling there’s nobody looking after the shop.”
His time in Belfast has stayed with Fr Troy. He still dreams about it, still wakes in a sweat in the middle of the night yet visiting Derry has been a reminder of how intertwined North and South have become.
“I found it extraordinary, the night we started here,” he says. “I was walking down the street and there were as many DL registrations as there were yellow [Northern] plates.
“I have total respect for the different traditions, but we are all people on the island of Ireland, whether that’s seen as European or not.
“We’re human beings, and I think that’s what’s often forgotten – I’m a priest, but I’m a human being first.”