Jim McDonald: Accountant and Policy Advisor
I entered this world as one of seven boys born into a devout Catholic family and raised in the parish of St. Paul’s, where we were called to prayer by the bells of the Redemptorist church of Clonard, off the Falls Road. My mother attended daily Mass and I progressed in time from early participation as a youth to membership of the Men’s Confraternity. The De la Salle and the Irish Christian Brothers provided my early education and instilled those related religious, social, recreational and cultural dimensions of my Irish heritage: Along with my family, they copper-fastened my faith and religion. I must pay tribute to those, often soft spoken, men who sacrificed so much for my generation, and, indeed, for the people of Northern Ireland in creating a Catholic middle class in the North.
Against my family background and upbringing, I might have been expected to fit neatly into the conventional Catholic/Nationalist profile. But that was not the case: while my personal beliefs and faith remained steadfast, my perception of, and response to, the decades of social unrest and the traditional animosity towards Catholics led me down a very different path. In the words of one commentator, I was ‘an out-spoken but widely respected maverick’ who occupied the middle ground in a religiously divided city and Province that was rife with sectarianism, discrimination and social injustice.
While those early decades were devoid of the type of nationalist aggression later displayed by the Provisional IRA at the height of the Troubles, discrimination remained rampant in the workplace. I recall two instances in particular in the mid-Seventies when, as a professional accountant with a strong career record, I was blocked from top jobs simply because I was a Catholic. In one case, I was told: ‘I am sorry, we can’t have a fellow like you at the boardroom table.’ On another occasion I was again refused a senior appointment on religious grounds. After futile attempts to ascertain my religion, resort to the usual metaphor - ‘What school did you attend?’- sealed my fate. On a more positive note, on one occasion my employer came to my defence when a client sought my dismissal on religious grounds. That said, I tended on the whole not to harbour resentment in my professional life, recognising the futility of that approach.
The Troubles have taken a major, very personal toll on me. My two brothers, Sean and Ronald, who owned a Belfast garage, were murdered by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in a sectarian outrage in 1973, along with their 16-year-old apprentice, Tony McGrady. While again avoiding the futility of bitterness, I nonetheless believe that paramilitaries, soldiers and police who have committed crimes should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. That said, at some point a line should be drawn under the past because, in the end, we are not going to find the truth. As a victim of religious discrimination, I maintain that neither injustice nor the aspiration of some people for the unification of Ireland ever justifies taking a life or surrendering a life. I do not favour devolution anywhere, in principle, and, least of all, in the break-up of the United Kingdom. I am, therefore, a unionist, albeit with a small ‘u’ because there is no Unionist political party sufficiently pluralist and moderate deserving of my support.
Life in Belfast with all its trials and tribulations triggered in me a very strong, less polarised, social and political conscience in my chosen middle ground, which was manifest in many areas of voluntary public service. From an early age, while intent on progressing in my chosen profession, I was conscious of the need to pay back something to the community and, as a result, community service became a big part in my life.
My involvement in the Prince’s Trust, a charity founded by Charles, Prince of Wales, to help young people, developed into a close relationship with the Royal Family spanning several decades. I must then be classed as a monarchist. Other areas include board member and trustee of Northern Ireland’s Voluntary Services Bureau, drawing upon my experience in consumer affairs as a professional accountant with a Master’s in Social Policy from the University of Ulster.
I am recognised as an authority on policing and military history, both North and South of the border. This interest led to a number of formal roles including membership of the Police Authority; member of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association; appointed first chairman of the Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross Foundation; former Chief Officer of the Labour Relations Agency; and Independent Assessor of the Military Complaints Procedures in Northern Ireland (1997-2007).
Local appointments as Justice of the Peace (JP) and Deputy Lieutenant of the County Borough of Belfast (DL) again allowed me to speak with some authority as a prominent Catholic in Northern Ireland.
I have the unusual distinction of holding honours conferred under the authority of both the Pope and the Queen, respectively, and I am probably the only person in Ireland who is both an LVO, Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order – awarded for distinguished personal service to the Sovereign – and a Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, awarded by Pope [now Saint] John Paul II for charity work in Ireland.
A journalist recently reminded me of the words of the much loved and much misunderstood Cardinal Thomás Ó Fiaich who would have had me in mind when he stressed that he was Archbishop and All-Ireland Primate of all Catholics ‘including those who are monarchists and unionists’! He further noted that ‘Cardinal Ó Fiaich was making a point of recognising and respecting a reality that some would prefer to overlook, namely that a significant minority of Catholics support the link with Britain and are no less Catholic for so doing.’