Death of a Peace Maker and Friend: Brendan McAllister RIP

As we approach the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, there is naturally a focus on the negotiations of that historic agreement and its implementation.  That is right and proper.  However, peace in Northern Ireland was the achievement of courageous people who reached across the sectarian divide in myriad gestures of reconciliation.  Peacemakers worked for years, decades even, through the haze of violence, riots and blood, reaching for a better future, for the better part of our natures, for peace.

One of those people was Brendan McAllister.  He died unexpectedly, suddenly, too young, this week.  His name will not be familiar to most.  To those who knew him, and loved him, his name is in our hearts.

Brendan worked with Mediation Northern Ireland in the years before and after the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994.  Alex Attwood, member of the SDLP and a former Assembly member and Minister, was one of his closest friends.  Reflecting on Brendan’s life and work, Alex said Brendan went to the hardest places.  There were no harder places in mid-1990s than the confrontations between the Loyal Orders and nationalist residents.

In 1996, parades in contentious areas like the Lower Ormeau Road in Belfast and the Garvaghy Road in Portadown exposed sectarian emotions at their rawest.  Peace in Northern Ireland felt like it was on the line.  As a mediator, Brendan went there armed with his humanism, his abiding Christianity, his determination to make Northern Ireland a better place, a place where people weren’t murdered for their beliefs. Brendan explained the parades issue.  Before the ceasefires, the Northern Ireland conflict was fought between ‘professionals’ on both sides: the PIRA versus the security forces.  In a way, they were the Punch and Judy show, avatars and mediums of the deeper divisions within society. 

Brendan worked hard as a mediator to win trust on all sides, to bridge the sectarian divide, to find common humanity.  Drumcree emerged as the titular confrontation of the parades issue. As a traveller with Anglo-Irish Division, we found each other in the no-man’s land between the Garvaghy residents and the Orange Order.  He was working to mediate, to connect the key stakeholders and find an agreed solution.  Jonathan Powell, PM Tony Blair’s chief of staff, was lead for the British Government.  I was point for the Irish Government. Daily, I would talk to Brendan, analyze, assess, and report back to Dublin. 

The annual Drumcree crisis washed over us, nationalist residents beaten off their own road by the RUC in daylight in 1996.  Then beaten off their own road again at night by the RUC in 1997.  Still Brendan worked to connect, and not just in Portadown about across innumerable interfaces in Northern Ireland, firefighting for peace, for that better future.

The Good Friday Agreement changed the equation.  Lines were held in 1998.  Courageous people spoke for toleration.  As the Parades Commission adjudicated each confrontation, the energy drained slowly from the parades issue. Again Brendan was at the coalface, injecting into the arbitration the philosophy and practice of mediation, reason, and compromise.

Brendan was also truly influential on the policing project.  His experience of the parade confrontations the critical role of policing in avoiding escalation and calm tensions.  Security sector reform is one of the most difficult challenges of any peace process.  In Northern Ireland, it was not only critical but successful.  Thanks to his input and influence before the Patten Commission and during the implementation of its recommendations, policing change in Northern Ireland was profound and successful.  It remains an enduring success of the peace process precisely because it is no longer on the radar screen. 

Years later, Brendan served as a Victims Commissioner and the Department of Foreign Affairs nominated Brendan for the UN’s panel of standby mediators.  I am sure that his wisdom, compassion and experience of conflict were invaluable in the places where he worked. 

I met Brendan and his wonderful wife Elizabeth a few years ago at a dinner hosted by the Irish Joint Secretary in Belfast.  It was a wonderful evening, a joy to spend time with Brendan and other old contacts.  When we parted, we hugged.  Brendan was a hugger.  And a smiler too with a ready infectious laugh that said ‘sure what’s it all about?’  By then the shadow on Brexit had fallen over the North.  There would be more work for Brendan, endless work of reconciliation.  Reflective as ever, his thoughts turned back to his faith and earlier this year he was ordained a Deacon.  When Brendan died last Tuesday, Northern Ireland lost a true friend and a gentle guide on its journey to a better future.

Eamonn McKee

Ambassador of Ireland to Canada

Ottawa, 14 December 2022

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2 Comments

Filed under Anglo-Irish, Ireland

2 responses to “Death of a Peace Maker and Friend: Brendan McAllister RIP

  1. Pat Marshall

    Thank you Éamonn for introducing us to this wonderful man, Brendan McAllister.

  2. Brendan McAllister was a giant in a land of many small people.
    His presence and leadership in a time of supremacist intolerance, was inspirational.
    I doubt he would have ever referred to the British Army and RUC protagonists as “security forces”. Such subterfuge, misnomers and misdirection was not in his lexicon. His strength and contribution was in his truth. This is what I remember him for and mourn in his loss.
    RIP. Go ndeana Dia trocaire ar a h-anan.

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