By Jack Holland
James Currie, the 58-year-old Ulster Unionist Party mayor of Ballymena, is proud of his town. And with good cause. The town of 30,000 in County Antrim, about 25 miles from Belfast, is in the heart of Paisley country, the beginning of the Bible Belt, and known mostly for its fundamentalist Protestant preacher whose anti-Catholic rhetoric has stirred up trouble for more than 30 years. Yet P.J. McAvoy, Currie’s deputy mayor and a Catholic, is a member of the Nationalist SDLP.
In 1996, just after being elected mayor for the first time, in a show of solidarity Currie joined Catholic parishioners in Harryville, not far from Ballymena town center, where the local Catholic church was being picketed by Paisleyites and Orangemen. An angry picketer howled abuse at him and predicted he would never be reelected as mayor. Two years later, he was.
Eight years ago, under his liberalizing influence, the council voted to end the closing of entertainment and leisure facilities on Sundays.
"Ballymena on a Sunday is now very normal," Mayor Currie said during a recent visit to New York. "You can go to a leisure center or a cinema. It’s remarkable."
As a sign of the changes overtaking his hometown, the mayor was in New York to promote an art exhibition at the United Nations in which four schools from the Ballymena area took part, along with schools in Canada and China. It was called "Art 2000: Working Apart, Celebrating Together." One student each from the participating schools, St. Louis’ Grammar School, Ballymena Academy, St. Patrick’s College and Cullybackey Community School came over, their trip partly funded by money from the council.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
Currie was first elected to the Ballymena council in 1989, when it was controlled by the DUP. The council is now dominated by a UUP-SDLP coalition. He attributes Paisley’s decline to the fact that "people were starting to realize that always saying no to everything was not paying dividends."
Currie’s first conflict with the forces of Paisleyism came before he was elected mayor.
"One member of the DUP always referred to the IRA as the ‘Roman Catholic IRA,’" he recalled. Councilor Currie stood up and protested, dissociating himself from that description.
A more serious conflict came a few years later, surrounding the Catholic church in Harryville. In 1996, an Orange march was banned from going through the mainly Catholic town of Dunloy, a few miles to the North West of Ballymena. In retaliation, a group of Orange supporters, including members of the DUP and Free Presbyterian Church, began picketing Harryville Church.
The mayor was interviewed about it on TV alongside a Catholic friend, Delia Close.
"When she said . . . that she would feel happier if some of her Protestant friends and neighbors would come down to support her going to chapel, I felt it was my duty to respond to her. I said I would be there the following Saturday." He showed up, along with other Protestants, to stand by their Catholic neighbors.
"The most gratifying thing [about that] night was the number of Protestants who turned out to support me and say, ‘These Roman Catholic people must be allowed to go to their house of worship in peace,’" Currie said. The picket was eventually abandoned.
Sectarianism is not the only problem confronting Ballymena. It has been dubbed the ‘drugs capital of Northern Ireland.’ Currie objects to that designation, while admitting there is a real problem, with heroin, ecstasy and cannabis being sold in the district. Currie blames loyalist paramilitaries.
"Years ago they were petty criminals," he said. "Now they’re like organized crime." He said that the council’s limited resources make it difficult to combat. They’ve tried to involve "all the agencies" in the struggle against drugs.
Whatever the cause of the problem in Ballymena, it is not deprivation. The town has the lowest unemployment figures in Northern Ireland and the highest percentage of Catholic millionaires. The mayor could name six without trouble. He believes this represents the true, industrious, tolerant spirit of the new Ballymena. But he concluded:
"It’s not enough to talk about tolerance and respect. We must actually practice it."