Workers’ champion to educator

columban-we-want-neil-banner-picturesAfter his arrest on 17 March 1989 and his expulsion, workers and organisations, such as the New Life Workers Centre which he founded, protested against the authorities’ treatment of the Columban missionary. Photo: Missionary Society of St Columban

Fr Neil Magill from Knockloughrim, Co Derry, Ireland was ordained priest in 1973 and spent his first term on mission in Korea. He volunteered to join the first Columban group to Taiwan in 1979. The government’s chief concern was economic growth and that was to be reflected in export figures. The workers were seen as mere tools to be used for that national purpose. The Columbans felt distressed when the government began to import and exploit cheap foreign workers from the Philippines and elsewhere. Neil soon realised that the local Church was not involved with social issues or concerned about official Church pronouncements on justice and peace.

Neil believed that the Catholic Social Encyclicals were meant for daily living, and he felt called as a missionary to preach the message of Christianity to factory workers struggling for justice in Taiwan. With his bishop’s approval, he rented a small apartment in an industrial estate where he was the only foreigner and priest. He started with nothing and tried to meet workers to form his first core group. Contact was difficult, but Neil made friends by simply wandering around the industrial estate when the workers were coming out of the factories, or by eating with them at the food stalls on the streets near the factories. Anyone he met he invited to his apartment.

fr-neils-airport-welcome-in-2000On his return visit in 2000, at the invitation of the government, Fr Neil was met at the airport by Ms Chen Chu, Minister for Labour, as well as members of her Department, Trade Union leaders, Columbans and friends. Photo: Missionary Society of St Columban

Little by little some workers began to visit him just to chat informally. Later they began to share some of their personal problems and finally to talk about their working conditions. After a year the bishops allowed him to start the New Life Workers’ Centre (NLWC); its main purpose was to help workers get to know their rights through educational programmes. For this purpose Neil organised regular seminars and two lawyers offered their services free of charge. In a ten-year period he managed to set up forty non-governmental trade unions.

Harassment and Expulsion

The NLWC was controversial because the government did not want it, and the Church tried to avoid conflict with the civil authorities. Police began to visit workers’ homes to warn parents that their sons and daughters should not attend labour educational courses. Factory bosses threatened to sack any workers who continued to attend the Centre. Neil himself was continually harassed. His mail was stopped, his phone tapped or cut off, and on different occasions police came to tell him that his movements were being carefully monitored.

Neil had placed posters on the wall with quotations from Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical: On Human Work. The police demanded that they be removed as “subversive and leading to communism”. For one anxious year he received many anonymous phone calls, often in the middle of the night, telling him to leave Taiwan. On St Patrick’s Day 1989, Neil was lured to the local police station on the assurance that his new visa was ready for collection. On arrival there he was grabbed by a number of policemen who rushed him to the airport and bundled him on to a commercial flight for Hong Kong. All he had with him at the time were the clothes he was wearing.

The Church authorities were shocked, angry and embarrassed because they were being publicly attacked by politicians as news of Neil’s expulsion was being broadcast all over the world. Two days later, at the first news conference ever held by the Catholic hierarchy in Taiwan, five of the island’s bishops defended Neil’s apostolate. “Jesus responded to social problems”, they said, “and the Church must do what he did”. In an open letter 67 eminent scholars claimed that the government had abused its authority. For the first time ever workers demonstrated on the streets against the government.

Meanwhile, Neil was welcomed back to Ireland by his aged parents, and over the following ten years he became the Columban Justice and Peace Coordinator for the Irish Region, the Vice-Director and the Director. Then at the Columban Chapter of the year 2000, he was elected Vicar-General of the Society.

fr-eneil-magil-is-officially-welcomed-by-Taiwan-presidentFr Neil Magill is officially welcomed back to Taiwan by President Chen Shui-bian, who was himself jailed in 1986 for campaigning for greater democracy. Photo: Missionary Society of St Columban

Welcome Back

In the national elections of the year 2000 in Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party took power from the Kuomintang for the first time in 50 years. The new President Chen Shui-bian, a lawyer by profession, who had also been imprisoned by the previous government, talked of his vision for greater democracy and better conditions for workers in Taiwan. He invited Neil to return to Taiwan, paid all his expenses and twice apologised for the treatment Neil had received from the previous government. He also gave Neil $1,000 spending money while he was in the country. This money Neil donated to voluntary groups working with the poor. The Columban commitment to migrant workers has continued in Taiwan.

Today Fr Magill is in Myanmar and working at the Mandalay Higher Education Centre (HEC) which he founded in 2009. The Centre aims to prepare some of the poorest and brightest Myanmese students by providing high quality tertiary education and to help them achieve their potential and become leaders in both their civil and church communities. In 2018 the Centre had 240 graduates.

Fr Cyril Lovett is the former editor of The Far East in Ireland and resides there.

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