Unionist councillor ridiculed over witch trial comments says he's ‘met modern witches’

UUP’s Keith Turner hit the headlines this month after he opposed the wording of a memorial to nine people convicted of witchcraft in Islandmagee in 1711

John TonerSunday Life

A councillor who questioned the innocence of the last victims of witch trials in Ireland has claimed to have met witches.

The UUP’s Keith Turner hit the headlines earlier this month after he opposed the wording of a memorial to nine people convicted of witchcraft in Islandmagee in 1711.

A line reading “Today the community recognises your innocence” was dropped from a plaque after Mr Turner said Mid and East Antrim Borough Council had no authority to clear the victims.

When asked if he believed in witchcraft, Mr Turner replied: “People believe in what they want to believe in. Before anybody starts making me out to be a believer in witches or anything else, I really don’t have an opinion either way.

Islandmagee witches trial

“What I will say is that it’s a multibillion-pound business in October and it helps promote tourism in the area.

“You could say that [I’m ambivalent]. What I do know is that there would be some people who even today put themselves down as a white witch or things of that nature.

“I’m not saying anybody does any harm by it or that there is anything to be afraid of or not. I’m completely ambivalent.

“I know there are such things as white witches or wiccans, or whatever they are. People come up to me and say this. I’ve met some in the past.

“There are people that can turn around and say, ‘I’m a clown’. Whatever they are, they are. I’m not saying that there are people out there exercising witchcraft.

“I seconded the motion, but the wording said we recognise their innocence, and what I said was that would be ultra vires [beyond the council’s powers]. It was above our jurisdiction to say whether they were guilty or innocent.”

Asked if he would oppose a hypothetical memorial recognising the innocence of people convicted of the historic crime of buggery, Mr Turner insisted the conversation come to an end and labelled the question “inappropriate”.

The Gobbins

Eight women and one man were the last people in Ireland to be convicted of witchcraft in Islandmagee in 1711. A memorial to the victims has been in the pipeline since earlier this year.

During a recent committee meeting about the project at Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, Mr Turner said he was “all for tourism” but questioned whether the council had the power to overturn the verdict.

He also pointed out that witchcraft was a criminal offence until the repeal of the Irish Witchcraft Act in 1821.

Mr Turner told this newspaper his aim in the council debate was to generate interest in Islandmagee tourism and said he put forward an idea to let tourists decide whether the victims of the witch trial were innocent or guilty.

He added: “I’m a member of the Gobbins steering group, and we look for all avenues to promote the Gobbins and Islandmagee as I’m a councillor for the area.

“With it being the last witchcraft trial in Ireland, the plaque was to generate interest in the story of nine people who were tried in 1711.

“The judge at the trial thought they were innocent, but the jury found them guilty, and it was my idea to let visitors decide themselves after hearing the story. I thought we could have a little box with tokens for ‘guilty’ and ‘not guilty’.

“After a given time I thought we could publish the result online and create interest. That was the intention.

“I wasn’t there in 1711 and it’s not within my jurisdiction to say whether they were innocent or guilty.”

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