BBC Radio GMU Fr. Gary Donegan 3 October 2016

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BBC Radio Ulster
Good Morning Ulster
3 October 2016

Chris Buckler (CB) interviews Father Gary Donegan (GD) in the studio about being confronted by members of the Greater Ardoyne Residents’ Collective after the contentious Orange Order parade past the Ardoyne shops this past Saturday. (begins time stamp ~ 1:37:32)

CB:   Many hope that this weekend marked the end of one of the most contentious parading disputes here in recent years. On Saturday morning, more than three years after restrictions stopped their parade from passing the Ardoyne shops, the three Ligoniel Orange Order lodges marched up the Crumlin Road. That was the result of a deal between Orangemen and the Crumlin Ardoyne Residents’ Association (CARA). But everyone wasn’t happy with the arrangement. During the parade supporters of the Greater Ardoyne Residents’ Collective, that’s GARC, held a protest and they also angrily confronted Father Gary Donegan who was involved in the negotiations.

Audio: Confrontation of Father Donegan.

CB:   Well listening to that in studio is Father Gary Donegan. First of all just give me your reaction to being confronted like that because for years you’ve been involved in trying to, I suppose, keep the peace, in simple terms, in Ardoyne.

GD:   Yeah, I’m not somebody who’s easily shocked you know like but I suppose the nature of it and the strength behind some of the language and it took me back to 2001 during the Holy Cross blockade and you could kind of almost expect that because there was a sectarian element to this but this was from within my own community so I was kind of taken back by it to some extent. But I’ve never cowered from anything in my life and I certainly wasn’t going to be from them and the irony was that quite a few of the protagonists, you know I’ve been involved directly in pastoral situations in their lives and been involved in some very serious situations in their lives so it just seemed strange that– and certainly I suppose my experience is that a cleric, whether they come from the Muslim, Jewish or Christian background, and the sense is that I’ve always advocated the right to protest but it’s always been with a sense of dignity and decorum. And what I witnessed was actually the opposite to that and in fact whatever their point was they actually lost it because you know if they really believed that they needed something to say then I mean, I’ve given them a platform to do that time and time again and the door’s always been open to them. In this case they were actually shouting me down like in a sense is because I was just one person you know and I had an opinion so my opinion is as valid as theirs – it mightn’t have been the same, it mightn’t have been – but again the irony was that I’ve always kind of stressed, from whatever side, people do have the right to protest.

CB:   We did try to get in touch with GARC, this resident’s group in Ardoyne, they didn’t get back to us. However, I suppose we should set out that they feel that this deal doesn’t represent the best interests of the residents there and they feel that the majority of residents, in their view, are against this whole agreement that allowed the parade to go up the road.

GD:   Yeah, and I’ve been at pains to stress that this was never going to be something that everybody was going to accept. I mean you can’t have the history of that area, you can’t have all that has happened there, the most contentious piece of space that we know, without people of both sides having difficulty with this. But the sense was that this is what the majority of people – and we even had public meetings for people like you said and some people were quite vociferous in actually shouting down this agreement and they had their opportunity to actually say that. I mean, we’ve been caught in a deadlock. I personally walked that road for two and a half years and the irony was that some of these people that were in my face the other day – I never seen them up next or near that when I was actually trying to protect young people from getting involved in probably anti-social behaviour which would leave them with criminal records and destroy their lives. So I mean, it’s easy to get up when the cameras are there, when the microphones are there but the reality was they weren’t there for two and a half years like I was.

CB:   Do you understand the rancor? And what did you think of the Orange Order’s parade itself that took place on Saturday?

GD:   Well I mean the majority of people in that area find marches in general objectionable, right? And then people who are marching they feel it’s their right to actually march so you’ve got two polarised kind of views in that kind of section. And I mean I fully understand the frustration that is behind all of that. I know the history of the place. I’ve been in the homes. You know, like I mean the largest loss of life of the modern day Troubles, as we euphemistically call them, was lost in that area. I mean I spoke in the UN a couple of years ago and to put it in context it’s an equivalent of fifty thousand people dying in LA or four point two million people dying in America. I mean when you consider what happened on 9/11 and how that’s changed the world even for us to travel nowadays is a chore rather than actually a joy and so you can imagine how disaffected that square mile. Yes, of course I understand that. I mean that’s why, like in a sense, I empathise so much. I mean again, I find it strange that I walked during and received some horrific insults and hurt during 2001 and I wasn’t found wanting for the people then and I don’t feel I have been since. But the reality is that: Here was my view, it was different to theirs. They could have come to me and said to me, in whatever language they wanted to do – I mean it’s not like as if I’m shrinking violet – I mean they know that – but I just think they crossed the line and the reaction, so far, has been incredible. I mean, I’ve had people from abroad contacting and actually saying – but the story should be about the attempt to build a platform for the future there not about individuals and the reality is that this is just a beginning. I mean it isn’t a resolution. It isn’t a solution. It’s a beginning – it’s a platform. We need to build on that. We need to build community relations.

CB:   And on that point, I mean you’re here and you’re criticising people of your own community I suppose and actually there’s been no criticism of the way the Orange Order conducted their parade. It took place, it took a few minutes to go up that stretch of road and it was relatively dignified actually in the way it took place. Do you think this can mark a turning point, therefore, in relationships because you do at least now have these negotiations between that other residents’ group, CARA, and Orangemen?

GD:   Yes, because you see a residents’ association shouldn’t just be about parading. It shouldn’t be. Think about it, I mean in that area, combined in both areas, there’s issues around alcohol, drug abuse, there’s issues around suicide, there’s issues around housing, issues around education – that these collectively – these residents’ groups should be actually using their voice to actually champion those particular causes. I mean every time we go to talk about something in Ardoyne or in North Belfast parading clouds the agenda and the horizon. Here’s an opportunity just to break in the horizon to actually to begin to build.

CB:   And just finally: There will be people, I suspect, who support GARC listening to this this morning. What would you say to them particularly given the words that were used. And I mean we haven’t talked about the specific insults against you. I mean we’ve heard a little bit of the heckling but I mean some of them were quite strong words used against you.

GD:   Yes. And I looked into people’s eyes and I’ve seen you know some of the footage and I think of the likes of my family watching that. They know that I’ve served that area for fifteen years. I’ve put my life on the line. I’ve received death threats from both sides of the community. I mean and I would continue and I would have given my life to that place unfortunately the nature of our rules means that I have to move on at the moment. I’ll be in the area on a daily basis but I’ll living elsewhere in Crossgar. But I mean I love the people there and I mean if it took them venting their spleen at me rather than somebody else then it’s a price to pay but it wasn’t a very pleasant experience.

CB:   Father Gary Donegan thank you very much for coming in this morning and talking about that. As I mentioned earlier we did try to contact members of GARC however they didn’t respond to our calls. (ends time stamp ~ 1:46:00)