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Republican Dee Fennell defends role in Fr Donegan confrontation

Ardoyne republican Dee Fennell said he is willing to meet Fr Gary Donegan. Picture by Hugh Russell
Connla Young

Prominent north Belfast republican Dee Fennell has said he is prepared to meet the Catholic priest he angrily confronted over his support for a deal to allow an Orange Order parade to pass through a nationalist district.

The challenging of Fr Gary Donegan took place minutes after the Orange Order parade passed through Ardoyne on October 1.

A former rector of Holy Cross parish in Ardoyne, the highly regarded priest supported a deal struck between the Sinn Féin linked Crumlin and Ardoyne Residents’ Association and the order.

The deal also had the support of the UVF.

In the days leading up to the parade some community groups, politicians and church leaders, including Fr Donegan, signed a statement backing the deal and called on Greater Ardoyne Residents’ Collective (Garc) to call off a planned protest march through Ardoyne.

As part of the deal a loyalist protest camp at Twaddell Avenue was removed and a moratorium placed on future return Twelfth parades.

The deal was widely welcomed, however Garc was not consulted and the SDLP opted not to endorse the public statement of support.

A huge PSNI operation was put in place in Ardoyne on the morning of the march sparking an angry reaction from some local residents.

Fr Donegan was later confronted by a group of protesters who voiced their fury at his support for the deal.

Some of these protesters, including Mr Fennell, a leading member of Garc, have since been criticised after footage of the exchange was posted on social media and broadcast.

Mr Fennell, who is facing a charge of 'encouraging terrorism' at an Easter commemoration and was released without charge after being questioned about the Ardoyne murder of Michael McGibbon , said he has no regrets over the remarks he made to Fr Donegan.

“At no stage did I threaten Fr Gary, at no stage did I use abusive language to Fr Gary, at no time did I use swear words, at no time did I criticise him with regards to his spiritual role,” he said.

“I was simply criticising his support for a deal and as far as I am concerned any member of the clergy who takes a public position on an issue has to be open to public criticism with regards to that issue.

“And when it’s an emotive issue, they may also have to be prepared to accept an emotive reaction.”

Mr Fennell rejected any suggestion that his tone was hostile.

“It’s clear from the language I used and the tone, that while assertive, was at no stage aggressive.

“And to be fair to Fr Gary, while he didn’t respond to me at the time he did a BBC interview shortly afterwards where he said that he, in his own words, was big enough and ugly enough to take criticism and I think he took it well.”

Dee Fennell pictured during an altercation wit former Holy Cross rector Fr Gary Donegan earlier this month

The Ardoyne man does not intend to apologise.

“From me personally, no, I don’t think I did anything that would warrant an apology,” he said.

“Anyone who puts a public position forward, and I include myself in that, has to be willing to take public criticism.”

Asked if he would adopt the same approach again, Mr Fennell said he had “no problem saying what I said”.

“I think other people can speak for themselves regarding what they said and how they conducted themselves and I can understand their anger.

“I can only speak for myself and I don’t think I said anything that was either abusive threatening or aggressive.

“I was simply pointing out how residents had been affected and how that deal had impacted on residents and will continue to impact on residents.”

Fr Donegan said he felt intimidated during the confrontation and said personal abuse was directed towards him.

Mr Fennell believes some of those present during the altercation may now reflect on some of the comments they made to Fr Donegan.

“I think people were angry at the time and I think knowing the people as I do, I think that when they will have reflected they may have thought they may have handled things differently regarding their language but at the same time I can understand their anger,” he said.

“But I only take personal responsibility for how I spoke to him and I think it was acceptable.”

He added that he and the former Holy Cross rector had a “good personal and working relationship” for 15 years and said both he and Garc are willing to meet the priest.

He also said he urged some people present to move away from the priest during the encounter.

Mr Fennell believes the incident has been seized on by his political opponents.

“There’s obviously an issue where people are manipulating it in order to portray me in as bad a light as possible,” he said.

“They are using the actions of others who confronted Fr Gary in a less cordial way in an attempt to portray me as a thug and a bully.”

Mr Fennell said republicans and the Catholic Church have shared poor relations in the past.

He pointed to the criticism of former human rights campaigner Fr Denis Faul, who helped force an end to the 1981 hunger strike, by Sinn Féin in the past.

“I actually think Sinn Féin were right for challenging Fr Denis Faul at that stage regarding his activities,” he said.

“Locally in Ardoyne for decades there has been conflict between republicans and the Catholic church.”

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