Fr Gary Donegan praised after angry scenes at Orange Order parade in Ardoyne
POLITICAL leaders have paid tribute to the courage and dignity of Ardoyne cleric Father Gary Donegan.
The high-profile priest bore the brunt of anger from hardline republican protesters after a contentious Orange Order parade was permitted to pass a contested stretch of road in north Belfast on Saturday.
The issue was raised at Stormont by Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly, who was also verbally abused by members of the Greater Ardoyne Residents' Collective (GARC) in the wake of the march.
The north Belfast assembly member said: "I am a politician and we are there to take whatever criticism is thrown at us in whatever way it is thrown at us.
"But to focus the attention on Father Gary Donegan was a disgrace.
"The same man was up every night for the last two-and-a-half years in the area trying to make sure that no more of our young people would get caught up and enter the criminal justice system.
"Gary Donegan, as far as I am concerned, is the perfect image of a working priest."
Video footage shows Fr Donegan being surrounded by an angry mob chanting "shame" minutes after the parade passed Ardoyne peacefully.
The priest was also confronted by an outraged Dee Fennell, the high-profile GARC spokesman.
SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon described the scenes she witnessed, first hand, as "deeply disturbing".
She said: "It was vile and it was frightening. I tried to intervene twice because I was truly appalled by what I was seeing.
"But Fr Gary Donegan then, in the very heat of that moment, and since, has responded with dignity and you would expect nothing less."
Former soldier Doug Beattie praised the priest's efforts in helping to bring about a resolution to the protracted parading disputes.
The Ulster Unionist assembly member said: "There were some pretty awful scenes with Fr Gary Donegan who, I think, showed incredible courage and incredible leadership where he was receiving verbal abuse which looked like it nearly bordered on physical abuse.
"We must look to people like this who stand up and take difficult decisions."
Meanwhile, the DUP's Nelson McCausland also told assembly memberr the behaviour of some GARC representatives was "appalling".
"You saw their hatred. Raw, naked hatred. The scenes there are really, really quite shocking," he said.
Saturday's confrontation with protesters at Ardoyne was reminiscent of the Holy Cross dispute 15 years ago, Fr Donegan said.
In 2001, youngsters and parents were subjected to sectarian taunts by loyalists as they made their way to Holy Cross Primary School at the notorious interface.
He told the BBC: "I'm not someone who's easily shocked but, I suppose, the nature of it and the strength of some of the language took me back to 2001 during the Holy Cross blockade."
GARC supporters shouted "you're a disgrace", "shame" and "you don't live here" at the priest.
The PSNI mounted a massive security operation deploying more than 600 officers on the ground backed up by air support units.
The landmark accord between the Orange Order and the Crumlin Ardoyne Residents' Association (Cara) was struck after protracted negotiations, mediated by the Rev Harold Good and businessman Jim Roddy.
It allowed Orangemen from three lodges and two bands to complete the outstanding leg of their 2013 Twelfth of July commemorations past an interface, the scene of serious rioting in the past.
As they passed a row of shops at Ardoyne, around 60 protesters from the GARC chanted "walk of shame".
Father Donegan added: "You could almost expect that (during the Holy Cross dispute) because there was a sectarian element to that, but this was from within my own community, so I was kind of taken back by it to some extent.
"The irony was that quite a few of the protagonists, I've been involved directly in pastoral situations in their lives, and been involved in very serious situations in their lives."
Marchers were cheered, applauded, hugged and kissed by loyalist supporters as they reached the end of the contested stretch of road.
Afterwards there were some brief scuffles between angry residents and the police.