Fr Gary Donegan: I was called a 'paedophile' by nationalists

FORMER Holy Cross rector Fr Gary Donegan has spoken of his shock after being described as “paedophile” by a nationalist protester during a disputed Orange Order parade.

Images of the priest being confronted by protesters and Garc spokesman Dee Fennell minutes after a contentious Orange Order parade through Ardoyne earlier this month drew widespread criticism.

The respected cleric had previously backed a deal reached between Crumlin and Ardoyne Residents Association, which has links to Sinn Féin, and members of the Orange Order.

The agreement also had the backing of the UVF.

Another nationalist campaign group, Greater Ardoyne Residents’ Collective, opposed the parade.

In the days leading up to the deal Fr Donegan called on Garc, along with other church leaders, politicians and some community groups, to call off a planned protest march through the area.

The priest last night revealed he was not involved in the negotiations that led to the agreement but was aware talks were taking place.

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

Tensions had been high since the Parades Commission banned Orangemen from returning through the area on July 12, 2013.

Fr Donegan said he that while he has endured personal abuse in the past and is hardened to bad language, he was shocked at being called a “paedophile” by a female nationalist protester.

Fr Gary Donegan looked on as Orange Order members march through Ardoyne earlier this month
Fr Gary Donegan looked on as Orange Order members march through Ardoyne earlier this month Fr Gary Donegan looked on as Orange Order members march through Ardoyne earlier this month

He said a similar insult had previously been thrown at him at by loyalists protesters at Twaddell Avenue.

“Having worked on a building site I am not exactly shy to those sorts of things (bad language),” he said.

“That particular kind of thing, how could anybody shout that at you?

“The cost of being a priest, giving up a significant other, giving up a child and giving your life protecting children, including some of those standing there - that’s cheap by any standards.”

Fr Donegan said he felt “intimidated” during the confrontation during which he said other personal insults were directed towards him.

The Co Fermanagh native said he defended the right of local people to hold a protest.

“I defended their right to protest and they know that well,” he said.

“I was standing there on my 50th birthday when there was nobody else there.”

“Whether it was Cara or Garc, people have a right to voice their opinion.”

The 52-year-old priest said he would be willing to meet with prominent Garc spokesman Dee Fennell who had challenged him over his support for the deal during the well publicised confrontation.

Garc spokesman Dee Fennell
Garc spokesman Dee Fennell Garc spokesman Dee Fennell

The Ardoyne republican said he did not abuse the popular priest and believes that on reflection some of those involved in the confrontation may conclude they could "have handled things differently" regarding their language.

He says he and Garc representatives are willing to meet the priest.

“If I met him on the street I will shake hands with him as I would with anybody,” Fr Donegan said.

“I would have no problems meeting Dee and I have his number in the phone book.

“I am happy to meet anybody and I have never ran away from anybody.”

He said he has previously met with Garc and helped the group meet with Meghan O’Sullivan during the Haass/O’Sullivan talks in 2013.

“The door is open to everybody,” he said.

“Even when it was with the mainstream everybody was denying talking to everybody but everybody was talking to everybody.”

The priest has says he has had messages of support from a wide range of people since the altercation.

He believes the encounter was a “massive own goal” for those involved.

The Passionist priest first came to prominence in 2001 with his predecessor Fr Aidan Troy when they ran the gauntlet of a loyalist mob who were trying to prevent Catholic schoolgirls from attending Holy Cross Girls School in north Belfast.

He was recently reassigned to a retreat in Crossgar, Co Down, by church authorities, but will continue to work in the Ardoyne area where he has opened a new office.

He said he remains committed to helping the people of the area.

“Nobody loves that area from an outsider point of view more than I do,” he said.