Priest tells of 'dog collar' insult as Belfast half-marathon stops Massgoers
A priest has said he was left "very shaken" after confrontations with police officers and security staff over Massgoers being unable to access their church during a half marathon on Sunday.
Fr Tim Bartlett, administrator of St Mary’s on Chapel Lane, Belfast’s oldest Catholic church, was strongly critical of police and said he was told by security staff to "take my dog collar, go back in to your church and pray for the salvation of sinners”.
Roads all around the city centre church were closed for several hours into early afternoon to accommodate thousands of runners. Some Massgoers were unable to attend services.
Fr Bartlett said he had no idea road closures would impact the church and Mass attendees until the latter stages of last week.
He believed agreement was reached on Friday allowing parishioners to access services at 10am and 11.30am, an Irish Mass attended by people from across the city. Attendees included the disabled and musicians with instruments.
That agreement apparently was ditched at the last minute, the administrator said.
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He said his experience of police on the day "ranged from confused, to half-hearted to downright aggressive", with "one officer continually insisting that I had lied to them", Fr Bartlett said, adding that this is “a very serious matter”.
“All in all, I can honestly say this was the worst experience of policing and of public authorities I have had since the Troubles. I am genuinely very shaken by the whole experience,” he said.
Superintendent Finola Dornan, PSNI Commander for South and East Belfast, said: “We work with event organisers and partner agencies to ensure the safety of those participating in this event and minimise the impact on others in the area.
“It is regrettable that disruption was experienced by people attending Mass on Sunday morning.
"We are seeking to engage with those affected in the coming days to respond to their concerns.”
On the EventSec staff, Fr Bartlett said they were telling people they faced fines and claimed one jumped on the bonnet of a car while another shouted at him to ‘take my dog collar, go back in to your church and pray for the salvation of sinners”.
He supports a ban on the SSE Arena-headquartered company stewarding events in the area “if they can’t give a commitment to local people and their faith representatives being treated with basic courtesy, professionalism and respect”.
“People want me to engage with the PSNI about the matter. I never thought I would say this, but I don’t trust the PSNI and I would encourage anyone who engages with them to be very careful, to make sure you have someone who can witness anything you are saying or doing,” Fr Bartlett said.
He added: “We support the marathon, but this, the longest established Catholic community and church in Belfast, have a right to access to worship. This is a right, having a marathon is not.”
EventSec and the run event organisers have been contacted for comment.