Prominent north Belfast republican Dee Fennell has said he is prepared to meet the Catholic priest he confronted over his support for a provocative Orange Order parade through Ardoyne and neighbouring areas.
The heated exchange with Fr Gary Donegan took place minutes after the Orange parade was forced through the nationalist community on October 1. Fr Donegan had supported a deal endorsed by the anti-Catholic Orange order, the loyalist paramilitary UVF and Sinn Fein to allow some sectarian parades take place along the contentious route.
A nearby loyalist protest camp was removed as part of the deal, which was strongly backed by British government officials and Sinn Fein, although the GARC residents’ group was not consulted. A huge policing operation was put in place in Ardoyne on the morning of the march, exacerbating tensions among local residents.
Amid outrage after the parade being forced through, Fr Donegan walked toward a group of protesters and remained silent as they voiced their anger at his support for the deal. Footage of the tense exchanges was recorded and posted on social media and broadcast. Some of these protesters, including Mr Fennell, a leading member of GARC, were heavily criticised by Sinn Fein and unionists for using strong language.
Mr Fennell, who has been linked to the new republican party ‘Saoradh’, has since been subjected to a politically-motivated hate campaign organised through the unionist media and on the internet. However, in a interview with the Irish News, Mr Fennell 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.”
The Ardoyne man said he saw no need 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 Fein in the past.
“I actually think Sinn Fein 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.”