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Sinn Féin's hypocrisy following attack on Ardoyne priest

(Suzanne Breen, Sunday Life)

The angry scenes in Ardoyne last weekend when some residents heckled Father Gary Donegan, and hardline republican Dee Fennell confronted the priest, have been presented as an unprecedented low.

There are many words to describe voices being raised and fingers pointed at a cleric – but new isn't one of them. What unfolded in Ardoyne last Saturday is the latest in numerous clashes between republicans and the Catholic Church over the years.

As I listened to Sinn Féin politicians denouncing Dee Fennell, I thought of another man of God, and the appalling treatment he endured from the very party now outraged at what happened to Donegan.

Fr Denis Faul wasn't tormented during the war, but five years after the IRA ceasefire and 18 months after the Good Friday Agreement. The situation in Carrickmore, Co Tyrone, was so extreme that the then Fine Gael leader, John Bruton, appealed to the Sinn Féin national leadership to intervene.

Fr Faul was involved in a neighbourhood watch-type community police liaison forum. In December 1999, around 40 republicans – led by Sinn Féin MLA Barry McElduff – burst into a meeting it was holding in an Omagh hotel.

Police officers, Fr Faul, local health workers, a doctor, and some older people involved in community work, were present.

According to former civil rights' leader, Paddy Joe McClean, those who invaded the meeting pointed at people in an intimidating way and accused them of attending a secret police meeting.

"They grabbed Fr Faul's minutes and threw them on the floor," Paddy Joe said. "They grabbed the minutes one policeman had and took them away. Some of the older people were very frightened. They distributed leaflets containing threats to policemen.

"Later, people whose names were on the minutes were visited by republican activists and told to write letters stating that they had been deluded into attending this meeting, that they wished to recant and wouldn't do it again."

A public meeting followed in Carrickmore. The priest was accused of an "ill-conceived liaison" with a "discredited" force.

In language strikingly similar to that GARC used against Fr Donegan, Sinn Féin supporters said they opposed Fr Faul not because of his clerical role but because he had taken "a political position". They demanded that Archbishop Sean Brady remove him as parish priest.

Local SDLP MLA, Joe Byrne, complained of the "orchestrated" intimidation against the priest and the two health workers who took sick leave because of the strain.

Even though, Fr Faul had been a trenchant critic of British Army and RUC violence, the Provos hated him because he refused to become their creature. In 1981, he encouraged the hunger-strikers' families to take their sons off the protest.

So when I hear Sinn Féin politicians lauding 'Fr Gary', I think of how their party denounced 'Denis the Menace'. I remember Gerry Adams lambasting Faul for his "venomous and despicable" attacks on republicans. I recall 'Republican News' articles ridiculing the priest.

Sinn Féin depicts GARC as a monster, but it was the Shinners who originally whipped up tensions and brought people in Ardoyne, and elsewhere, onto the streets to oppose Orange marches.

From the mid-1990s, I covered protests against Orange parades on the Lower Ormeau. Once, I spoke to a teenager who had been bussed in by Sinn Féin to block a march. His name was Dee Fennell.

October 10, 2016

This article appeared in the October 9, 2016 edition of the Sunday Life.

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