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Blessed are the peacemakers - the risks they took for peace in Northern Ireland

A new BBC Northern Ireland series features clergy who played a significant role in promoting reconciliation. Two of the participants, Rev Gary Mason and Rev Ken Newell, tell Judith Cole about the personal risks they took for peace

Reflecting on the effects of the Troubles and how the so-called "peace" was won is the focus of the BBC Northern Ireland documentary series Peacemakers, which has been putting the spotlight on key figures in the process.

The final episode of the series, Fools for Christ, later this month, examines the role of three clergymen in helping to resolve the conflict: former Presbyterian Moderator the Rev Ken Newell and Methodists the Rev Harold Good and the Rev Gary Mason.

The Rev Mason, who remembers watching Orange Order parades on the Lisburn Road as a young child, was ordained in the late-1980s and, during his 28 years in ministry, was never based more than 200 metres from a peace line or interface.

From 1992 to 1999, he and a Catholic Dominican sister set up the Forthspring project in west Belfast, a cross-community centre, and, from 1999 to 2014, he led the East Belfast Mission, which was recognised by the British, Irish and US governments as crucial in developing peace within loyalist communities.

Gary also spearheaded the Skainos project, said to be the largest faith-based redevelopment project in Western Europe.

Now in demand as a lecturer throughout the world on social justice and peace-building, the Rev Mason reflects on decades of work behind the scenes, including how his role as a minister helped to forge important relationships.

"One of the advantages that clergy can have is that you're dealing with people in inner-city communities, both republicans and loyalists, in a multi-faceted way," he says.

"So, I am baptising the children of these people, I'm burying the parents of these people, I am doing weddings, or blessings, for these people, so there is a very human relationship there.

"Sitting with someone, whether it's a loyalist paramilitary, or republican paramilitary, and their mum is dying of cancer, we develop a relationship in a very human framework and it actually gives you an honourable permission to talk about other concepts of their lives.

"I remember a wet November night, sitting with a guy from Tigers Bay. His wife was there and he was coming to his last breath. In the next bed, there was another man with his wife by his side, I think from the New Lodge, and we all got into conversation.

"I said, 'It's quite strange, isn't it? The old Orange and Green aren't too important now.' And they both said, 'You're right, Gary'. So, it's a balance of what is important and, hopefully, a meaningful pastoral approach helps people to see that the totality of life is not a piece of land."

Forging these relationships was often a matter of small steps, when opportunities arose. For example, the Rev Mason recalls a loyalist hurling a brick at a house on the Springfield Road and missing a young mother and her new baby by inches.

"I went over the see the girl and say sorry and tell her that I was glad her child wasn't injured, but, of course, people (on the loyalist side) were saying, 'They're doing that to us, as well'. And I said, 'I know, but my job is to stop both of you doing it, because it's wrong - no one wants a six-month-old kid getting hit by a rock'.

"Through that incident and conversation, that young girl ended up crossing the Springfield Road and coming to the cross-community parents' and toddlers' group we had set up, just because I had gone across and spoken to her. It was about relationships and both sides need to hear each other."

Other highlights for the Rev Mason include seeing the ceasefires, the Good Friday Agreement and certain somewhat unusual figures appearing at the East Belfast Mission.

"I officiated at (former PUP leader) David Ervine's funeral, which was a very momentous event. It was bizarre that Gerry Adams was in the middle of East Belfast Mission and getting a round of applause," he says.

"When the service was over, everyone was coming out of the church and there was Albert Reynolds, the former Taoiseach, standing on the Newtownards Road with a queue of 'wee women' asking him to sign their orders of service from the funeral of a former UVF bomb maker turned peacemaker."

Other significant occurrences at the Mission's HQ were the visit of the Queen and Prince Philip in 2008 and the UVF and Red Hand Commando decommissioning announcement in 2009.

The Rev Mason has tried to preach the message of peace even in some of the most difficult times of terrorism here.

"I remember when the IRA broke their ceasefire with the London Docklands bomb on February 9, 1996, in which two people were killed and scores injured," he says.

"I had only spoken to Sinn Fein a short time before this to try to set up a meeting with a group of 80-90 Methodists.

"I came under immense pressure to cancel that meeting, but I went ahead and, difficult though the conversation was and as loud and as damaging as the conversation was, it wasn't as loud, or as damaging, as a bomb in Canary Wharf.

"The loyalist feuds were difficult enough, as well. You're sitting there in a room with people, knowing that they, or their comrades, were possibly responsible for killing someone two days earlier.

"Some of those feuds were very painful. Communities were just imploding and you tried to reason with people, saying that this was totally destructive - they'd been through 30 years of civil war and now they were creating a civil war within their own community."

The Rev Mason recognises that much healing still needs to take place, not least among victims of the Troubles.

"I meet victims every week and you see the constant pain and the power of memory of a loved one who is no longer there," he says.

"As a young, training minister, I read the scriptures at the wedding of Alan and Sharon McBride and, five or six years later, you're attending Sharon and her father Desmond's funeral (they were murdered in the Shankill bomb in 1993).

"There have been numerous examples of that and we need to find some way to give victims some form of meaningful healing. Religion needs to play a role in that. Constructively and pastorally, that needs to happen."

The Rev Ken Newell was influenced early in his career by three years working in Timor, Indonesia, teaching at a theological seminary. "I'd had no close Catholic friends before I went to Indonesia," he recalls.

"But a priest I met there, Fr Noel Carroll, of Dundalk, from the Society of the Divine Word, became close friends with our family. He helped me to lose some of my Protestant prejudices and I think I helped him to lose some of his Catholic prejudices. We educated each other through friendship.

"I saw him as a brother in Christ, with whom I could work. That birthed in me a dream that I could live that inclusive lifestyle back in Belfast if I ever came back."

The Newell family returned to Belfast in 1975 for the birth of their second child. However, they found a city "reeling from violence and very polarised".

"It was like a bonfire of bitter emotions and it was consuming people," says the Rev Newell. "There was a sense of despair and a fear that you could feel. The churches were largely distant from each other, as were the communities and the politicians and, to some extent, the schools."

Called to Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in University Street in 1976, the Rev Newell was keen to do something to help the desperate situation - and was prompted to join the peace marches, which were organised after the deaths in August that year of the three young Maguire children, who were killed by an out-of-control car on Finaghy Road North driven by IRA fugitive Danny Lennon, who had been fatally wounded by a pursuing Army patrol.

"Because my own children were very young, I couldn't stay at home, I had to go and march with the thousands who turned out. It was the first time in my life I had seen Protestants and Catholics marching together in a common cause," he says.

"When the peace movement started to break into regions to enable people to act locally, I became involved in a group in the Holylands in the Presbyterian Community Centre. It was there that I started to make connections with St Malachy's Catholic Church in the Markets area through Fr Dennis Newberry, who was a curate in the church, and he lived 150 metres from the side door of Fitzroy.

"So, I felt God had brought a Catholic priest very close to me and I had to make a decision, was I going to walk down that street and befriend him or stay in my shell and just complain? But my dream was that what little contribution I could make would be in the area of friendship and bringing Churches together.

"So, I made the walk and, in the summer of 1976, he and I became very good friends and brought local Anglican, Congregational, Catholic and Presbyterian congregations together."

That developed into the formation of the Fitzroy-Clonard Fellowship in 1981 - and a lifelong friendship with Fr Gerry Reynolds.

Highlights for the Rev Newell include the bonds formed between Fitzroy and Clonard - and he cites his proudest moment as sharing his thoughts about Fr Reynolds at his funeral in 2015.

"I was very humbled when Fr Reynolds said, 'If I die before you, Ken, I want you to preach at my funeral mass. I said, 'If I go first, I want you to preach at my funeral service.' Fr Gerry Reynolds was an extraordinary peacemaker and follower of Christ."

He adds: "My deepest disappointment is that only 10% of churches have developed programmes to transform their communities in terms of peace and reconciliation. Many have backed away out of fear, out of criticism, and out of lack of conviction that God can make a difference."

The Rev Newell says that his most difficult time was experiencing the "animosity of extreme fundamentalists and facing an attitude of indifference and suspicion within some evangelical people who, as a young teenager I looked up to". And, he adds, observing the "indifference" to working for peace within his own denomination.

However, this only strengthened his determination to continue his work. "At the end of the day, I believe that nothing is impossible to God - not even turning around a dysfunctional province."

Peacemakers: Fools for Christ, BBC One Northern Ireland, Monday, September 25, 10.40pm

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