Voice of reason on the Shankill when tension was running high
The Shankill Road, like many other working class areas of Northern Ireland, has more than its fair share of hard men.
Many of them have paramilitary connections, where they can put their brutality to use with relatively little fear of retaliation unless they fall out among themselves or run foul of another terrorist gang.
But there are other men in such areas who are far braver than any of the paramilitaries. They are not afraid to speak out against injustice and to champion the cause of the underdogs. They don’t have any army of thugs at their disposal to keep them safe like the terrorist godfathers. They don’t have any guns to shoot those who oppose them or who threaten them.
One of those men is Pastor Jack McKee, a long time champion of the underdog on the Shankill Road. As pastor of the New Life City Church he tries to live the Christian message as best he can and to encourage others to do so as well.
He has been targeted by terrorists of all persuasions for having the temerity to speak out against their actions. His car was petrol bombed, shots were fired at him and his home was attacked. Yet he has not been deterred from speaking out when the occasion demanded.
Last week he urged the UVF to stop threatening people who wanted to attend the funeral of Bobby Moffett. He was a voice of reason at a time when emotions were running high.
The killing of Bobby Moffett showed that the UVF is not an organisation that tolerates any dissent. The terror gang wanted to make a statement and to demonstrate that its writ runs on the Shankill. It takes courage to challenge such people. In the event some 2,000 people attended the funeral and the day passed peacefully.
Pastor McKee maintains a fine tradition of churchmen willing to speak out against terrorism. Shamefully many kept quiet or even “understood” what made terrorists kill, but others were unequivocal in their condemnation of the men of violence.
In the mainstream one of those was Cardinal Cahal Daly, who used the full force of his considerable intellect to challenge the IRA and Sinn Fein.
He was the man who wrote much of Pope John Paul’s plea for an end to violence during his visit to Ireland in 1979. It made little immediate difference and Provo violence continued for almost 20 more years.
But it still set the parameters of what is right and wrong. That is where churchmen score over politicians. Churchmen have boundaries. The Christian message, no matter how it is interpreted, sets limits on human behaviour.
Politicians, of course, are more pragmatic. They often don’t lead, but merely reflect the prevailing populist view. They try to cause the least possible offence to the widest number of people. That is why, so often, they disappoint.
And that is why people like Pastor Jack McKee are so laudable. They are working on the ground, cheek by jowl with the godfathers and their mobs; they are trying to stop young people drifting into a life of crime which seems to pay so well when they see the bling-laden terrorists and then think of their own job prospects; they are trying to spread a Christian message of hope in a community driven to despair.
Sometimes they must wonder why they bother.