Priest hailed after angry scenes at Orange Order parade

File photo dated 01/10/16 of Damien "Dee" Fennell (centre), a spokesman for the Greater Ardoyne Residents' Collective (GARC), arguing with local priest Father Gary Donegan (left) after an Orange Order parade passed along the Crumlin Road adjacent to the nationalist Ardoyne district in north Belfast
File photo dated 01/10/16 of Damien "Dee" Fennell (centre), a spokesman for the Greater Ardoyne Residents' Collective (GARC), arguing with local priest Father Gary Donegan (left) after an Orange Order parade passed along the Crumlin Road adjacent to the nationalist Ardoyne district in north Belfast

Political leaders have paid tribute to the courage and dignity of Ardoyne cleric Father Gary Donegan.

The high-profile priest bore the brunt of anger from hardline republican protesters after a contentious Orange Order parade was permitted to pass a contested stretch of road in north Belfast on Saturday.

Large crowds gathered to watch the parade

Large crowds gathered to watch the parade

The issue was raised at Stormont by Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly, who was also verbally abused by members of the Greater Ardoyne Residents’ Collective (GARC) in the wake of the march.

The north Belfast MLA said: “I am a politician and we are there to take whatever criticism is thrown at us in whatever way it is thrown at us.

“But to focus the attention on Father Gary Donegan was a disgrace.

“The same man was up every night for the last two-and-a-half years in the area trying to make sure that no more of our young people would get caught up and enter the criminal justice system.

“Gary Donegan, as far as I am concerned, is the perfect image of a working priest.”

Video footage shows Fr Donegan being surrounded by an angry mob chanting “shame” minutes after the parade passed Ardoyne peacefully.

The priest was also confronted by an outraged Dee Fennell, the high-profile GARC spokesman.

SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon described the scenes she witnessed, first hand, as “deeply disturbing”.

She said: “It was vile and it was frightening.

“I tried to intervene twice because I was truly appalled by what I was seeing.

“But Fr Gary Donegan then, in the very heat of that moment, and since, has responded with dignity and you would expect nothing less.”

Former soldier Doug Beattie praised the priest’s efforts in helping to bring about a resolution to one of the country’s most protracted parading disputes.

The Ulster Unionist MLA said: “There were some pretty awful scenes with Fr Gary Donegan who, I think, showed incredible courage and incredible leadership where he was receiving verbal abuse which looked like it nearly bordered on physical abuse.

“We must look to people like this who stand up and take difficult decisions.”

Meanwhile, the DUP’s Nelson McCausland also told MLAs the behaviour of some GARC representatives was “appalling”.

He said: “You saw their hatred. Raw, naked hatred.

“The scenes there are really, really quite shocking.”