Ex-paramilitaries from both sides show ‘better way’

From left, Thomas Rowntree from the Shankill, Pastor Jack McKee and Tom from the Falls take part in the walk
From left, Thomas Rowntree from the Shankill, Pastor Jack McKee and Tom from the Falls take part in the walk

Ex-paramilitaries from both sides are walking the streets of west Belfast to demonstrate “a better way” - and praying together for a political breakthrough.

Jack McKee, senior pastor at New Life City Church, which sits on the peace line between the Shankill and the Falls roads, has organised daily walks carrying a large wooden cross for the 40 days of Lent.

Falls Road man Tom (left) and Thomas Rowntree from the Shankill (right) takes part in a 'Cross Walk' passing through the Shankill Road and Falls Road. 'Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

Falls Road man Tom (left) and Thomas Rowntree from the Shankill (right) takes part in a 'Cross Walk' passing through the Shankill Road and Falls Road. 'Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

The aim is to “take a stand against violence and against drugs, but also to show there is a better way” he said.

The opening day began with the cross carried by participants between the dividing gates in Northumberland Street, the Falls Road, Springfield Road, Lanark Way and the Shankill Road.

“I saw women on the Falls Road openly weeping, men and women crossing themselves,” he said. “Strangers were coming over to talk to us.”

Tommy Rowntree from the Shankill took part. He first became involved in loyalist paramilitarism in his teens.

“One day in 1994 I was standing with three friends when IRA men from the Falls attacked us. My three friends were killed and I was shot in the jaw but survived. After that I became full of questions.”

He was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and his marriage broke up. “I cried unto God for help and became a born again Christian. I was full of bitterness and hatred from my paramilitary past but all that changed because of the cross.”

He walked yesterday with his friend Tom, a republican from the Falls Road.

“We call ourselves friends now. I would go to his house in Poleglass.”

He accepts Tom still aspires to a united Ireland, but does not mind “as long as the gun and bullets are away”.

“Now we both pray together for our political leaders that they can find a breakthrough.”

Tom told the News Letter that taking part in the walk was his “personal act of reconciliation with the unionist and loyalist community and the friends I have made through this unique church”.

His faith has seen him change “immensely” he added.

“There is a better way, there has to be a better way. Everybody knows what the old way was.

“I am standing here with someone that was one of my sworn enemies. Now we don’t always agree but we get on and discuss things.

“We pray together for a political breakthrough.”