A former priest who shook hands with soldiers guarding the Garvaghy Road at the height of the Drumcree stand-off has said it is one of the actions he is proudest of in his life.
Eamon Stack, a former Jesuit priest from Kerry, said that although the gesture was never forgiven by a lot of members of the nationalist community, it was “a disaster for the Orangemen, and for the British government”.
He added, “There was a very clear division between the hate, the violence, the murders – and a movement that was looking for equal citizenship, that would build peace in the long term. And that, I think, has happened.”
Mr Stack, who has married since leaving the priesthood and is now the founder of Enclude, the largest IT charity in Europe, made the comments in an interview with social campaigner Ruairi McKiernan for his Love and Courage podcast.
He tells how in 1993 he was sent on his first full-time post to the Jesuit community, where he worked with Drumcree Community Centre.
Speaking of the protest in 1995 he said, “There were massive rallies of up to 20,000 people on a hill about two miles away from where we were... We figured that there was serious danger of loss of life, and we decided to step off the road, on that year.
“So, that was a very difficult decision for the Catholic community – but there was unity in that. And we just got off the road, and stood with our backs as the Orangemen silently walked down the road.”
And speaking of the incident in which he shook the soldiers’ hands, he explained that it took place during an open-air mass which had been organised as residents were unable to reach church because of the cordons, “We came to the sign of peace in the Mass. Behind us there were about 20 soldiers. And there was a choice – and I chose to go back, and shake hands with the soldiers.”
Mr Stack said, “I’m absolutely convinced any problems we have are to do with excesses. You know, they’ve got to do with extremes – so extreme Catholicism, extreme evangelical Protestantism, extreme Islam, are all equally awful, because they take something really good and turn it on itself...”
Mr Stack’s focus today is on social justice. His charity Enclude works with 2,000 charities in Ireland providing cost savings estimated at €55 million.
He said, “There’s a real challenge for us to understand the world as one community. And it’s not OK that 70 per cent are poor.”