Ex-prisoners unite for Belfast Lenten walk against violence

Former UDR soldier says ‘something needs to change’ regarding shootings and beatings in North

Tom McCarthy (Falls Road)  and Thomas Rowntree (Shankill) take part in a Cross Walk passing through the Shankill Road and Falls Road on Monday.  Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

Tom McCarthy (Falls Road) and Thomas Rowntree (Shankill) take part in a Cross Walk passing through the Shankill Road and Falls Road on Monday. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

 

Former loyalist and republican prisoners are taking part in “39+1 Cross Walks” in Belfast during Lent to send a message to Northern society that violence and drugs are not the answer.

Former Ulster Defence Regiment pastor Jack McKee said the demonstrations will take place over 40 days between the Falls and Shankill areas to highlight the damage caused by so-called “paramilitary style attacks”, violence and murder in Northern Ireland.

Pastor McKee is a member of the New Life City Church, part of the Elim Pentecostal community, and was born in Ballymurphy but raised on the Shankill Road. The first Cross Walk, in response to drug-related deaths, shootings and beatings, took place on Monday.

The cross will be carried by different people each day including “ex-combatants and ex-prisoners” from the IRA, UVF and UDA, who have “found God” or are on a religious journey toward that.

It is emblazoned with the Bible verse John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life”.

“It is one of the most famous verses in the Bible, which for a lot of us is its message in a nutshell,” Pastor McKee told The Irish Times.

Paramilitaries

“It’s putting the message out from our perspective that with all the violence still continuing and paramilitaries still involved in our communities, something needs to change.”

Most of those involved in the projects are ex-paramilitaries “from both sides of the divide”, who, in their younger years, would have taken part in the kind of violent activity they are now protesting against.

“They are saying, we have had our day,” the pastor said.

“They are saying, we have carried the guns and now we are carrying the cross as a sign of reconciliation and to show there is a better way forward for Northern Ireland.”

‘One special day’

The Cross Walks over the 40 days of Lent are described as 39+1, with the one symbolising “one special day”, that being Good Friday.

“It is the anniversary of the [1998] peace agreement that now seems to be in tatters,” Pastor McKee said.

The route for the walk every day from noon to 1pm is via the Lower Shankill, Northumberland Street, Falls Road, Springfield Road, Lanark Way, Shankill Road, and it will start and finish at New Life City Church.

For more information visit https://www.newlifebelfast.org/