David McKittrick
Irish Independent
26 April 2004

Ireland's largest Protestant denomination has just elected as its
leader a risk-taker who had extensive secret contacts with Gerry
Adams and is known for his long-standing links to a Falls Road

The Rev Ken Newell will take over as Moderator of the Presbyterian
Church in June, with his close friend Father Gerry Reynolds as a
guest at the installation ceremony.

Tall, silver-haired and with a forthright confidence not always
associated with Protestant ministers, Mr Newell is an evangelist and
a prominent moderate ecumenical noted for his outreach to the
Catholic Church. His year as Moderator may prove eventful in a
church normally dominated by conservative elements.

His undercover activities played an important part in the genesis of
the peace process in the early 1990s, since he and other ministers
were involved in secret talks with Gerry Adams and other
republicans. The meetings began well before the IRA ceasefire of
1994, at a time when anyone in contact with the republican movement
faced fierce condemnation from those alleging they were "consorting
with terrorists". He was also in talks with loyalist groups, aiming
to halt their violence.

Mr Newell said of his contacts with Catholics and
republicans: "Going down the line of reconciliation is a lonely
road; not vast numbers of people walk that path. It's what Christ
called the narrow way. You don't have a lot of people accompanying
you on that journey."

Before being ordained in 1968, he was brought up in inner-city north
Belfast. "Until I was 25 I never set foot in a Catholic church," he
said, describing himself as "a very anti-Catholic theological
student". When eventually he did enter a Catholic church, "I was
deeply impressed with what I saw, very moved by the service. I
realised then my perceptions carried a fair suitcase of prejudices."

He spent several years as a missionary in Indonesia in the 1970s,
departing just after a wave of IRA bombings which claimed many lives
in Belfast. Appalled by the killings, he recalled: "I very
consciously prayed, 'What's behind it; what can I do?'." When he
came back in 1976 to Fitzroy church in south Belfast, he took the
step - radical for those days - of forming relationships with
priests in nearby Catholic churches. In 1982 he took the even more
radical step of attending the funerals of Catholics shot by
Protestant extremists.

Mr Newell's most important ecumenical relationship has been with Fr
Reynolds of Clonard monastery, setting up the Fitzroy-Clonard
Fellowship which has been in existence for more than 20 years. He
said: "I was picking up things through Clonard, suggestions that
some republicans were having second thoughts about the 'armed
struggle'. I was approached to see if I'd be part of a clergy group
that would enable Gerry Adams to engage with Protestants and hear
what their thinking was. The killings were still going on.

"I've always believed dialogue opens doors, so it was an act of
faith. We got to know the geography of each other's souls, got to
know each other's minds well. But after a year and a half I said
that, unless a cessation of violence was on the agenda, I felt
strongly I should pull out because I didn't think it was going
anywhere. After some months I was asked to resume on the basis that
we would try to talk our way through the whole issue of how you
resolve conflict and how you bring violence to an end."

Mr Newell said he argued that after a ceasefire, there would be a
whole new atmosphere for political dialogue. "Most of all there
would be a healing of the wounds that were inflicted very deeply on
both sides. It would take a lot of time but it would happen."

The ceasefire that followed in 1994 has, in his words, not been
perfect and there have been "horrendous" events. But he
added: "People like Martin McGuinness have tried to have a broader
vision. A 10-year ceasefire must say something about the intentions
of Sinn Fein, and it has made a big difference."

He is undismayed that the primary party of Unionism is now the
Democratic Unionists, led by the Rev Ian Paisley, whom he once
described as negative and antagonistic. "Within the DUP, there has
been a shrinking of its fundamentalism," he said. "They're being
driven much more now by a vision of what they want for the country,
rather than fear. There are people there who want to have good,
healthy, inclusive and cooperative politics at the highest level,
but they'll do that only if the IRA definitely disband and create a
level playing field.

"That's the ferment that's going on, and I think it's ultimately
going to produce a deal. You have two extremes, both in the process
of change, and neither is as extreme as they used to be. "We live in
a desperately polarised situation," he said. People find it
difficult to live together, and are also frightened of living
together.One day we're going to have a very different country. It's
not going to happen overnight but you know you'll see the crocuses
and daffodils."

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