Clerics reflect on their ‘iconic’ handshake thirty years ago

Rev. David Armstrong and Fr. Kevin Mullan.  (DERR0212SJ10)

Rev. David Armstrong and Fr. Kevin Mullan. (DERR0212SJ10)

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Thirty years ago, Reverend David Armstrong made the short walk across the road in Limavady to his Catholic neighbours in Christ The King chapel where he shook the hand of Fr. Kevin Mullan.

It was a simple goodwill gesture that, according to Fr. Mullan, neither cleric ever dreamt would become an iconic moment in the history of Northern Ireland.

“There was a lot of pain at the time, but a lot of good has come from it,” Fr Mullan told the ‘Journal’ from his parish in Drumquin outside Omagh.

In 1984, Rev. Armstromg was a Presbyterian minister in Limavady.

On Christmas morning he exchanged Christmas greetings with his Catholic neighbours, and went on to further cultivate good relations with Fr. Mullan.

However, his actions were not welcomed by all and Rev. Armstrong was subsequently subjected to loyalist death threats and forced to flee the town.

He left with wife June and young children for England. He retrained, and ministered as a Church of Ireland vicar in Cork since 2000.

In 2011, Rev. Armstrong returned home to Northern Ireland to Carrickfergus where he currently ministers.

“I couldn’t describe the hate towards me at that time,” the 67-year-old told the ‘Journal’, and who admits he will never get over the hurt and pain of what happened.

“People told me they’d kill me; that it would be good for my children. It was a nightmare.

“I was heartbroken, to be honest, that some of my colleagues didn’t want to be seen with me or at my home. It was a very lonely time.”

Rev. Armstrong says the one man that could have stopped the threats was the former DUP leader, the late Ian Paisley who he met briefly at Stormont some years ago.

“Mr Paisley could have called it off, and said ‘that man has had enough’, but he never did,” said Rev. Armstrong.

“Paisley was the man who could have put a stop to it. He coul)d and should have apologised, but he never did.

“I wasn’t afraid to speak out against all he stood for, and the division and havoc he created in this country, but my Christian calling tells me Mr Paisely is to be forgiven, although I can’t speak for my children.”

Rev. Armstrong said a refusal by unionists in Limavady not to support an SDLP motion granting him and Fr. Mullan Freedom of the Borough in 2008 still hurts.

However, he is comforted knowing he is welcome in the homes of “very many decent Limavady people” when he goes back.

Rev. Armstrong has maintained a close friendship with Fr. Mullan and they have both returned to Limavady on several occasions.

“I wasn’t particularly hurt by what happened, but I was sharing David’s pain a little,” said Fr. Mullan.

“Catholics in Limavady were generally happy about what happened between myself and David and, I suppose, in their own way wanted to be kind and to reach out.

“It became an iconic moment for Northern Ireland because it inspired a lot of goodness.”

Fr. Mullan said Limavady has moved on and a church forum in the town is reflective of the good work among religious leaders.

He said he was invited, along with Rev. Armstrong, to a funeral of one of the elders in the Presbyterian Church in Limavady some years ago, which he described as a “healing of sorts”.

“I have no regrets. I was fitting into a pattern that David had established at that time,” said Fr. Mullan, adding: “and, well, wouldn’t it be wrong not to say ‘Happy Christmas’?”