Profile: Reverend Harold Good

Exclusively on Slugger the Rev Harold Good, one of the two indenpendent witnesses overseeing the decommissioning of IRA talks to journalist John O’Farrell and about his life and his committment to his ministry of reconciliation.By John O’Farrell

Last Monday, two shy men stepped forward into the cruel glare of mass publicity, and from the DUP, instant opprobrium, who accused Fr Alec Reid and Rev Harold Good of being appointed by the IRA, and by implication, dupes.

At Monday’s press conference announcing the complete disarmament of the IRA, the two clerical witnesses sat at a separate table from General John de Chastelain and his colleagues. With studious deliberateness, Rev Good did not take his eyes of the prescripted statement, and read it slowly, carefully and word perfect.

While the role of Fr Reid in weaning the IRA off ‘armed struggle’ is widely known, Rev Good is less well known outside of Ireland’s 70,000 Methodists and the brave souls who have been involved in promoting dialogue and understanding across the sectarian chasm during what he calls ‘those dark nights.’

He was born to the Manse in Derry in 1937, where his father was the Methodist minister at the City Mission. When he decided to follow his father’s foorsteps, he served as a probationary minister in the Dublin City Mission in the late 50s. Being in the Republic at the peak of the power of the catholic church was ‘less of a culture shock to me than most protestants from the North, as my father was from Skibbereen and we took many family holidays there.’

Working with the poor in the Coombe made him aware of the comparative comfort of his upbringing. ‘It gave me a genuine feel for people and was an important part of my formation.’ He ‘wanted to see more of this island home of ours’, and transferred to Waterford, where he met his wife Clodagh, also the offspring of a Methodist minister.

He was radically changed while ministering in Ohio in 1964, where his pastor was vary active in the Civil Rights movement. Later, he was ministering in a mostly black Methodist church in Indianapolis, and was there at the time of the murder of Martin Luther King. ‘I began to understand my own situation in a whole new way’, as he instinctively compared the New World with his old town. ‘It was the same thing in a different context, racism was the same thing as sectarianism.’

He visibly winces as he recalls the day that Dr King was assassinated. He offered to find a black pastor to take that following Sunday’s service, but his congregation insisted that he stayed. ‘They had lost their leader, they had lost hope, and I found that they trusted in me, sharing their grief and pain.’ It was useful training.

He returned to NI in late 1968, ‘looking for somewhere quiet’, and was installed into a chapel in Agnes Street in the Shankill. ‘Things were beginning to rumble.’ In October 1969, he kept his church open during huge loyalist riots in protest at the disbanding of the B Specials, in which Constable Victor Arbuckle became the first RUC man to be killed in the troubles. Two wounded loyalists were taken to his church hall, and died there. Then Good and his congregation ‘had to rearrange the room for Sunday School.’

His Church hall remained open during ‘those dark days and nights’, sheltering families that had been intimidated out of their homes. ‘This community needed a safe place, with the doors open and the lights on.’ He recalls the attempts of north Belfast’s small Jewish community to facilitate dialogue in the Somerton Road synagogue, laughing at the irony of ‘jews bringing christians together.’

Just before Christmas 1971, the IRA bombed a furniture showroom. Good recalls ‘digging babies out of the wreckage.’ Two-year-old Tracey Munn and her 17-month-old cousin, Colin Nicholl, were crushed to death. ‘I wasn’t isolated in an ivory tower. I know the pain inflicted by terrorists.’ Part of his ministry included terrorists. He was a part-time chaplain in Crumlin Road prison, and ministered to two of the Shankill butchers.

A move to Ballynahinch was controversial among some of his new congregation. ‘There was hostility from evangelicals’ who felt he was ‘too ecumanist.’ Although some left, his congregation doubled, becvause ‘people wanted openness and reconciliation.’ His philosophy is that of the Methodist founder, John Wesley, who exhorted his followers to be ‘friends of all and enemies of none.’

He later ministered in East Belfast to many police families, and has told many RUC wives that they had become widows. Although among ‘some very influential people’ – the protestant professional classes ‘who kept this place going and from going over the edge’, he felt he ‘had pulled away from the cutting edge.’ Late in the 70s, he started his involvement with republicans, in a discreet dialogue experiment that continued for two decades. He was also heavily involved in the reconciliation work of the Corrymeela community.

He worked with prisoners and their families (loyalist and republican), and the strong personal relationships and trust he developed helped him get the IRA to apologise on the 30th anniversary of Bloody Friday.

The apology came after Good was approached by Tom Donnolly, whose sister, Margaret O’Hare, was among the nine people killed during a 20-bomb spree on 21 July 1972. Good insisted that Donnolly accompany him to meet ‘highly placed republicans, who were clearly impressed by the way Tom asked for the apology.’ But, like this week, some onlookers were unimpressed. ‘Sadly, some people felt it was partial, because they apologised for civilian deaths, or that they thought it was attached to some political initiative.’

The key, according to Good, ‘is the basis of trust.’ Soon after, such trust was used by Good to persuade the IRA to remove a memorial to three Provos who had died near Belleek. ‘The memorial caused huge offence to the families of victims.’ It took time, but the IRA relented. ‘The lesson I learnt from the years is this; patience, patience.’

He also has learnt that ‘there is a time for aggressiveness, political activity and aggressive demands. Honest relationships much have both, patience and aggressiveness, for the building of trust.’

He brought people involved in the South African Truth Commission to NI in 1999, and is part of Healing Through Remembering, a project that is about getting victims and perpetrators to tell their stories. This projact is presently working to recommendations for a truth commission for NI, and thorny issues such as memorialising the conflict.

Good is also aware that every act of reconciliation, acknowledgement and forgiveness can feel like a slap in the face to some of the survivors of real trauma. He refuses to dismiss that hurt, as being part of the ‘past’, as some republicans are wont to do. And imagining being in those shoes is not difficult.

Good was in Germany on Bloody Friday, and heard on the news that a teenage son of a clergyman had been killed on the Cavehill Road, the same bomb that killed Margaret O’Hare. ‘We lived near there and my son used to go to those shops.’ He spent five frantic hours trying to ring home, before discovering that the murdered boy was Stephen Parker, son of the peace campaigner the Rev Joe Parker. ‘I honestly don’t know how I would have responded. So there’s no way I could dismiss those who are angry and bitter.’

His brother Peter was the Methodist minister in Omagh in 1998. Due to retire that autumn, he stayed on an extra year to help with the aftermath of suffering, and died three weeks before his postponed retirement. Good says that the bomb killed his brother, explaining that ‘ministers have to absorb grief and pain.’

Harold Good is determined to ‘continue with my reconciling ministry’ and in the only reference he could make to his witnessing of the IRA’s weapons being scrapped, said ‘I was asked. What else could my answer be?’