Written by Rich Atkinson
Northern Ireland – Two words that lead uncomfortably into a whole ‘rats’ nest of adjectives such as ‘The Troubles’, conflict, terrorists, Para-military, violence and many more besides. Growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s, Northern Ireland troubles were never very far from our TV screens.
I also was to have first hand experience of the fear these events could cause by being in London on Saturday the 17th Dec 1983, when the department store Harrods was blown up by the IRA. A Christmas shopping trip with some friends turned into a nightmare and I remember being herded from street to street as multiple bomb threats were released across the city.
Whether it’s memories of Ian Paisley’s strident “Never, never, never” speeches or the shocking scenes visible after many an IRA bombing the news out of Northern Ireland was rarely positive.
However, against what seemed like impossible odds on the 10th of April 1988 ‘The Good Friday’ agreement was signed, bringing a semblance of peace that has generally lasted till this day and although most of the visible violence has stopped, the hurts and suspicions and divisions are still very much running through Northern Irish society.
One of the continuing flash points has been in the village of Drumcree, a village on the very edge of the town of Portadown.
In 1795 the Orange Order was formed in the church and was encouraged by the then minister in a sermon to march in celebration of the Battle of the Boyne. The first march took place on the 1st of July 1795 and even on that first march it was used as an excuse for ‘wrecking and blood letting’ between the two communities of Protestants and Catholics and so it has continued for almost the last 222 years up to the present day. ‘The marching’ season as it is commonly known takes place in the early part of July with the most prominent march occurring on or around the 12th of July.
After a series of divine instances Paul White from the Prayer House in Weymouth felt to take a team of people in 1999, erect a marquee and pray and fast during the most contentious week of the marching season. This team included many from what is now Father’s House; many of the then youth also went. The Marquee was put up in the field below the church and there was a lot of media interest in what they were up to. This is something to understand, pretty much all Drumcree church news is reported in the local and international media, sadly such is the notoriety of Drumcree it’s hard to understand unless you’ve experienced it first hand. The media attention to some extent worked in Paul’s favour as it publicised what he and the team were up to, this caused them to be joined by other Christian’s who had been praying for the peace of Northern Ireland and particularly Drumcree.
The political geography very quickly comes into view once on the ground. The two opposing sides literally live side by side on neighbouring housing estates. It’s not even like it’s opposing villages. The Orange Order (Protestant) view it as their right to march from Drumcree Church down the Garvaghy Road which runs right through the centre of a Catholic Housing estate and as I said this has been the story for over 200 years.
In 1999 the British army spent the whole week building concrete siege works aimed at keeping the opposing sides apart and preventing the Orange Men marching down into the Catholic area of town, and in particular down the Garvaghy Road. On the eve of the main march of the season an RUC officer approached Paul and his team and strongly recommended that they left immediately, the officer explained that he and his men couldn’t guarantee their safety throughout the night and into the following day.
Paul prayed and sought wise council, he also offered anyone who wanted to the chance to leave. Paul had felt that God was with him and the wise council felt that too. So Paul and the team decided to stay, they took all of the sides off of the marquee so that anybody could be seen approaching the tent. By this time the Orange men had discovered that their marching route was blocked and an angry mob proceeded to release a cacophony of sound against the siege works all night. In the middle of the night a car approached the marquee with it’s headlights on and slowly circled the tent a number of times before speeding off. The courage of Paul and his companions won the day and I believe that something was broken in the Spirit during that week, the confrontations in the proceeding years have never been as violent or as tempestuous, local people testify to this.
Paul has visited Northern Ireland a number of times since 1999. A couple of years ago someone suggested that Paul come and meet the ‘new’ vicar of Drumcree, Gary Galway, although Gary had been vicar of Drumcree for 7 years up to this point. Gary had been a linesman for the Northern Irish Electricity Board and had resisted the call of God on his life for many years. Eventually Gary attended Theology College and after a time as a curate in the Church of Ireland in Portadown was offered Drumcree as his first post as a vicar! Talk about a baptism of fire!
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Gary and Heather set about trying to change the culture and bring about God’s plan for Drumcree. They faced an uphill struggle with forces and people who seemingly had power directly opposing them.
When Paul met Gary for the first time Gary knew nothing of Paul’s prayer team in 1999 but there was an instant heart connection between the two men and for Paul here was an answer to prayer sat in front of him. During 1999 Paul had prayed that a Spirit filled man would become vicar of Drumcree. So Paul and Gary arranged that Paul would bring a team of people with the same marquee and hold meetings for a week and also help out with the annual church Fete.
I was a late addition to that team; I agreed to go, not really knowing what to expect having heard some of the stories from 1999.
During the week leading up to us leaving tragedy struck. The lady who is the church’s main worship leader had both her parents brutally murdered in what eventually turned out to be an aggravated burglary. Not only was the crime horrendously shocking it was all over the local and national press. Paul was up front with everybody and anybody who wanted to stay at home was welcomed to do so, needless to say nobody backed out but if I were honest I didn’t really know what I was stepping into – Paul also needed a driver as the plan was to take the Father’s House mini-bus and none of Paul’s interns were old enough to drive the mini-bus.
Paul and Pete Milner had driven up the day before, taking the Marquee and as much equipment as they could get onto a hired flatbed. I drove the mini-bus to the Prayer House in Weymouth and we loaded all the equipment and stayed over night with Jonathon Matthews (otherwise known as Dotty) and we were joined by Tony O’Dell from ‘Catch The Fire’ Bournemouth. Alhough I said we stayed overnight, this wasn’t really true as we planned to be at the Prayer House for 3.30am to pick everybody up, our target was to catch the 3.30pm Belfast ferry from Stranraer in Scotland, needless to say we had a long day ahead of us. At the Prayer House we picked up the rest of the team, Raphael and Leonie Oettinger, Fortunatus and Keira Franklin as well as Rachael East (as was) and Israel Rodriguez.
Dotty took on the first driving shift and we headed for Scotland in the dark. We had a few short stops on the way and having made good time we thought we’d stop for about an hour at Gretna Green for lunch. This however lulled us into a false sense of security, as the next part of our journey seemed to take us a lot longer than we thought it was going to. We had turned from travelling north on the M6 to travelling east towards the ferry port of Stranear on the A75. The scenery was spectacular but the road wasn’t particularly ‘fast’ and our progress was hampered so much that we made the ferry with just 30mins to spare. By this time we all had been on the road for a full 12 hours.
The Stena Line ferry was modern and well appointed, the weather was beautiful so a few of us took the opportunity to take in the beautiful views of Scotland as we left Stranraer and although they are worlds apart the Scottish scenery reminded me very much of the Falkland Islands.
During the 2 ¼ hr. crossing many of us took the opportunity to catch up on sleep although before we knew it the ferry had docked and we were heading southeast on the M1 out of Belfast towards Portadown. This was a journey of about 40-50 mins. As we got closer to Drumcree Church we suddenly noticed Irish tricolours hanging from every lamppost, we were clearly passing through the Nationalist area of Portadown. We passed the church on our right and headed towards the vicarage where we could see the marquee had been set up.
Paul and Pete (Milner) welcomed us, as well as Gary and Heather Galway. It was now about 7pm and we were pretty exhausted. Mandy and Andy Drake had recently arrived too. The plan was to have something to eat and then head over to PHOP, which stands for Portadown House of Prayer, for a small meeting. Claudio Barguena also joined us, Claudio had been an intern at the Prayer House in Weymouth a number of years ago and was now living and working in Northern Ireland. I had met Claudio in his native Chile when I was travelling through South America
As we left Drumcree and moved onto the outskirts of Portadown it quickly became clear that we had moved into a Protestant area of town. Union Jacks and Northern Irish flags were hung from the lampposts and a huge bonfire was being erected on a green below a UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) flag on a huge flagpole. There were also paramilitary murals on the end of the houses facing the green.
We were made to feel very welcome by the locals. Paul spoke at the meeting and the team prayed and prophesied over a few people. It was fair to say though that ‘Dotty’ and I were flagging.
Down in the field below the vicarage Gary and members of his team were giving hovercraft rides around the field. Thinking that the church had hired in the hovercraft or had someone in the church that owned it, I asked Gary about the hovercraft’s origin and who owned it, to be told that it was the church’s hovercraft – the church’s hovercraft? Which led me to the conclusion that every church needs a hovercraft, surely?
The Weymouth Marquee was the tea and cake tent and it quickly filled up during the showers, it also has to be noted that I don’t think I have ever seen so many cakes in all my life, it seemed like the ladies of the church had been baking for ever to put on such a spread and just at the moment when you thought it was about to run out more cake was produced from somewhere. Maybe the Lord was just multiplying it?
The Weymouth team, myself and Andy and Mandy served in what ever way we could. Paul had been very clear with us not to discuss ‘the troubles’ with anyone, as everyone has an opinion. My first job of the day was to work on car parking with an old boy named Tom. Tom was Drumcree born and bred and as such I ended up having a complete history lesson of the region for the next hour and a half, Tom also knew everyone who parked his or her car and as such I quickly found out who was who in Drumcree. With Tom and others imparting their knowledge of the conflicts and such to us, I don’t think I was the only member of the team who started to Google and investigate the struggles and history of the region. This started to fill in some of the blanks and give me a better understanding of the tensions – what was also clear was that the English didn’t come out of it ‘Smelling of Roses.’ Throughout the day our team served teas and coffees, picked up litter, helped out with the auction etc. The day was a big success.
The following day we held the main church service in the marquee with Gary leading and preaching. What quickly became clear is that most of the people attending Gary’s church dressed up for church, in that many of the men were dressed in suits and clearly members of the Orange Order.
There was also an 11.30am service that took place in the church and in the evening we held another meeting where the team got to pray and prophesy over people. We then retired the vicarage where Gary and Heather gave us tea and biscuits.
This was to set the tone for the rest of the week, as our plan each day was to worship, pray and prophesy till midday in the marquee and then send teams out into the local community to offer prayer and prophesy to anybody that wanted it and invite people to our evening meetings. Our ventures into the community were bearing fruit. One afternoon two Catholic lads got saved when Raphael asked them “If you could ask God any question what would it be?” and this lad responded, “What happens when we die?”
Another lad we encountered in Craigavon shopping centre had travelled from Belfast to attend court in Craigavon to settle a paternity case with his girlfriend but actually didn’t have enough money for the train fare back to Belfast so was stuck in Craigavon. It clearly was a divine appointment, he explained that he had been thinking about going to church for a while and gave his life to Jesus and we met his need by settling his train fare issue.
On the Tuesday ‘Dotty’ left us, as he had to be back in Weymouth for work, Andy Drake and I took him to the airport and Dotty was replaced by Simon and Jodine James, who flew up to join us.
As the week progressed the evening meetings grew in number and we saw God move in mighty ways, prophetic words that were hitting the spot and healings. One lady who was prayed for was on the top of the NHS waiting list for a hip replacement her need was so acute, Paul prayed for her and she left the meeting with a hop, skip and a jump, God had healed her. Quite remarkable! Another lady was completely healed of a stiff neck, I had gone round laying hands on people as had the rest of the team. Paul asked who had prayed for this particular lady and Tony said it was Rich. The lady testified that she had been healed and we all praised God!
On the Wednesday afternoon Gary and his youth pastor Rodney got the hovercraft out and we all got to have a go at ‘flying’ it, it was harder than it looked but fortunately none of us ended up in the hedge.
The weather throughout the week was very changeable, earlier in the week the evening meetings were exceedingly chilly and it also became very windy, so much so that one of the smaller marquees near the main marquee was completely ‘ripped from it’s moorings’ and but for a resolute oak tree would have disappeared off down the field. It was all hands on deck to get the marquee disassembled while it was held fast against the tree by the wind.
On the Thursday morning we took the opportunity to go and pray at the church in their ‘prayer room’ and I can honestly say that the prayer room was filled with the thick presence of God, none of us wanted to leave.
In the afternoon there was the funeral of the lady’s parents who had been murdered the week before, this was well attended and naturally covered by press and news crews. Some of the ladies from the team helped with the refreshments while the rest of us pulled the main marquee down and packed the mini-bus and the flatbed for the 475 miles of our journey south in the morning. We were booked onto the 7.30am ferry back to Stranraer so we had a very early start next morning.
We had been heartily welcomed to Northern Ireland by Gary and Heather and the members of the community and left to return home with new friends, a better understanding of the challenges faced by Northern Ireland and it’s people but with a clear view that God is doing a marvellous work in that wonderful land.
Here’s what I felt to prophesy over Drumcree and a Holy Spirit inspired poem.
That Drumcree would a no longer be known as a place of conflict but that Drumcree would be known the world over as a place of peace because the Prince of Peace resides there and that people would make pilgrimages to experience the ‘peace of Drumcree’. People from the war torn parts of the world would take the ‘peace of Drumcree’ back to their communities.
V9 Surely His salvation is near to those who reverently and worshipfully fear Him, that glory may abide in our land.
V10 God’s mercy and loving-kindness and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
V11 Truth will spring up from the earth and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
V12 Yes, the Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield it’s increase.
V13 Righteousness shall go before Him and shall make His footsteps a way in which to walk.
V5 Blessed is the man whose strength is in You, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
V6 Passing through the Valley of Weeping (Baca), they make it a place of springs; the early rain also fills [the pools] with blessings.
V7 They go from strength to strength [increasing in victorious power]; each of them appears before God in Zion.
Battle worn men with hard exteriors,
Hold sway over a land of promise,
They have had their day!
Their scarred hearts will rule their heads no longer,
And peace will melt their frozen arteries,
Warmth and colour shall return,
And children will play in former glass and brick strewn streets,
Laughter will be heard where there was once weeping,
And the mothers will sing lullabies to their nursing children,
In the peace of the New Jerusalem,
A generation will seek the bitter, hard men of history,
And they will not be found for hearts of stone,
Will have been traded in heaven for hearts of flesh,