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The Catholic Church and the Northern Ireland Troubles, 1968-1998


Margaret M. Scull


Oxford: University Press, 2019

Hardcover. xii+236 p. ISBN 978-0198843214. £65


Reviewed by Stephen Hopkins

University of Leicester




This volume is an important contribution to the scholarship of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland; it is painstakingly researched and engagingly written. It is a surprise that the role of the institutional Catholic Church in the conflict has not received greater academic analysis, but this book makes up for the dearth of previous study. As Margaret Scull acknowledges, it was difficult for earlier scholars to utilise archival material held by the Church itself, but the author has been tenacious in gaining access to some of these archives (both in Ireland and in England), as well as supplementing these sources with autobiographical accounts, oral history and a careful reading of the Catholic press. The result is a judicious, well-argued study that is fascinating in particular regarding the influence of a number of prominent individual figures from the hierarchy. Scull is insistent that monocausal explanations of the conflict in the literature need to be challenged; she is surely correct that religion should not be ‘written out’ of a more nuanced and subtle approach to the complexities surrounding the origins of the conflict. The review of the existing literature testifies to the strange neglect of the Catholic Church’s position during the conflict, notwithstanding the work of Marianne Elliott, John Brewer, and particularly Claire Mitchell’s Religion, Identity, and Politics in Northern Ireland : Boundaries of Belonging and Belief (Aldershot, 2006).

The emphasis upon the critical influence of key individual personalities is repeatedly stressed, and the study is particularly interesting with regard to some of these members of the hierarchy, who set the tone for the laity in terms of their attitudes to the violent conflict. An important contextual point is made in the introduction: the deference of the lay population to the Church hierarchy was still very strong at the outset of the Troubles in the late 1960s, but by the time of the Good Friday / Belfast Agreement in 1998, the reputation of the Church throughout Ireland (and worldwide) was in severe crisis. The book reveals that the relationships between the hierarchy and the clergy were not always straightforward, and Scull is sensitive to the class and geographical divisions which existed within the Church community. One significant thread which runs through the book is the contrasting political styles of two Archbishops of Armagh, Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich (in post from 1977 until his death in 1990) and his successor as the leader of Ireland’s Catholics, Cardinal Cahal Daly (1990-1996). In particular, these men symbolised a diversity of tone, and occasionally substance, when they came to express their attitudes towards the use of political violence during the Troubles, especially when that violence was organised from within the broad Catholic nationalist or republican community. Scull concedes that it remains easier to ascertain the views and influence of the Church hierarchy, whose papers often record their interventions from the pulpit or in the media, than it is to gauge the views of ‘ordinary’ lay Catholics.     

At the commencement of street protest and counter-protest in the late 1960s, the Church’s hierarchy ‘responded tentatively’ [40], uncertain of how unfolding events would develop. In May 1970, the four main churches in Northern Ireland (the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Methodist and Catholic) issued a joint statement, in which they ‘came together to label the conflict political not sectarian’ [37]. The Archbishop of Armagh since 1963, Cardinal William Conway, was anxious that Catholic canon law on mixed marriage and the confessional education of children could be perceived as exacerbating sectarian conflict.  The Church, initially at least, was primarily concerned to protect its influence, and the hierarchy was unwilling to do more than urge restraint ‘on all sides’. The Stormont government’s introduction of internment without trial in August 1971, whilst a reaction to the growing destructive capacity of republican paramilitary groups, was, in practice, directed almost exclusively against working-class Catholics, many of whom were not active republican paramilitaries. This changed the equation facing the church at all levels.

A number of activist priests came to prominence at this early stage, in particular Mgr Raymond Murray, Fr Denis Faul and Fr Brian Brady; they campaigned publicly against internment and continued over the coming decades, in a series of widely disseminated pamphlets, to highlight communal grievances with the policies of the British state and its security forces. This activism posed some difficult dilemmas for the hierarchy. Scull recognises the pressure Conway and other Bishops felt in relation to the growing presence of the IRA (particularly the Provisionals): they needed to ‘tread carefully as condemning the perceived protectors of the community could push Catholics further into the IRA’s clutches’ [45]. However, whilst many in the clergy viewed the policy of internment as ‘evil and immoral’ [45], the hierarchy had counter-vailing pressures to take into consideration: the Church needed to protect its position vis-à-vis the government authorities in London and Belfast. A statement in November 1971 by the six Northern Bishops was highly critical of ‘interrogation in depth’ but did not judge internment per se as immoral.

A fine line continued to be trod at this stage of the Troubles, but the ‘Bloody Sunday’ killings of mainly teenage Catholic men by the British Army’s Parachute Regiment in Derry in January 1972 produced a visceral reaction from priests who were ‘on the ground’, and this arguably shifted the prevailing discourse of the hierarchy, at least to some degree and for some time. The book reproduces one of the most recognisable photographs of the entire conflict: Fulvio Grimaldi’s shot of the priest Fr Edward Daly escorting the fatally injured Jackie Duddy, whilst waving a blood-soaked white handkerchief [49]. Daly’s emotional interview in the immediate aftermath of the shootings, which left 13 unarmed Catholics dead, in which he insisted there had been ‘no provocation whatsoever’, altered the position of the Church in a critical fashion. As Scull puts it, Daly’s words were ‘a true condemnation of the British government which the international community had not previously heard from the clergy or hierarchy’ [50]. At a press conference the following day, Daly and six other priests who had been in attendance at the march accused the British Army of being guilty of ‘wilful murder’. Although Cardinal Conway did not go so far, or so unequivocally, he effectively endorsed the version of events presented by Daly and the other priests. The letters to Conway studied by Scull (held at the Cardinal Ó Fiaich Memorial Library and Archive) demonstrate important differences between the sentiments of Irish and English Catholics, and also provide some early evidence of the ‘weakening of the rigid hierarchical structures of the Irish Catholic Church’ [52]. 

Of course, although there were a number of what might be termed ‘activist’ members of the clergy, many priests tried to insulate their parishes (and themselves) from direct engagement in the issues raised during the Troubles. It is difficult to judge to what extent the views of Faul, Murray and their ilk were shared by others in the clergy. As for the hierarchy, Scull makes a strong argument that once the ‘well known nationalist sympathizer’ from the republican stronghold of Crossmaglen [87] Ó Fiaich became Archbishop, there was a significant shift in the prevailing tone of the interventions. This became very clear during the hunger strikes by republican inmates of Long Kesh/HMP Maze in 1980 and 1981. Ó Fiaich visited the jail in 1978 (where the ‘blanketmen’ were locked in a struggle with prison authorities after refusing to wear prison uniforms or undertake work). After meeting the British Secretary of State, Roy Mason, the Archbishop, dismayed at what he saw as a ‘dismissive attitude’, released a statement in which he complained bitterly at the conditions being endured by the protesting inmates; he compared them to people ‘living in sewer pipes in the slums of Calcutta’ [92]. The Archbishop appeared to align himself with the activist campaign of Frs Faul and Murray, and not only was his intervention criticised by the media and by many Protestants, but the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume, also expressed his consternation. As Scull argues, ‘Ó Fiaich’s outspokenness would cause friction between himself and more conservative members of the Church establishment throughout the remainder of his tenure’ [92]. A crucial outcome of the Archbishop’s statement was the huge boost for the international profile of the republican prison campaign.              

The Archbishop continued to work both within the Church (briefing the Pope on the situation), as well as with the prisoners and with government to seek a means to end the stand-off. In the end, the Provisionals brought the protest to a climax with the hunger strike of autumn 1980. Ó Fiaich worked to persuade the republican movement to end the strike in December (thereby averting the death of Sean McKenna) but proved unable to prevent the resumption of the tactic in March 1981, under the leadership of Bobby Sands. Although the Archbishop continued to work behind the scenes and met with British Prime Minister Thatcher at the end of June, nonetheless the Catholic Church was convulsed by the deaths of Sands and nine other republican prisoners. Despite the intervention of a Papal envoy, Fr John Magee, and the determined efforts of Fr Faul to persuade the hunger strikers’ families of the ‘needless waste of life’ [102] that would ensue from following their fast, the prisoners remained implacable. To the fury of both the prisoners and some in the Irish clergy (such as Faul and Murray), Cardinal Hume had publicly argued that hunger striking to death was a form of suicide, and theologically this carried the implication that it was sinful; therefore, in this view the deceased should not receive Catholic burials on consecrated ground. Faul and Ó Fiaich found themselves under attack from both the republican movement, for their perceived willingness to pressurise the families to bring their sons off the strike, and from the British government (and some of their co-religionists, particularly in England) for not condemning unequivocally the hunger strike tactic. Ultimately, this was an extremely difficult time for the Irish Catholic Church and wider community and led to fraught relationships at all levels. Scull’s carefully researched and well-judged chapter presents us with new light on this most controversial episode, which set the tone for both disunity within the Church, as well as greater antagonism between republicans and the hierarchy through the next decade.

Despite Ó Fiaich’s efforts to maintain unity amongst Irish Catholics, Scull argues that the appointment of Cahal Daly as Bishop of Down and Connor in 1982 brought a very different sensibility to the Northern hierarchy. She contrasts the ‘emphatic rejection’ of militant republicanism espoused by Daly with the much greater sympathy displayed by the Archbishop. Scull’s own sympathies appear to be with the ‘quiet reasoning’ of Cardinal Ó Fiaich, as opposed to the ‘passionate condemnations’ of Cahal Daly [123], and this represents a critical fault-line for an overall judgment regarding the role of the Church in the later peace process during the 1990s. When Ó Fiaich died in 1990, Daly replaced him as Archbishop, thereby ‘dramatically altering the Church’s involvement in the conflict’ [155]. Throughout the book, Scull identifies the roles played by a number of individual Catholics, from both the hierarchy and the clergy, during the Troubles; she includes very useful biographical sketches of many of these men (and some women religious) as an appendix. This approach, which includes the campaigning role of radical priests such as Fr Joe McVeigh and Fr Des Wilson, as well as Sr Sarah Clarke in England, illustrates the breadth of views enshrined within the institution. In some ways, the narrative arc here is one of increasing fragmentation and the gradual, but pronounced, fraying of the Church’s authority as a hierarchical organisation [161]; perhaps unexpectedly, the institution became more capacious and less monotone as the conflict wore on.

In her final substantive chapter on the peace process, Scull is clear about the critical role played by mediators behind the scenes in bringing the republican movement into dialogue with other nationalists and the British government; she underlines the sterling work of Fr Alec Reid and Fr Gerry Reynolds in particular. By implication, at least, the hierarchy or institutional Church under Cahal Daly are viewed, in the words of Brian Feeney, as having ‘nothing to do with the peace process, however much they claim they might have’ [160]. As Scull argues, ‘there was a spectrum of clerical responses to the Provisionals’ armed struggle during the early 1990s. It is difficult to characterize this period as having one “Church style” ’. She continues that Fr Faul ‘publicly denounced SF [Sinn Féin] throughout the early 1990s, proving that not every priest was in favour of dialogue’ [172]. Yet, this judgment seems not to sufficiently appreciate the necessity of a balanced approach; dialogue was required not only between republicans and ‘constitutional nationalists’ (in the shape of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Irish government), but also with different shades of Protestant and Unionist opinion, if the peace negotiations were to have any hope of success. In this regard, the strong anti-IRA position adopted by Archbishop Daly and Faul might be understood as providing some reassurance that the Catholic Church was unwilling to offer political concessions to the Provisional movement, simply as the necessary price for securing an end to republican violence.

To be fair, Scull does recognise this dimension elsewhere in the chapter: ‘Daly’s long history of condemning the Provisionals and SF helped convince other church leaders [from Protestant denominations] of his true commitment to non-sectarian policy and peace’ [166]. As Scull acknowledges later, both ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ were required in the complex process of bringing republicans in from the cold [180]. This particular reviewer would add that the republicans’ exile from the political process had been largely self-imposed, through the movement’s fatal attraction to the ‘military instrument’. We might value the ‘carrot’ in the form of Reid’s or Edward Daly’s willingness to engage with Gerry Adams even while the IRA continued to kill, but equally we should not undervalue the ‘stick’, in the shape of Cardinal Daly’s ‘blunt message to the IRA’ from April 1994, that it must ‘stop killing or stop talking peace’ [180]. Until the Church’s archives for the period are accessible, it is difficult to know the extent to which this balanced approach was the result of what Scull refers to as a ‘coordinated effort’, or whether the individuals concerned were ‘ploughing their own furrows’.

This book provides a wealth of insight and will be of great use to future scholars in the field. Margaret Scull has made a very significant contribution to the literature of the Northern Irish conflict; it is to be hoped that the book will be widely read and made available in paperback.                   



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