Church opinion in Northern Ireland, 1983

Published in Features, Issue 6 (November/December 2015), Volume 23


By Maggie Scull

The file is not limited to the Irish Catholic Church, as it also includes a note of a meeting between the secretary of state and a delegation from the Church of Ireland on 17 January 1983—(left to right) Gordon McMullan, bishop of Clogher; Robin Eames, bishop of Down and Dromore; John Armstrong, archbishop of Armagh; William McCappin, bishop of Connor; and James Mehaffey, bishop of Derry and Raphoe. (Victor Patterson)

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) recently released their 1983 files to the National Archives in Kew, including one concerning church opinion in Northern Ireland on the Provisional IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). This file reveals the close communication between the British government and the Irish Catholic Church in particular. It indicates that, at this point in the conflict, British government officials still valued church opinion and understood the importance of the churches to Northern Irish communities. British civil servants frequently discussed their need to inform certain bishops while ‘keeping an eye on’ the movement of others. Although the church hierarchy repeatedly claimed that the conflict did not have a religious basis, they frequently influenced events in Northern Ireland as well as British government policy. The file contains many memos, summaries of meetings, newspaper clippings, pamphlets and interview transcripts between the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and the FCO. The documents focus on a wide range of issues, including peace efforts, prison matters, policing and housing concerns.

In a British government memo, the private secretary to the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, James Prior, reveals that Cahal Daly, the bishop of Down and Connor, sent Prior a copy of his New Year’s Day address, which he gave on the World Day of Prayer for Roman Catholics. Daly’s speech, which challenged Sinn Féin to choose between the ballot box and the Armalite, received a critical response from Sinn Féin. The British government saw Daly’s views on the conflict as ‘encouraging’, as they were in line with Prior’s own policies. While the secretary of state’s office was content with most of Daly’s speech, they believed that he was ‘unfair’ concerning the effect that Northern Ireland’s poor quality of housing had on community relations, an area in which Prior worried that the bishop’s knowledge was shaped by ‘hearsay’, as at the same time many unionists decried a new ‘pro-Catholic’ housing agenda. To better inform Daly on housing, Prior’s team arranged a meeting between the bishop and the Housing Executive. Concluding remarks on the memo reveal plans for the secretary of state to refer to Daly’s words in his address, but Prior worried that that might be giving him too much support in public and thus might undermine his position in the Catholic community. This note reveals that the British government knew that close ties between themselves and the Catholic hierarchy could damage the Northern Irish bishops’ standing with Catholics.

The file is not limited to the Irish Catholic Church, as it also includes a note of a meeting between the secretary of state and a delegation from the Church of Ireland on 17 January 1983. The archbishop of Armagh, John Armstrong, Bishop Robin Eames and a number of Protestant lay men and women met with Prior at Stormont Castle to discuss the aims of their group, the Role of the Church Committee, a cross-border organisation. The group talked over the political solution to the conflict and urged the British government to ‘recognise the existence of two separate cultures’ in Northern Ireland. One of the members put forward a proposal to ban broadcast interviews with Sinn Féin candidates, a policy later put into action between 1988 and 1994. Prior responded to many points made by the committee, confirming his desire that Northern Ireland remain a bi-partisan issue and not feature in the next general election. Archbishop Armstrong thanked Prior for the meeting.

Another intriguing inclusion in the file is the annual review of the Holy See in 1982 from the British government ambassador there, Mark Heath. The ambassador reported to the FCO on Pope John Paul II’s variable health after the spring 1981 assassination attempt. While the majority of the review contained Heath’s musing on the Vatican and Eastern Europe, he suggested that help on Northern Ireland would be a good way to ‘capitalise’ on the British government’s new level of relationship with the Holy See. Heath remarked that since the creation of a British government embassy for the Vatican in 1914, a major step for both countries, it would be unthinkable in 1982 for such an embassy not to exist. Further, Heath concluded that a type of ‘you scratch our backs and we’ll scratch yours’ friendship on Northern Ireland would be beneficial to both parties, with the Vatican supporting British government actions in the region. Overall, Heath’s report indicates a growing understanding between the British government and the Holy See.

Cahal Daly, bishop of Down and Connor. The British government saw Daly’s views on the conflict as ‘encouraging’, as they were in line with Secretary of State James Prior’s own policies. (Victor Patterson)

An exchange of letters followed the ambassador’s report, more specifically on the conflicting desire for Holy See support. One FCO official commented in April 1983 that there was a difference between informing the Vatican of British government policy towards Northern Ireland and taking the initiative to secure Vatican backing, which he believed would be ‘counter-productive’, as it could offend unionists. Instead, the British government would communicate through Archbishop Bruno Heim, who became the pro-nuncio or papal ambassador to the United Kingdom, to increase Vatican awareness of the work of the Northern Ireland Office. The British government viewed Bishop Cahal Daly as another ‘source of advice’ for Pope John Paul II.

A series of documents in the file relate to Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich’s visit to Irish men and women held in English prisons during Easter 1983. On his return, Ó Fiaich spoke at the Irish Episcopal Commission for Emigrants in Dublin, where he pleaded for long-term Northern Irish prisoners to be transferred to the six counties. The cardinal’s statement built on recent press concerning the Birmingham Six, the six Irish individuals wrongly convicted of building bombs for the IRA on English soil. The FCO documents discuss the widespread Irish and British press coverage of Ó Fiaich’s statement and how to foresee future incidents. The Home Office had failed to inform the Northern Ireland Office of the cardinal’s prison visits. The note on Ó Fiaich’s Easter prison visit included copies of newspaper stories that featured the cardinal, including The Times, Sunday Press, Irish Press and Irish Times. Ó
Fiaich, a well-known nationalist sym-pathiser as well as a powerful orator, had spoken out against the British government before, during the Long Kesh/Maze prison protests and the 1980/1 hunger strikes.

The Northern Ireland Office reiterated the ‘political impact’ that church leaders had on the conflict. One civil servant commented that while Ó Fiaich’s remarks surprised the British government, they were ‘not at all out of character’ for the cardinal. The note cautioned the importance of communication between the different departments, however, as Ó Fiaich’s Easter 1983 prison visits demonstrated that such visits by church leaders and others could ‘give rise to controversy’.

In 1983 British government officials clearly valued church opinion on the Northern Irish Troubles. Even if only paying lip service to the churches, FCO officials attempted to maintain community relations with both Protestants and Catholics through their religious leaders. The file therefore demonstrates the Conservative government’s attitude towards the conflict as a religious one. This policy would change in 1997 with the Labour government under Tony Blair, who would exclude church leaders in favour of discussions with community activists.

Maggie Scull is a Ph.D student in Irish History at King’s College, London.


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