Northern Ireland reconciliation bill highlights complicated role of Catholic Church during the Troubles

It has now been more than two decades since the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998, formally ending the Troubles in Northern Ireland. But the most recent attempt by the British government to “deal with the past” – the legacy and reconciliation bill – is itself provoking conflict.

The bill, currently going through the House of Lords, seeks to “promote reconciliation” by establishing an Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery. It plans to limit criminal investigations, legal proceedings, inquests and police complaints, extend the prisoner release scheme, and provide for experiences to be recorded and preserved and for events to be studied and memorialised.

Victims’ groups, Northern Irish political parties, the Irish government, and Americans and Europeans involved in the peace process are all against the bill in its current form, especially the effective amnesty for unresolved Troubles killings. Nonetheless, the bill is still widely expected to become law early next year. What will the Catholic Church do if it does?

Conflict, religion and politics

Northern Ireland endured almost three decades of the deadly Troubles, which many outside of the country believed was caused by religion. Throughout the conflict, the British government regularly met with religious leaders to ask their opinions on policy initiatives and to gauge the mood of the people.

British Catholics and Protestants alike wrote to Catholic bishops demanding action to end the violence. But when their efforts failed, it was thought a lack of application on the bishops’ part rather than a lack of influence was to blame. However, even a rare public intervention from the Pope was not enough.

John Paul II’s much-celebrated three-day visit to the Republic of Ireland in September 1979 included addressing a 250,000-strong crowd 30 miles from the border at Drogheda. But his appeal for “all men and women engaged in violence” to “return to the ways of peace” fell on deaf ears.

Attempts to stop the 1981 Maze Prison hunger strike through meetings with the queen and the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, were unsuccessful. The sending of a papal envoy to speak with lead hunger striker Bobby Sands and British government officials, also ended in failure.

Catholic bishops faced regular questions from the British press asking why IRA members had not been excommunicated. Officially excluding someone from participation in the sacraments and services of the Christian church is not common practice in the modern era.

The cover of a book showing a cartoon of a bishop and some Northern Ireland paramilitaries holding their guns in the shape of a cross.

OUP, Author provided

As the blatantly sectarian cartoon on the cover image of my book, The Catholic Church and the Northern Ireland Troubles 1968-98, demonstrates, there were those in the British press who perpetuated the idea that republicanism and Catholicism were willing bedfellows. But the church knew that excommunicating IRA members could isolate sections of the Catholic community who felt the republican paramilitaries provided protection from perceived corrupt police and British Army forces.

Those who conflated the conflict with religion viewed the lack of excommunication of republican paramilitaries as the church’s compliance and support for violence. This reluctance to tackle the excommunication issue led to missed opportunities for unity.

Hopes for interfaith cooperation were dashed by other issues, too: chiefly the Church’s insistence on segregated education for Catholics, and the 1970 Vatican apostolic letter Matrimonia Mixta which emphasises that children born of “mixed” Catholic and Protestant marriages should be raised Catholic.

IRA paramilitary funerals were another dilemma for the Catholic Church. Irish priests who ministered and conducted these ceremonies were regularly accused of condoning, if not actively supporting, violence. Differing Catholic and Protestant church practices and theologies around death, funerals, and the afterlife exacerbated inter-community tensions.

For Catholics, the dead would be judged when they met their maker and not by those on earth. Therefore it was difficult for the Irish Catholic Church to deny IRA members a funeral and requiem mass. In the late 1980s, Bishop Edward Daly of Derry attempted to ban the bodies of republican paramilitaries being present at their requiem mass but quickly had to reverse his decision when republican mourners brought the coffins to the cathedral and were granted entry.

A carrot and stick approach emerged among the Catholic clergy. Some priests acted as mediators between the Provisional IRA and the British government, resulting in the 1974-75 ceasefire. Priests were supposed to embody neutrality and had historically adjudicated between different Irish groups.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, priests like Father Alec Reid and Father Gerry Reynolds provided rooms in the Clonard Monastery for Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams and the SDLP’s John Hume to meet privately. At the same time, priests like Father Denis Faul publicly denounced the IRA’s violence. However, revelations of clerical child abuse in the 1990s shattered the moral authority of the Catholic Church and drastically reduced institutional church involvement in the peace process.

Three men in black suits - Gerry Adams, Albert Reynolds and John Hume - shaking hands.
Meetings between Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, left and SDLP leader John Hume, right, were sometimes facilitated by Catholic priests.
PA / Alamy

Reconciling or deepening divisions?

Depending on the final shape of the Reconciliation and Information Recovery bill, will the Catholic Church back the oral history projects? Will it support researchers writing thematic reports? Will it be inspired to open its own archives? Or will it boycott the bill in solidarity with victims’ groups?

Archbishop Eamon Martin, the Roman Catholic primate of all Ireland, along with the queen, took part in a service of reflection and hope in Armagh in 2021 alongside Protestant church leaders to mark the centenary of partition and the creation of Northern Ireland. But the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, declined the invitation, saying he was “not in a position to attend”.

While this may indicate a willingness for the Catholic Church to be a part of the legacy process, Archbishop Martin and another Church of Ireland archbishop, John McDowell, jointly warned the bill would “deepen divisions” in the north.

Should the bill go forward in its current form, Church leadership will either have to back the British government or push against it, a doubtless tricky position for an institution declining in influence.

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