22 JANUARY 1972, Page 7


What the clerics say

Frances Howard and Francis Fuchs

"How do you bring a Unionist government to its knees unless you bomb them out? Our bishops say you can't bomb a million Protestants into a United Ireland. Well, there are many who believe it's the only way it can be done." That isn't an IRA man talking — it's a Catholic priest, Father Watson, and he's not afraid to shout it from the pulpit.

In an Ulster where political statements are made with bullets rather than words, body counts seem to have become the only measure of the situation. It is easy to concentrate only on battles between the British Army and the IRA, forgetting the two communities whose lives make up the battleground. These two communities, separated by ethnic, social and political differences, nevertheless still characterise themselves by religious labels. Despite all the complications, it's still basically Catholics versus Protestants. So, in trying to assess the range of opinion, and the possibilities for future progress towards reconciliation within these communities, their religious leaders' opinions have particular significance. They speak with considered words, weighing moral judgements and ethical arguments — but they speak from the mainstream of their people's consciousness.

And so, among the Catholic and Protestant clergy, are reflections of the complete range of opinion in Ulster. And, corresponding to the basic conflict between the two communities, there is a fundamental contradiction between the two churches. Without exception, the Protestants supported the status quo and the Stormont government. Except for one maverick pacifist, they all justified internment as a necessary measure. The Catholics, by contrast, were all intensely committed to political change.

Canon Mullally, Vicar-General of Belfast, County Down and County Antrim, expresses his Church's position; part of his job is making official statements on behalf of his superior, Bishop Philbin — so he speaks authoritatively when he says the government has been a biased government during the last fifty years. "For a long time that was denied. The Cameron Report very clearly laid down the government's responsibility for the situation that has arisen here, and clearly the people are not prepared to continue under a system of government that continues to do them injustice. They will never again accept this situation. The wonder of it is that we have accepted it and lived under it for fifty years." The Catholic priests show their concern and involvement in their people's cause by engaging in numerous political activities. When the census was being taken last spring in Northern Ireland, many priests felt so strongly about the discrimination in the application of the law that, in protest, they would not complete their forms. Some have since been prosecuted and have declared that they would rather go to jail than pay the fines. In April 1971 a large number of Catholic priests also signed a public statement asking for an inquiry into the way the law was operating; they believed that there was selectivity in prosecutions, in the granting of bails, inequality in the sentencing policy in the Catholic/Protestant context, and that the judges were showing what they considered to be obvious bias. Since the introduction of internment, their protests and attempts at negotiations have more than doubled.

Father Brady is one such activist ' priest. He is a lecturer in religious education at St Joseph's College of Education in Belfast, but devotes all his spare time to working with the Legal Justice Association. This Association describes itself as "a growing body of ordinary men and women dedicated to fight the abuses and injustices in the legal system of Northern Ireland." Most of its work is concerned with helping the relatives and friends of detained men who can be held incommunicado for up to forty-eight hours. It is also compiling evidence on the brutality and 'torture ' of detainees by the British Army.

On the system of government in Northern Ireland, Father Brady has this to say: "I realise there's no such thing as a perfect state, but there has to be serious failure on the part of the state before you can withdraw your allegiance to it, and I think as far as the situation in the community here is concerned, it has reached this point. They've withdrawn their consent, and I personally feel myself in that position. If the rule of the people is immoral, it is the duty of the priest to be at the forefront of any effort which is made to change that situation." Father Patrick Murphy has been at the forefront of negotiatitins since the troubles first began. During theiheight of the disturbances in 1969 and 1970, the British Army used him as a mediator with the Central Citizens' Defence Committee which was at that time composed of men later to emerge as prominent leaders of the IRA. Murphy's good offices helped bring about the dismantling of barricades in the Catholic Falls Road area. He was also highly involved in advising the Labour government in 1969 on its proposed housing and police reforms. Murphy personally showed Sir Arthur Young around the area when he first arrived. Sir Arthur Young was trying to explain to the people that the police would no longer be a political force, but more of a service like the police in Z Cars. Of course the people were delighted. But, according to Murphy, one by one each reform was nullified by the Stormont government. Part of the reform was to be the creation of a police authority to act as a buffer between the police and the people. One third was to be chosen from the Catholic community: "The choice of those members was absolutely unre presentative — we didn't even know the people they chose were Catholics. I'd have said they were good Protestants because of the way they allied themselves with the Unionist government. Then the police started to press for arms. Now they've got automatic weapons extended to a special reserve — in other words, we're back to square one."

Again Father Murphy was directly involved in the proposals for the reform of housing. He remembers Mr Callaghan tel ling him that the housing reforms would be the real breakthrough, they would eliminate discrimination for all time.

"Again they had to select a number from the minority. We begged the UK represen tative not to make the same mistake again. We sent in copious lists, from the political parties, two bishops, all sorts of respected members of the community. Those lists were as good as ignored. And there I was saying to the people that the way to do it was to trust Westminster — Westminster will see that it doesn't happen again. What do you do when that point is reached?"

Within the Catholic Church's broad belief in the justness of its people's cause, there is still a basic split between the militants and the moderates. Father Watson is a militant. Young, broad-shouldered, his ready, open smile emphasises the directness of words he used in a sermon preached the Sunday after internment began: "I said we have three main enemies. The first is the Unionist government which I think has been responsible for us being second class citizens; the second is Westminster who've washed their hands of the whole problem and sat back hoping it would go away; the third is the British Army who are being used by the Unionists as the instrument to enforce their policies. I told my congregation that I would do everything in my power to bring down the Unionist government." He paused, then: "You know, I think every peaceful means has been exhausted, it meets with repression which will only bring on more violence."

Father Murphy, on the other hand, is a moderate. Cardinal Conway, Primate of All Ireland, and Vicar-General Mullally both recommended him as being representative of the centre. But even though he condemns violence of any kind and advocates peaceful protest and passive resistance, he entirely sympathises with Father Watson's position: "I can well understand how certain priests, just like certain people, could be caught up in this situation emotionally and say that the only way to shake these people is to do something violent. For instance, we have been creating a great deal of protest about the use of CS gas both by the police and the military. In the year following extensive use of the gas in the Lower Falls area, more people died than in any other winter thanks to the chest condition created by the gas. We did everything we could to protest about that usage, but nothing would have happened but for Johnny who took it on himself to throw it into the House of Commons. He cleared the whole House with two canisters."

On the question of violence, then, opinions among the Catholic clergy in Northern Ireland differ only slightly. Although they all condemn violence in itself, the militants would justify it as a means to an end. The moderates, on the other hand, are coming more and more to the conclusion that the situation as it drags on has put the Catholic community in a position of having to defend itself, and every man should have the right to self-defence. Many would point out that it was institutional violence as practised by Stormont which led to the upheaval in the first instance. I think you can have a very well-dressed respectable politician sitting in his office with two or three secretaries, drawing out a plan which is more violent than the planting of bombs," says Father Murphy.

The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church of Ireland, with Cardinal Conway at its head, is in a very difficult position. It is under attack from both the Protestants and its own grass roots priests. Father Watson is its strongest critic: "The position is disastrous. They have evolved no coherent view. If you issue petty little statements from time to time, condemn this incident, approve of that, you're constantly accused of changing position. This is what they've got themselves into. According to traditional theology, there are conditions for a just war — let them outline these because the Provisionals will argue that they're engaged in a just war. War has been declared. The British say they're conducting a war against the terrorists, therefore the British Army are legitimate targets for these boys. The hierarchy's in a mess, but in their heart of hearts they believe violence is justified. Then let them say it."

The role of the Catholic hierarchy is very important in this tense situation with the Catholic community, still deeply religious, looking to it for leadership in its struggle, just as the priests are looking to it for guidance. The Protestants, on the other hand, are deeply suspicious owing to the hierarchy's special position vis-à-vis the constitution of the Republic. They identify a United Ireland with a Catholic state and to them the hierarchy represents Home Rule sitting across the road waiting to take over, waiting to trample on them on religious grounds.

And yet no one is more conscious of these feelings than Cardinal Conway himself. He answers Father Watson's charges in this way: "I am quite certain that the view would only be held by a very small minority of priests. In fact I think it is a view which doesn't make sense. It implies that one or other side in this conflict is all black or all white. Life is never as simple as that. One of the duties of the bishops is to condemn injustice wherever they find it, on whatever side, and this they have done. This tends to alienate all kinds of extremists. This is always the penalty for proclaiming the truth." And on the question of whether he is simply being over-cautious: "One must never qualify one's principles for reasons of expediency. The actual expression of one's views has to be worded in such a way as to give the least possible occasion for misunderstand' ing or distortion — an almost impossible task, I may say, in a situation of tension. In a New Year's message to Mr Fault(' ner, Mr Maudling, the Home Secretary, said he hoped 1972 would bring agreeme1! on an active, permanent and guarantee° role for both majority and minority cony munities in the life and public affairs ef Northern Ireland. "It will be a year that calls for statesmanship from all leadia people in Northern Ireland — politicians; Church leaders, leaders in every field 0,1 public life." When consultations on this level finally take place, it will be priests like Father Murphy and Father Brady, botb highly involved and respected by the CO olic community, who will have an imPdr tant part to play. Just as they were pre' pared to speak out about their feelings ?II the situation, so they are deeply coman,e., ted to finding a solution. Canon MullallY thinks the first step will have to be fron! Westminster laying it on the line. Alf Father Watson: "I don't believe theres anything sacred about territory, but I cerely believe that there'll never be ani lasting peace, and we'll never get rid of the neurosis in this community, until we have a United Ireland."

However, just as the Catholic priests ate committed to political change, the Protestant clergy are committed to suP,' porting the status quo. The follovvint statements from Protestant ministers reflect the basic differences in outlook be tween the two communities and the difficUlties that will arise when the r.0 sides confront each other in future Co sultations: "I personally am not convine,', that there has been fifty years of misrule' if it has appeared impossible for the Mill; ority to rule, well, it's simply becaUS",, democracy works in that particular waY', says the Reverend Charles Eyre, minisre,' at the Methodist Carlisle Memorial Churer which dominates the notorious Carlisle Circus in Belfast. "They're always talkil about being second class citizens. Weil right up until the second Vatican Colin°, in 1960, we Protestants were described 1// the Catholics as second class citizens we weren't recognised as Christians at all', And on the question of finding cornui4 ground with the Catholic community: " believe certain things, they belielff something else. We wish to bring up otti children within this belief, but they saY there's a mixed marriage, our childre' must come over to their way of thinloll We can't turn round to our people and te them to love all Roman Catholics." The Reverend John Girvan, Presbyterlere Minister at the Emmanuel Church off .thie Shankill Road, believes that the Bit instructs us to accept the powers that iro and thinks that the way out is through deeper knowledge of God. "In 1921-4,: there was a time of revival in religion. Belfast. There were men converted Wits revolvers in their pockets and there WO, turning of the tide. In 1969 the soldlei; were on our streets and there was anothel revival. I think when man is at his V.se tremity, it's God's opportunity." P,,,1 paused, then: " D'you know, there's awful lot of people that don't believe God any more."