Was priest's role in The Disappeared a bystander to evil or a pawn in the IRA's game?
The IRA used Catholic priests to enhance its credibility among nationalists. But sometimes the cynical strategy backfired, writes Malachi O'Doherty.
Published 06/11/2013 | 11:00
A priest praying with a man about to be shot by the IRA is implicated in the shooting, perhaps in ways he doesn't understand, since he is also a pawn in a game.
The defence of Fr Eugene McCoy made by Fr Patrick McCafferty in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph is solid, from his perspective.
Fr McCoy prayed with one of the "Disappeared", Eamon Molloy (21), shortly before the north Belfast man was murdered and secretly buried by the IRA in 1975.
Mr Molloy's body was eventually found in a new coffin in May 1999 at Old Faughart churchyard, near the border in Co Louth.
The defence of Fr McCoy's actions goes something like this: a priest believes that a man about to be killed has an immortal soul and, so, is entitled to sacraments which may ease his passage into eternity.
Many in the IRA shared that theology.
One of the striking things about the image of Billy McKee, a former IRA commander interviewed by Darragh McIntyre on The Disappeared on Monday night, was the little statue of the Virgin Mary beside him.
If Fr McCoy had refused to provide Extreme Unction for Mr Molloy, he would have felt he was denying him God's grace.
If he had left the house where Molloy was awaiting death and called the police to try to prevent the murder, then the IRA would have been obliged, in its own security interests, to avoid bringing priests in to comfort others.
Further victims would have been dispatched unshriven. That's the Catholic way of viewing the problem.
It is a view which assumes reasonably benign intentions on the part of the IRA; they needed to kill some people, but they didn't mind them going to Heaven afterwards.
Another perspective would suggest that the ritual of bringing a priest to a person under interrogation might be an act of mental torture; an attempt to convince the person that he, or she, really is about to die, turn the screw a bit further before pulling the trigger, in the hope of exacting a confession. How would a priest feel about being used like that?
McIntyre's programme gave insight into other occasions on which priests were compromised and there are others.
McIntyre showed us documentation around the case of the McConville children, looking after themselves in the weeks following their mother Jean's abduction. Papers described a local priest as unsympathetic to their plight.
In the early-1990s, I interviewed Fr Matt Wallace in Turf Lodge about his work mediating with the local IRA on behalf of young men under threat of kneecapping.
He told me that he often spoke to the IRA if he believed that a decent young man had been accused in the wrong and was in danger of being shot.
I asked what he would do if approached for help by a man who was guilty of the IRA charges against him.
Would he intercede for mercy? No, Fr Matt said; he would leave the man to his fate.
And there was a logic to this position; he needed to retain his credibility with the IRA as someone who could vouch for the guilt, or innocence, of people accused of car theft, drug dealing, rape and other offences.
Otherwise he would be of no use to those wrongly accused. But that still made him part of the system.
That system was what the IRA called a "civil administration", run from Sinn Fein offices. From Connolly House on the Andersonstown Road and other buildings, the IRA received complaints about assaults and thefts and sent gunmen to interrogate and punish offenders.
This operated on an enormous scale and was arguably the greater part of IRA activity through the 1980s and 1990s.
And it wasn't just priests who were caught up in validating it by their co-operation.
Several charities and voluntary organisations worked close to the civil administration, to negotiate reduced punishments and deferments of punishment, to allow time for men under threat to leave the country.
These organisations became part of the whole set-up through which people were ordered out of Ireland.
And church groups, including some in England, were part of this, too, acting, as they understood it, in the best interests of those under threat, but effectively establishing the networks through which the IRA could expel men and women from their homes and the country.
Several priests did constructive work for victims by talking directly to those who ordered shootings. Some went on to mediate in the peace process, as did Fr Alec Reid and Fr (later Mr) Denis Bradley in Derry.
Denis Bradley drove IRA members to meetings to negotiate the 1975 ceasefire, but so, also, did RUC officer Frank Lagan.
Bradley spoke once to an IRA team holding a British soldier and secured his release.
All of this work was done on the understanding that the IRA members these priests met were not endangered.
And, from a very early stage, Government-appointed mediators, like Philip Woodfield, did the same kind of work. Woodfield met Gerry Adams (far left) in Donegal in 1972 to negotiate the terms of the first IRA ceasefire.
He patronised the young man and urged him to go to university; Adams ran rings round him. Woodfield was later activated as an emissary to the IRA during the hunger strikes.
The hunger strikes campaign was defeated by a Catholic priest who had earned the trust of republican families.
Fr Denis Faul came to believe that prisoners were being cynically sacrificed for political ends by their own IRA leadership and he rallied the families to withdraw co-operation.
He was only able to do this because he was trusted inside that community.
Implicating people in its activities was the IRA's strategy for enhancing its legitimacy. It worked.