Belfast Telegraph

Why 'whatever you say, say nothing' is my rule to avoid misunderstanding

By Alf McCreary

One of the salutary lessons of recent days has been the revelation in newly-released official papers that senior Catholic clergy were ambivalent about the appointment of Robin Eames as Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland.

Under the 30-year release of State papers, Cardinal Tomas O'Fiach allegedly told Irish government officials in 1986 that he thought that Eames was "a cold fish" and that he would have preferred his successor in Derry Bishop James Mehaffey to have been elected to the top post.

However, O'Fiach said he had an "open mind" and that Archbishop Eames seemed constructive about the newly-signed Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Anyone who knows Robin Eames is aware that he is a warm-hearted and sociable man, and not in the least a cold fish.

Ironically Cardinal O'Fiach was cut from the same cloth, though politically and ecclesiastically different, and I know that both men consequently got on very well.

The comments by Bishop Daly, later a cardinal and archbishop, are equally fascinating. Having interviewed Cahal Daly at length for my biography of Robin Eames, I am surprised that the Catholic leader believed initially that his Protestant counterpart did not have a good ecumenical record as Bishop of Derry.

In fact, Robin Eames and the then Catholic Bishop of Derry, Edward Daly, worked hard to bridge the divides in their city and Edward Daly had nothing but praise for his fellow bishop in Londonderry.

Cardinal Daly also allegedly told an Irish government official that he hoped that Eames' new role as Primate of All-Ireland "will cause him to offer more balanced views in future".

Later on Robin Eames and Cahal Daly worked together well and they travelled to the USA to show Irish-Americans how the Irish church leaders were supporting one another.

These recently-published revelations show how private doubts and insecurities lurk in the minds of public figures .

Cahal Daly was an intelligent and friendly man whom I met frequently as a journalist, but I noticed how waspish he could be, especially if he felt insecure about his leadership.

I also met Tomas O'Fiach several times. He was a jovial, scholarly and sensitive prelate, with no false image. He was an old-fashioned peaceful Irish republican from Crossmaglen, but he worked hard to bridge the church divides.

He also had a great sense of humour, like Robin Eames, and one of O'Fiach's party-pieces was to sing The Auld Orange Flute in Irish.

One of the lessons about the revelation and publication of allegedly 'confidential' conversations is to realise that none of these meetings with government officials are ever truly confidential.

I attended several 'private' meetings with former Irish prime ministers and on different occasions with Northern Ireland Secretaries of State, and I shudder to think what was said on those occasions.

Certainly one of the most entertaining was James Prior, and another was Garret FitzGerald, while Edward Daly was the most cagey, and Douglas Hurd cleverly turned the conversation round so that we senior journalists from the Belfast Telegraph were doing most of the talking.

From my experience, Dublin is a tricky place in which to do business.

Most Dubliners are immensely charming, but you have to keep your wits about you, and an unguarded word may be carried a long way behind your back - and not to your advantage. People are more blunt in the north, but they are all the better for it.

Perhaps the greatest lesson of all is to learn how to keep your own counsel, and to obey the old Irish axiom 'whatever you say, say nothing'.

The Apostle James put the point much better in his New Testament Epistle: "... the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set alight by such a small fire."

How less complicated life would be in this age of overwhelming social media, where people are hell-bent on revealing everything, if we all tried to gabble less and to listen more.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph