A few days ago I watched Darragh McIntyre's documentary "The Disappeared" about the abduction, killing and secret burial by the IRA of people who in one way or another knew too much. These people saw something that they should not have seen, or informed on the IRA, and in many cases their families still have no knowledge of where their bodies are.
I hail from the province, and was brought up there in the 80s and 90s, when one expected news of a bomb or killing on the local news bulletin at five minutes to six - and fairly often something big enough had happened to make it onto the national news after the dong of Big Ben at six o'clock. The archive film of the documentary, its ochre and bitter colours, put me back on the streets of Belfast that I had seen as a child, and the familiarity of that world came with a cold shock. It seemed so very normal at time, and was happening just a dozen miles from where I was raised as a boy, untroubled, playing with cats and inventing games with my sisters in the pastoral gentleness of wooded Crawfordsburn.
There was an interesting interview with Mr Gerry Adams in the documentary, who still denies that he was head of the IRA's operations in Belfast in the 1970s. Presumably, risible though the denial might be, it was felt necessary for the Republican movement to have a supposedly unbloody ambassador for those trips to the US to publicise their cause, and for the push for Sinn Fein to break through into the political scene in the Republic of Ireland, where they remain pariahs to a large extent to this day. He has apparently written knowledgeably about, and boasted about, the ambush of the British undercover operation in a laundry van in West Belfast. One of "The Disappeared" informed on the IRA, and then turned himself over to the IRA and gave crucial information about the laundry van operation that led to the successful ambush. For the informer, it wasn't enough to save his life. He was killed anyway. The late IRA commander Brendan Hughes claimed that Gerry Adams gave the order for his death, a claim that Adams has of course rubbished. Darragh McIntyre, in the documentary, skillfully manoeuvres Gerry Adams into admitting that he knew the man's family, and knew them pretty well. He then asks if, since Adams was at the very least a leading Republican in the area at the time, he knew that the boy (who was then killed as an informer) was the source of information, and if he knew that he had gone missing. Adams' evasive response is worth the watching. People, he says, come and go; rumours circulate. I have rarely seen anything so shifty.
But several things in the documentary prompted the following. For I have a question for Catholics generally, and I would be very interested to hear the responses to this from both the Irish and non-Irish variety. It is to do with the deep-seated suspicion about the role of some of the Church's hierarchy in the Northern Ireland Troubles among the Protestant people from which I come. Shall we say that there is a suspicion that certain actions during that period helped to foster the notion that the Irish nationalist cause was a Catholic cause, which is itself a questionable notion; but further, that the actions of the IRA were somehow given legitimacy by the association. Is this suspicion justified? There were individuals such as the late Cardinal Daly who earned the hatred of the Republican movement by a clear public opposition to their actions. But are there other incidents where there was a loss of such clarity of principle, giving rise to the suspicion that perhaps some in the Catholic hierarchy, as well as the laity, had forgotten that a movement which considers the murder of people out for their Saturday morning shopping to be regrettable but ultimately necessary is not exactly in line with the teachings of Christ? And which therefore ought not to be encouraged in any way? I am not talking here about the actions of an isolated priest who sided with and aided the IRA, but something that ran much deeper.
I will pick out one example, which may be emotive, but I think it illustrates my point very well. The hunger strikers have been almost beatified in Republican areas, and I can take you to a poem on a commemorative plaque in Newry, County Down, in which there is a clear parallel drawn between Christian martyrdom and the hunger strikers. I don't wish to be facetious when I say that no Christian martyrs have starved themselves to death to gain political prisoner status. I am not trying to rile convinced Irish Republicans, I am stating a point of theology. But it is not that issue that I am concerned with here. Nor am I sure about the qualities of the hunger strikers, e.g. Mr Bobby Sands. Now, removed from Ulster by a few years and leagues of sea and land, I can see what as a partisan youngster I could not - that the young Bobby Sands and his family were treated in a horrible way, and perhaps a violent fight against such treatment is not so strange. Nevertheless, the Republican movement carried out crimes which, if they wished to be treated as combatants in a war - as they did at the time - would be counted as war crimes e.g. the deliberate and premeditated killing of men, women and children who were not by any definition combatants.
Was it wise, therefore, of Pope John Paul II to send, or allow himself to be persuaded to send, his private secretary Father Joseph Magee, ostensibly to end the hunger strike? Was it necessary? Cardinal O'Fiach of Armagh, for example, had played a negotiating role in ending a hunger strike months earlier, but didn't go inside the prison itself. Could one say that the incident added the odour of papal sanctity to the myth of martyrdom that was already being written, even though the visit was supposed to be a desperate attempt to stop the strike? I cannot believe that churchmen were so naive as not to know what kind of emotional association their actions would create on this occasion. It is all very well to have a laugh about the Rev. Ian Paisley of the 1980s, roaring against the Antichrist and the Whore of Babylon, the enemies of Ulster. But on one count at least he has been proved right, for there was an unclean bird brooding in the temple: during this period there was a horrible cancer eating its way into the heart of the Irish Church, which has since been exposed in part. I am not so sure it has been excised. And what if he was right too, in the face of an unholy complacency on the part of some towards the notion that the Republican movement were serving not just an ideal of Ireland, but the cause of the Church?