Denis Faul: Nationalism’s moral conscience?

Over on the Guardian site I’ve tried to unpack the role of Monsignor Denis Faul, who died yesterday. In contrast to Charlie Haughey he has no political legacy to be fought over or argued about. Even so he had a strong sense of moral values and consistently interpreted their implication for a wider society in a way that did not simply derive from his own avowedly strong Catholic faith, but from a solid grounding in classical learning.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • Gum

    “Nationalism’s moral conscience?”

    Come on Mick – are you suggesting that other republicans/ nationalists don’t consider the morality and ethical implications of their actions?

  • Mick Fealty

    Certainly not. But I can’t think of anyone else who did it/does it with the rigour, thoroughness and moral authority that Faul did.

  • lillybill

    I think the point being made is that Denis Faul’s morality was clear and consistent. He had the moral and physical courage to stand up for his beliefs. These didn’t fluctuate depending on what ‘side’ of the community did what. His eye on the greater (spiritual) picture, he made his case for the good of everybody, not just his own flock or patch. It’s something that NI politicians could learn from – do what’s right for NI society as a whole, not just your own constituency.

    Regarding ‘Nationalism’s moral conscience’, I think that being a Catholic religious and community leader and aligned with the nationalist community he is/ can be a role model for that community.

    Imagine if this world had more Denis Fauls…

    The challenge for us is to brings ourselves to the same level of honesty, bravery, energy and compassion that Monsignor Faul had.

  • Pat Mc Larnon


    can you think of any time that he brought his ‘rigour, thoroughness and moral authority to the widespread issue of priests sexually assaulting children from within the church he held in such high regard? I cannot remember one time he did, I think it highly unlikely that during his 50 years as a priest he was unaware of what was going on.

  • Mick Fealty

    I cannot say I can Pat. But then again that particular issue affected a great deal more than the Catholic church. My remembrance is that no one on the island did anything about what was/is clearly an endemic problem until it was forced into the public gaze by a BBC documentary crew.

    I think it’s reasonably safe to say that knowledge of same was not simply confined to the Catholic church. Though I could be wrong.

  • Pat Mc Larnon


    while some sections of society may have known I don’t think anyone disagrees that the Catholic Church as an organisation was centrally involved. Most charges that have come to light have spoken of cover-up and intrigue from within the church itself.
    While others may have known and kept quite for whatever reason it is bizarre to think a person ‘with the rigour, thoroughness and moral authority’ of Faul did.

  • elfinto


    While you may well have a moot point it’s a bit mean to link Fr Faul to this issue especially as he has just died. It’s unfortunate that some have used Fr Faul’s death to indulge in their favourite sport – republican baiting.


    Face tranplants are apparently soon to be available in the UK ;-b

  • Pat Mc Larnon


    being a nationalist i’m just a bit choosey about who is held up as a representative of my moral conscience. I’m well able to decide for myself.

  • Mick Fealty


    He’s simply responding to the premise of the article, which he is perfectly entitled to do.


    Who would be your candidate? And why?

  • Pat Mc Larnon


    no single person would fit that role, a large collection of people bring their own particular attributes to forming that particular characteristic, a montage so to speak.

  • Mick Fealty

    I guess the trouble with offering a single candidate is that they then become vulnerable to precisely the kind of criticism you have made of Denis Faul.

  • I have no wish to get into Denis Fauls life as the man has just died, that will be for another day.


    I must say that I have found this entry and the previous one quite disturbing, you seem to suggest that Faul’s anti-Republicanism is some kind of moral compass.This may not have been your intention but I just decided to add my two cents. I have to agree with Pat when he talks about the issue of clerical abuse.

    As a high profile priest why did Denis Faul not look to set his ‘own house’ in order, so to speak.

  • Yoda

    Some interesting contributions so far on this blog’s slant.

    Who would be the candidate for Unionism’s/ Loyalism’s moral conscience? Is it even possible (as Pat implies) for a “movement” to have a single “moral conscience”? Can a movement by definition be as homogeneous as an individual (even that is problematic)?

    What kinds of assumptions are at work in such an “observation”?

  • elfinto


    I wasn’t haveing a go at Pat – not in the slightest. On the contrary, I can understand his frustration that some people have used Faul’s death to indulge in republican bashing.

    I don’t think Fr Faul will be quickly forgotten. He, Fr Murray and others published a wide variety of booklets documenting the repressive activities of the British state which will remain part of the historical record for some time to come. Much of this research is relevant to the collusion issue which is still being unravelled to this day.

    As for the moral conscience of nationalism, the Catholic Church as an institution has undoubtably forfeited its position for the aforementioned reasons. Like others have said, it does not rest with any one person but with the Irish people as a whole. It definitely wasn’t Charlie Haughey.

    ‘I have no wish to get into Denis Fauls life as the man has just died, that will be for another day.’


    I agree 100% with these sentiments, even though you contadicted yourself a few lines later!

  • Pat Mc Larnon

    Mick, I agree.

    Also, for another day is the issue of exactly who knew what about clerical abuse and their ineffectual reponse. Was there political expediency, were others simply afriad to confront the church because of their all powerful position?

    Governments and police forces, obviously the church and I would add the Republican Movement and parties like the SDLP, they all kept quiet for some reason.

  • Mick Fealty


    “…you seem to suggest that Faul’s anti-Republicanism is some kind of moral compass”.

    I’m really stuck for time this evening, so I hope this will cover enough for now. I can see how the parallel I made with Haughey might suggest I’m judging him in political terms. But in fact my intention was to contrast the demands of a political life with a figure who operated (for the most part) outside the political world.

    Politicians by definition cannot always follow the moral dictates of their own individual conscience. That is not a damning judgement by the way, simply an observation of how representative democracy necessary puts strains on individuals who are tasked with representing a collective interest.

    It doesn’t make them morally suspect per se, but it does put severe limitations on their capacity to publicly read that proverbal ‘moral compass’ in any convincing manner. By the priorities of their profession they are prone to be more focused on the ends rather the quality of the means.

    That in part is what makes people like Denis Faul interesting, and important to a wider debate.

    Re the politics of Father Faul. I honestly have no handle on what they may have been. I know he opposed integrated education, although I understand he was encouraging of Catholic schools playing Rugby.

    From what I understand his opposition to certain policies and specific decisions made by the Republican movement were couched in moral rather than political terms. Regardless of how this was received within the movement, I personally don’t judge it to be anti Republican as such.

  • Mick Fealty


    Good questions all. Though, when I mentioned Nationalism I meant it in the wider community sense rather than as a single movement as such. See my note to Chris above on the restrictions a single movement necessarily puts on the individual conscience.

    Faul himself underlines the importance of an individual’s conscience in those last lines from Moriarty’s article:

    The quality Irish people most admire is courage, and not just physical courage but moral courage as well; that you can stand up, speak your mind, even though you’re getting lambasted from all sides. You have to stand up. [my italics]”

    Political movements can impliment powerful societal change. But we ignore the expression of individual conscience at our peril.

  • Yoda

    Thanks for the reply, Mick.

    Regarding the point on the individual’s conscience: I think (I’m reading between the lines) that may have been what other contributors were getting at regarding clerical abuse. Faul didn’t stand up as an individual. He toed the line.

    Again, like a lot of religious leaders, he is open to the criticism of not always having done what he said others should do. This is very problematic if you are part of an organization that deals in moral absolutes.

    If we’re talking about individual moral conscience (which makes the title of the blog more, not less confusing…), then I’d suggest that an individual’s “moral conscience” is informed by a number of social, psychological and personal influences. If it’s blinkered or partial even on an individual level, then it makes it extremely difficult to hold up figures that represent the moral conscience of a movement.

    “Standing up” is always, to a certain extent, blinkered. That’s not a criticism. It’s a sort of functional limitation in the mechanism of moral conscience. It’s always operating in conjunction with other (pragmatics, rationality, emotion, media, etc.) considerations. An examination of conscience is an always surprising thing.

  • The Dubliner

    “It is hard to see to whom Northern Ireland’s nationalists will look for moral leadership now Faul has gone.” – Mick Fealty

    Heh. That’s somewhat of a classic of a journalist struggling to find the right self-important words to say.

    It’s terribly flawed, however, because it assumes (all unproven):

    (a) That nationalists are not autonomous.
    (b) That conscience isn’t an individual matter.
    (c) That conscience is subject a group dynamic
    (d) That conscience is subject to direction from another.
    (e) That nationalists ‘looked’ to Denis Faul.
    (f) That nationalists ‘looked’ only to Denis Faul.
    (g) That nationalists have no other to ‘look’ to.

    I wonder if these unionists (catholic and protestant) would be so write hagiographies to Faul if his vicious anit-British sentiments weren’t overshadowing by his viscious anti-republican sentiments? The laterr to is consigned to out-of-print books (and thus forgotten) whereas the former is frontpage news on servile pro-British media (and thus current). For example, his out-of-print book, The RUC: The Black and Blue Book, detailed appalling state violence and murder by the forces of the British state and concluded that “Widespread evidence of the use of brutality by the RUC leads to two conclusions: (1) It was administrative practice. (2) It was sanctioned by successive governments.”

    So, let’s not forget that Denis Faul was far more vicious to the British state murder machine and its murderous human rights record that he ever was in propaganda against republicans. It is his human rights work in revealing the insidious murder machine of the British state that he deserves to be remembered for. Doubtless, then unionists realise that, they will be less ‘loving’ in their memory toward the late Denis Faul.

    Anyway, RIP. He did more good than harm – and the one thing he didn’t do was what the worst offenders always do: sit on their hands and do nothing.

  • Mick Fealty

    I note you are ‘reading between lines’. Nevertheless it is worth re-iterating that, “Faul didn’t stand up as an individual. He toed the line” is a working supposition, not a certain fact.

    With the exception of this part I can nod agreement with most of the above. Though if I’m being truthful, I’m not really sure I completely follow the logic of last para.

    With regards to ‘the organisation’, one of the things I thought worthy of highlighting in the Guardian blog was Faul’s immersion in Greek and Latin scholarship. It seems to me this is where his good authority flows from, rather than his office in the Catholic church.

    I think we may be heading towards another discussion of truth, and whether it is a fixed quality or endlessly subject to social deliberation. But, (when I have time), I’d like to retain some focus the concept of rights, which, it seems to me, to have underpined a lot of Faul’s thinking.

    Indeed it is his thinking that is important here. It may not have been orignal, but it was scholarly, thorough and well communicated.

  • Mick Fealty

    You got all that from one sentence? Good man.

  • The Dubliner

    I’m surprised you could read it with my typos. 😉

    However, Mick, given the real value of Faul’s work of detailing human rights abuses by the British state, the real statement should be: “It is hard to see to whom The British Government will look for moral leadership now Faul has gone.”

  • Every priest cannot be blamed for every act of sexual abuse by every other priest. Faul made an impact on the area he decided to focus on: prisoners’ rights. Morally, his hands were clean in all this. The same cannot be said of the Provis who wish to set themselves up as moral authorities; they have none.
    Faul was primarily a teacher. That is where his biggest contribution probably lies.

  • elfinto

    Here is a classic example of the type human rights work Frs Faul & Murray excelled in – exposing the truth about the murder of an 11 year old girl in the face of a British Army cover-up. Frs Faul & Murray collected statements from the witnesses and published them in a booklet. It reads like a scene from Ken Loach’s current film about the brutality of the Black and Tans except this incident took place in County Aramgh in 1970s. Very moving indeed. The little girl’s name was Majella O’Hare.

  • aquifer

    He had ‘no political legacy to be fought over’

    Not sure about that. He must sit somewhere within the tradition of non-violent direct action, respecting human rights and putting himself most at risk for what he believes to be right.

    There are other political traditions here too.

  • Yoda

    Nevertheless it is worth re-iterating that, “Faul didn’t stand up as an individual. He toed the line” is a working supposition, not a certain fact.

    Indeed, Mick, and I’ll retract it if anything comes to light to prove the contrary. As I said, I was reading between the lines of other posters’ takes on what constituted conscience.

  • His attitude towards intergrated education is the only thing i will remember about this man.

    He may have had a moral code, but it was deeply reactionary.

  • Rory

    Denis Faul is dead and, later today, his mortal remains are to be committed to the earth. It was the tradition in Ireland that a corpse be buried such that rhe head will point towards the east “that they might face the rising sun”. The protocol for the corpse of a man, who had in life been in Holy Orders, was that they be buried with their feet so pointing, or “upside down” as the colourful if inaccurate but readibly understandable argot of my people had it.

    This tradition was intended to honour the humility of the apostle, Peter, who prior to his crucifixion in Rome, requested that he be crucified upside down as he was not worthy to share the honour of Jesus, the Christ.

    Even had Denis Faul not been a priest such a method of burial might have been appropriate for, above all, humility was the mark of the man.

    I have had my disagreements with him over the years but at no time did I ever doubt that his position was motivated but by the highest concern for the physical, mental and spiritual welfare well being of those whose needs were drawn to his attention.

    If I were right on all the matters on which I disagreed with Denis Faul and he were wrong he would still remain a better man than I. His integrity was beyond reproach. Would that we could all live up to its example.

  • m


    The answer to your ‘headline’ question, “Denis Faul: Nationalism’s moral conscience? is no.

    Nationalism and it’s conscience is a bit more complicated than one cleric or any cleric. (ignoring the general philosphical given that conscience doesn’t exist and your crazier idea of communal political conscience via clergy)

    It could be seen as an insult* to categorise the ‘morality’ of a wide range of Irish people under the limited views of one priest?

    Nationalism isn’t taigs, it isn’t defined by Catholic ideology or plausible priests.

    *if I take your entry as a serious analysis of how a political identity defines morality through individual clergy.(something it isn’t)

  • Mick Fealty

    I want to come back to some of the things Yoda opened up before, but time is short this morning. In the meantime, here’s a brief response to ‘m’.

    Whilst it is true that “Nationalism isn’t taigs”; the correlation between Catholicism and Nationalism in Northern Ireland is as near exact as dammit.

    I made no attempt to cramp Irish Nationalism into the life and words of a single priest. To suggest that I have is misleading. What I have suggested is that he represented an articulate individual conscience within the wider Nationalist community. And that voice was of great benefit to that community.

    By and large, as I have argued previously on this thread, Faul’s good authority sprung as much from his capacity to draw on Cicero as from his office in the church.

    I’m really interested in this:

    “…the general philosphical given that conscience doesn’t exist”.

    I admit that I’ve not come across this proposition before, but I think it would be of real benefit to the discussion to hear it drawn out further. has a useful and relatively detailed definition of the term. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy gives interesting historical context and usefully points to the limitations of the term:

    By ‘conscience’ is meant the sense of right and wrong in an individual; described variously by philosophers as a reflection of the voice of God, as a human faculty, as the voice of reason, as a special moral sense. The work of Joseph Butler insisted on conscience’s claim to authority over other sources of motivation. In moral epistemology Butler combined the rationalist and moral sense theories of the eighteenth century, describing conscience as ‘a sentiment of the understanding or a perception of the heart’. He underestimated the moral problem of the erring conscience, treated explicitly in Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae. Aquinas pointed out that one acts badly in doing what is in fact bad, but also in going against conscience; so that unless he ‘put away his error’ someone of evil conscience cannot act well.

  • Mick Fealty


    “I don’t think Fr Faul will be quickly forgotten.”

    And I don’t think Shakespeare was wrong. Let’s see what happens?

  • Rory


    Denis Faul is to feature on the Obituary Show on BBC Radio 4 at 4pm today (10 minutes to go).

    If missed catch it on the R4 website under the “Listen again” option.

  • Peking

    “It is his human rights work in revealing the insidious murder machine of the British state that he deserves to be remembered for. Doubtless, then unionists realise that, they will be less ‘loving’ in their memory toward the late Denis Faul.”

    Such total nonsense.
    Are there no unionists alive today then who can remember how Fr. Faul first came to prominence?
    There again, maybe that was just wishful thinking on the poster’s part.

    Elsewhere on this thread, the vindictive republican hate machine can’t even wait until this man is in his grave before they attack him.

    The same people who cried foul about the attacks on Siobhan O’Hanlon when she died are first out of the traps on Fr. Faul.
    Try contrasting the lives of those two people.

    Of all the dirty little slurs to drag out it had to be child abuse, didn’t it.
    But then nothing should surprise us about theses clowns.

  • Yoda


    One of the recent approaches to the question of individual conscience is psychoanalysis. It conceives of conscience as a sort of internalized ego-usually an authority figure (father or mother, but not necessarily either)-that can either give or withhold approval. When we act according to conscience we are acting in accord with the imagined wishes of that internalized ego. Say someone imagines oneself as a great footballer, from whom is s/he seeking approval?

    That ego has such a hold over us that we either call it “natural” or “god.”

  • Rory

    Sounds more like the Freudian concept of the superego to me, Yoda, and in any case the concept of the “conscience” being associated and identified with the rational mind and an innate sense of “do the right thing” since the Enlightenment would take issue with that. Are these psychoanalysts of the post-structuarilist school by any chance? I wouldn’t put anything past those snake-oil pedlars.

  • m


    I’m sorry for the confusion I caused above. Conscience is of course an accepted philosophical concept.

    I left out a few words that made a sentence nonsense (that’s late night typing and a norm for me)

    (ignoring the general philosophical given that conscience doesn’t exist and your crazier idea of communal political conscience via clergy)

    Should have read:

    (ignoring the general philosophical given that conscience doesn’t exist beyond the individual and your crazier idea of communal political conscience via clergy)

    Referring to the broadly accepted autonomy of ethics and your suggesting communal conscience exists through other individuals.

    ( I bet you love your Aquinas)

  • Hidden Gem

    I thought it was quite sickening to hear so-called republicans talking about Denis Faul’s role at the time of the Hunger Strikes.

    At the time they turned on him and tried their character assassination on him, even turning away from mass because they didn’t like what he said. Now the man has died it seems all that is to be forgotten! Hypocrisy!

  • Dualta

    Chris Gaskin wrote:

    [i]I must say that I have found this entry and the previous one quite disturbing, you seem to suggest that Faul’s anti-Republicanism is some kind of moral compass.[/i]

    Fr. Faul often described himself as a republican, so he cannot rightly be accused of anti-Republicanism. I think you might be equating anti-Republicanism with anti-violence, which he definately was.

    Quote: “He said of himself: “I want to see Ireland united but I am not going to kill anybody for it. I am not an IRA man. I am a real republican. I love the British people but they have no business in my country.””,,1803067,00.html


    A very good piece by Tom McGurk in the Sunday Business Post. Strgange that Faul was busy defending human rights at a time when Denis Donaldson was throwing his leg over prisoners’ wives and daughters, Scap was disappearing people on behalf of now respectable West Belfast politicians, and, well read it for yourself. Good to see Sr Clarke get a mention too. I think Fr Faul recognized liars and disappearers for what they were and are.

  • Patrick

    I knew Denis Faul from the day he arrived in Dungannon. He was a man of character who took on the evil men of N.Ireand during his time in Tyrone. He did not need to address the disciplinary matters of abuse that tore the church apart as others were doing that in a righteous manner. D.O.B. Faul took on the sectarian killers of NIreland when others stood still and watched. The IRA were angry with him for breaking the suicide by starvation efforts of the political wing of the IRA to tarnish the already tarnished Thatcher government. He saved the lives and souls of many IRA people. The IRA destroyed the lives of thousands.

  • Patrick
    Denis OB(E?)Faul was lucky to know a fine upstanding broth of a boy like your good self. Perhaps Mr Loach could make a movie of you and Denis fighting the “sectarian killers of NIreland” single handedly (almost) and stopping Dungannon becoming the Bagdad of Europe. I would bet such a movie would be a great hit. I would go and see it.

  • Mick Fealty

    Taigs, that is playing the man.

  • That was an excellent piece on Fr Faul by McGurk. Thanks for drawing attention to it.