“implicating people in its activities was the IRA’s strategy for enhancing its legitimacy”

Malachi O’Doherty gets close to something important with this piece for the BelTel blog… He begins by picking up on the part of Darragh McIntyre’s excellent documentary for BBC Four’s Storyville on The Disappeared, which mentions the the ambiguous role of priests during the conflict:

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.

O’Doherty points out that the various intermediaries throughout the troubles did much short term good in mediating some of the harm that might otherwise have been done to individuals, but they also ended up routinely facilitating expulsions (and ‘dispatchings’ of people whom the paramilitaries (in loyalist as well as Republican areas) did not ‘approve’.

Spiritual objects, put to less than spiritual ends? Or as Malachi puts it, “implicating people in its activities was the IRA’s strategy for enhancing its legitimacy”.


  • Caoimhín

    It was an undoubtedly crude, yet effective system. There has been a noticeable increase in anti-social behaviour, in Downpatrick at least, since the IRA was stood down in 2005.

  • I suppose that running its alternative punishment scheme (alternative justice would be a stretch too far) in republican ghettos in the 1970s-2000 was the closest that the Provos got to having a liberated zone in their insurgency. Although I think its still an improvement on the protection rackets that the loyalists were running in their ghettos during the same time period. But has anyone considered that encouraging children to riot and create mayhem might be responsible for some of the anti-social behavior that the IRA was then called in to fix through knee-cappings and other punishment shootings?

  • Turgon

    One can blame or praise the priests and others at a number of levels. Impossible situations at the time and it would be unfair to criticise teh priest who ministered to the man about to be murdered.

    However, the root of all this wickedness was and remains the IRA members who murdered, knee capped etc. That they helped corrupt priests into their reign of evil says more about them than it does most of the priests.

    The part of that story I found most chilling was that of IRA men playing football whilst waiting to murder a young man. The banality of evil to coin a phrase.

    The idea of priests negotiating regarding knee capping is actually more worrying. In that they were taking a part in the whole business. It demonstrates the utter moral corruption which the IRA brought to certain gettos it controlled.

    Of course it must be remembered that some priests actively tried to stop people reporting child abuse (Fr. Troy) and worse Fr. Chesney who was involved in mass murder.

    Hopefully in the various descending levels of moral corruption the IRA created most priests (and others) had no part.

    The above is not an attack on priests just an observation that in the wickedness of the IRA’s sectarian campaign one casualty was drawing some members (even moral leaders) of the community they claimed to be protecting into their own web of evil.

    Some may complain it offends against Godwin’s Law but what the whole wretched story sounds most like is the behaviour of totalitarian parties from the 1930s and the moral corruption they created in their societies.

  • tacapall

    Those were the dark days, I’ve was once given a beating with sewer rods by the republican movement for reasons I still dont even know today, in the wrong place at the wrong time I suppose. But contrary to the illusion thats being portrayed from some, anti social bahaviour was always a problem in nationalist areas and yes the IRA did kneecap lots of young people, a response to public demand by people in the nationalist communities and I remember individuals who would intervene on young peoples behalf whenever a knock came to the door, physical force punishment is always wrong but I cant ever remember the IRA shooting dead any young person for joyriding, nor can I remember them shooting dead children for allegedly throwing stones, thats the punishment that was metted out to Catholic school children and teenagers by the British army or the RUC. No one side can claim the high moral ground when it comes to past misdeeds.

  • cynic2

    “he needed to retain his credibility with the IRA as someone who could vouch for the guilt, or innocence, of people ”

    So PIRA colluded with priests in the shooting and sometimes maiming of young people denied any sort of fair trial?

  • Seamuscamp

    Oh to live in a world of black and white , of clear “right” and “wrong”, where it is obvious who are the wrongdoers and who should be punished. Alas an Erewhon. For most people the choice is to do the least wrong. To describe a priest, intervening in an unwarranted punishment on behalf of someone he thought innocent, as descending into moral corruption, betrays a peculiar mindset don’t you think? Perhaps he should have passed by on theother side, as so many of us did?

  • cynic2

    ” I was once given a beating with sewer rods by the republican movement for reasons I still dont even know today,”

    Reminds me of the interview of Stig on Monty Pythons The Piranha Brothers

    Interviewer Stig, I’ve been told Dinsdale Piranha nailed your head to the floor.

    Stig No, no. Never, never. He was a smashing bloke. He used to give his mother flowers and that. He was like a brother to me.

    Interviewer But the police have film of Dinsdale actually nailing your head to the floor.

    Stig Oh yeah, well – he did that, yeah.

    Interviewer Why?

    Stig Well he had to, didn’t he? I mean, be fair, there was nothing else he could do. I mean, I had transgressed the unwritten law.

    Interviewer What had you done?

    Stig Er… Well he never told me that. But he gave me his word that it was the case, and that’s good enough for me with old Dinsy. I mean, he didn’t want to nail my head to the floor. I had to insist.

  • Son of Strongbow

    Ah, now I see where some nationalists disdain for evidence and proof germinated.

  • Mick Fealty


    Lest it go unread, I think this passage just before the one I’ve quoted is important context:

    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.

  • Mick Fealty

    Ecco è…

  • Mc Slaggart

    It makes on wonder why they did not go to the police.

  • tacapall

    “I cant ever remember the IRA shooting dead any young person for joyriding, nor can I remember them shooting dead children for allegedly throwing stones, thats the punishment that was metted out to Catholic school children and teenagers by the British army or the RUC”

    You just cant get away from that fact.

    How many loyalist school children were shot dead by Britsh soldiers or the RUC for joyriding or throwing stones. I remember the British army used to shoot dogs dead for barking at them evrybody seemed to be trigger happy in those days but some people have real short memories.

  • Dec

    How this is any different from priests or pastors attending state executions and administering blessings to the condemned is beyond me. Unless state murder is a good thing altogether.

  • derrydave

    Like it or lump it, there;s absolutely no doubt that the IRA’s ‘civil administration’ worked. Extremely low crime rates all without the need for much intervention at all – the mere threat of someone gettin Sinn Fein on ye would scatter even the bravest around where i came from ! I knew a few lads who got a beating and fewer again who actually got kneecapped – as horrible as it may seem to hear – very single one of them deserved everythng they got ! In Carnhill where i lived anywat, this stuff didn’t happen out of the blue – only ever happened after someone had been warned and warned again and was simply too dopey to take heed !

  • Bishops Finger

    I can’t figure out how any priest would be privy to the innocence or guilt of anyone suspected of crime, and to use that as an excuse to leave an allegedly guilty lad to his fate is despicable, totally immoral.

  • sherdy

    Some people at that time had the choice of doing a little good or doing nothing – a very difficult decision for a person of conscience.
    But its very easy for Malachy O’Doherty to pontificate on the subject, presumably never having been in that situation himself.

  • Zig70

    I always liked the end of cat in the hat. What would you do if your Mother asked you. You can all put yourselves in that situation and think you’d be the big man.

  • sean treacy

    Sherdy ,you must realize Malachy was morally superior to his fellow Westies.He was”above all that”So”far above allthat” was our Malachy,that he spent some time working in Libya where things were so polite and civilised!

  • Mick Fealty

    There’s no difference Dec. None whatsoever.

    Except that they ended up [possibly for the best possible pragmatic reasons] endorsing a form of gangsterism which, although it had happened before (in west Cork particularly), never over such long sustained period of time.

    One of the clear effects of war is that perspective collapses into what Declan refers to, for other purposes, as the ‘here and now’… Next week does not matter because you might not be alive by then.

    I think I may have mentioned this before, but one of my abiding memories of the troubles was being in Hawthorn Street in or around the summer of 1977 or 78 when ‘the lads’ let off some mortars (at the Vere Foster barracks, I think, I never thought to follow it up)…

    A woman came running out of her already in a state of extreme shock asking where her kids were, and saying she’d last seen them at the corner with Cavendish Street… I’ve never before, or since, seen a human being shake quite so much (and I went on in later life to work with long term mental health patients who suffered some awful side effects of long term medication as well as illness)…

    Even so the cigarette she was smoking was half ash, and half cigarette. It was the one still point in her whole body.

    That woman’s lived experience cannot be read about in any official statistics. And the people of west Belfast get no credit for just holding the decent elements of their lives together by wider society.

    Or for only voting Gerry and Co once he had finally aligned himself with the actual values of his own constituency, and finally ditched the Armalite.

    State democracy has to be watched like a hawk, but at risk of alienation, as Churchill said, thus far, it remains the least worst option

  • Barney

    Well mick that would be one hell of a mortar, if launched from anywhere near Hawthorn street.

    I get your point though the trauma of placing British barracks with ready made human shields in Ireland was just as inhuman as the dicks who launched bombs etc at them.

    The priest guy had to deal with what was in front of him it wasnt a question endorsing anything.

  • Mick Fealty

    Well it did sort of scare the bejasus out of this particularly closeted Holywood boy, but it frightened the hell out of someone who had ‘learned’ to live with it for nigh on ten years…

  • son of sam

    Quite a change nowadays when Sinn Fein and their cohorts in the Pat Finucane Centre are so punctilious about the rule of law and adherence to European Court of Human Rights judgements.One wonders where the “civil administration” run from Connolly House adhered to the protection of the rights of alleged defendants.Were the plethora of “human rights lawyers” that seem ever present now,not available then?Of course perhaps the “civil administration ” did not allow for the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial for alleged miscreants!

  • Mc Slaggart

    son of sam

    What i find interesting about your post is that you think that nationalists (in the west) expected a fair trial from the British government.

  • socaire

    Stop pussyfooting. The English have no right to intefere here.

  • son of sam

    Mc Slaggart
    Perhaps you would point out where in my post I stated that I expected a fair trial from the British government.What I was attempting to convey was the contrast between the “civil administration ” (alluded to by Malachy) and the Human Rights industry nowadays so beloved of the Shinners and related organisations.

  • Alias

    Fr Matt Wallace seems to have believed that guilt or innocence can be determined outside of a court, and that he and the murder gang he collaborated with had both a right and the ability to make such a determination.

    On the other hand, Fr Denis Faul had no ‘creative [moral] ambiguity’. He would not allow the Shinners to legitimise themselves by drawing others into collaborating with kangaroo courts. The Shinners held protests, mass (no pun intended) meetings, boycotts, and even tried to petition the Primacy of Ireland to have him removed from his parish when he acted to undermine their so-called ‘civil administration’ there.

  • sean treacy

    Nice to see in Micks world ,SF people can be subject to the most vile character asassanation on the basis of some highly questionable “evidence” but nobody dare mention the hypocracy of oDoherty and his ilk.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    … or even dare spell it, it would seem

  • Mick Fealty


    Have you a shred evidence for any of that?

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Surely West Belfast voted in Gerry and co way before SF-IRA even talked about giving up violence? Not everyone there’s fault but it did happen.

  • sean treacy

    Sorry for my spelling mistake ,I was too busy trying to figure out what a “mainland Ulsterman” was.Is it someone who lives in Ballycastle as opposed to Rathlin Island?

  • Mick Fealty

    MU, the stats for 1992 (only just) bear me out:

    Hendron: 43.57%
    Adams: 42.10%

  • Alias

    Mick, including the linked article, here’s another:

    “A group of about 400 Catholic worshippers are petitioning Sean Brady, Archbishop of Armagh, to remove Faul from his parish in the republican heartland of Carrickmore, Co Tyrone. It is a move thought to be unprecedented this century in Ireland. His crime? To attend two community liaison meetings with the RUC to discuss crime prevention and detection in the area.

    Faul is refusing to comment on the controversy, hoping perhaps it will blow over in the season of goodwill. He will not say whether his church superiors have instructed him to say nothing, though it would hardly be the first time they have done that.

    It all began two weeks ago as Faul attended a meeting of the Carickmore community and police forum, one of 150 similar liaison groups throughout Northern Ireland. Along with three RUC officers and another half dozen or so community leaders, he was discussing ways of improving the safety of the village’s residents.

    Up to 40 republicans, including Sinn Fein assembly member Barry McElduff, arrived to disrupt the meeting at a hotel in nearby Omagh. They called for the disbandment of the RUC, and, according to some claims, intimidated those present, including two elderly women. One snatched Faul’s papers and scrunched them up. A public meeting, chaired by McElduff followed, attended by 600. It called for the removal of Faul as parish priest.

    To claim the scalp of Faul, 67, would be a stunning coup for republicans. The Co Louth-born priest is free-thinking and outspoken, and has, as the RUC and army have cleaned up their acts, focused on the excesses of the paramilitaries.

    He is a furious critic of punishment beatings and the exiling of scores of youngsters each month from Northern Ireland. He also regularly condemns the IRA over the disappeared – a dozen Catholics it abducted, murdered and secretly buried more than two decades ago.”

    Here is a sample of the antics the Shinners got up to with Father Faul:

    “For the benefit of Committee members who are not familiar with day-to-day affairs in Northern Ireland, I shall describe an incident that occurred in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) a short while ago. Members of a CPLC, including Monsignor Denis Faul, who is a well-known Catholic cleric in Northern Ireland, were meeting colleagues, social workers, police and others. They were quietly and unobtrusively working for the benefit of society when the hotel room in which they were meeting was suddenly rushed by a group of Sinn Feiners, led by an Assembly member, councillor Barry McElduff.

    Indeed, Seamus Mallon was unequivical in condemning the attacks by Barry McElduff:

    “What happened in Carrickmoor, and what has happened throughout the north of Ireland and many times in the area where I live and which I represent is that those within the nationalist republican community who will not be led by the Barry McElduffs have stood up to the stormtroopers. They have stood up to them for 30 years. We will not be taking our standards from stormtroopers of any organisation or tinpot Hitlers like Barry McElduff.”

    In regard to Fr Matt Wallace’s divine ability to determine guilt or innocence: did he learn of it as a confession? If not, what divine method did he use? If he did, then his method of collaborating with the murder gang was a betrayal of the confessional.

  • babyface finlayson

    sean treacy
    “hypocracy of oDoherty”
    In what way is Malachi O’Doherty a hypocrite? Has he been indulging in a spot of kneecapping whilst condemning it in others.? Or offering dodgy confessions?

  • sean treacy

    Mal is a hypocrite in that he lectures his fellow Westies on “Democracy”while he was quite happy to work in LIBYA when those of his ilk were denouncing Gadaffi as undemocratic.

  • tacapall

    “He would not allow the Shinners to legitimise themselves by drawing others into collaborating with kangaroo courts”

    Interesting statement Alias although it seems the shinners weren’t the only ones drawing others into collaborating with kangaroo courts.

    Seamus McKinney, Irish news, Thursday 5th November –

    “A British army document uncovered in the national archives in London further supports evidence of collusion revealed in the recently published Ann Cadwallader book Lethal Allies. The Sunday Times in 1974 intended to reveal details of links between the UDR, RUC and protestant extremist organisations as early as 1972. It also points out loyalist paramilitaries were successfully prosecuted without their membership of the security forces being revealed. In a detailed account David Blundy (journalist) alleged information was passed to enable loyalist paramilatries to “take care of” members of the IRA on behalf of the security forces. The security force document concluded that: Our initial reaction is that both sets of documents are genuine”

  • Son of Strongbow

    Trying to land blows with the whataboutery bat on those who have the temerity to condemn the good ole Ra could I suppose pass as civil administration of sorts.

    Justification Propaganda or merely a keyboard punishment attack?

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    But you said “only voting Gerry and Co once he had finally aligned himself with the actual values of his own constituency, and finally ditched the Armalite.” But Adams won in 1983 and 1987. That was the phase of the Troubles in which the IRA’s share of the killing was over 70 per cent, with security forces having adopted less lethal policing tactics and Loyalism having scaled back. The SF vote in West Belfast in the 80s was and remains a disgrace. Voting for known terrorists is bad at the best of times (and Adams was a known IRA leader, remember) but in the context of the onslaught Republicans were meting out to the rest of us during that period, it is very hard to excuse.

    Adams also won in 1997. We could be generous with the latter as it was when the Peace Process was in train, but had the IRA actually ditched the Armalite? They were dragged kicking and screaming to doing so only several years later, after massive post 9/11 international pressure, GFA notwithstanding.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    You should really play the ball not the man, but for the record I’m an Ulster Brit now living on the British mainland. Hence the name. It’s not rocket science.

  • Barney

    Mainland Ulsterman
    Is there something evil about people in West Belfast, or was there a reason that so many decided to vote SF?
    Is it possible that the SF voters could have taken the Brits word at face value and tried the democratic route in an undemocratic entity?

  • sean treacy

    would highlighting someones spelling mistake not be considered “playing the man”.Those of us who didn’t attend Sullivan Upper or its equivalent can sometimes fall down in the literacy department but it can be difficult adhering to such high standards while we are preoccupied rearing 10 children in our”ghastley hovels”!

  • babyface finlayson

    sean treacy
    “those of his ilk were denouncing Gadaffi as undemocratic.”
    So he is a hypocrite because he worked in Libya while other people were denouncing Libya?
    I don’t know what Malachi’s opinion of Gadhaffi was, but he seems quite open about his time in Libya.
    Better perhaps to comment on the issue of moral quicksand he talks about above rather than simply abusing him.

  • Morpheus

    “The SF vote in West Belfast in the 80s was and remains a disgrace.”

    MU, on several threads you have displayed a disturbing level of disdain (possibly even safe to say hatred) for a lot of people you don’t even know. It says a lot