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”.