While it was cameraman Cyril Cave’s iconic image of the priest with the blood stained hankie that shot Eddie (known to intimates as Ned) Daly to unwanted fame, his appointment soon after Bloody Sunday as bishop of Derry marked a discreet but substantial change in the ordinary life of the church and Catholic society behind the Troubles. His predecessor Bishop Neil Farren who had concelebrated the Bloody Sunday funeral masses in the dying days of a thirty year tenure, was an altogether different figure, every inch a prince of the church in manner and pronouncement, wary of contact with Protestants and implacably against mixed marriage. It must be remembered of course that Bishop Farren was of an era when the Unionist and Catholic establishments were locked in mutual hostility. However from the 1960s on, and despite the onset of the Troubles and attacks from Paisley, relations continued to improve, as the atmosphere of Vatican 2 gradually spread ( and it must be said, the Unionist government was abolished).
Daly reflected the underlying change. The story goes that lined up to succeed Farren was one of his successors as President of St Columb’s College, when the clergy of the Derry diocese quietly rebelled. They wanted not another academic but a pastoral figure who could communicate. Daly was the natural choice, with his human warmth and directness that came across equally well on camera and in personal contacts.
So rather than pronouncing ex cathedra he often dealt with the most difficult problems quietly and pastorally, weakening the force of the Ne Temere injunctions and forging links with the Protestants like his equally long serving opposite number Bishop James Mehaffy. Without perhaps fully realising what he was doing, Daly helped set the Catholic church on the reformist path that is now beyond clerical control, but for which he chose what is surely the right clerical approach, to work through problems at a human level rather than by trying to assert declining authority. It came as no surprise that he declared himself a celibacy sceptic.
On the Troubles which raged outside his front door for 20 years, he laid about all sides with a passion which grew shriller and more frustrated with the passing years. Briefly with RTE between Bloody Sunday and his elevation as bishop, Daly was a natural and perhaps too frequent communicator whose even handed flood of heartfelt condemnations of the IRA and the British Army showed he had no readier answers than anyone else. One of the odder aspects of the Troubles was the lack of direct contact for years between leader figures like Bishop Daly and John Hume and the IRA leadership, even though they lived no more than the 800 yards from the best known IRA headquarters in the old Derry gasworks.
Daly admitted that with the IRA “we didn’t see eye to eye at all. There was very little communication over a period of 10 years except for exchanges of artillery, shot through the local media.“ This is not to say he was without influence. On the hunger strike he was closer in approach to Father Denis Faul who was the catalyst for bringing it to an end than Cardinal O Fiach. He was a natural ally of John Hume’s SDLP and an instinctive supporter of civil rights from the beginning. He did not allow his direct experience of Bloody Sunday to embitter relations with the British establishment.
His connexion with sexual abuse scandal was remote, as far as I’m aware. Professor Fr Jack McCullagh was an associate of the bishop in the latter half of the 1970s before going on to Maynooth. He was exposed as an abuser in 2000 and died in 2013.
A stroke forced Bishop Daly to retire in 1993. It is a kind of tribute to him that he was in many ways a more progressive and savvy figure than his immediate successor. His powerful commentary on the long road to declaring the Bloody Sunday victims innocent helped shaped public reaction in Derry and far beyond.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London