Cardinal Cahal Daly: Primate of All Ireland who spoke out strongly against republican violence during the Troubles

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The Independent Online

As bishop, archbishop and cardinal, Dr Cahal Daly played a vital role in the Irish Catholic church, acting simultaneously as its chief intellectual force and its most forthright voice against the IRA. He was the spiritual leader of Irish Catholics and 114th successor of St Patrick in the Primatial See. He will be regarded as one of the most notable holders of that post.

Although he stood only a little over five feet tall, he was a towering figure within Irish Catholicism, an intellectual who expressed his views with exceptional clarity and helped steer his church through the most challenging times. For three decades he denounced murder, most particularly those of the IRA. While some other church figures were sometimes accused, rightly or wrongly, of ambiguity towards violence, no such charge against Daly ever stuck.

The Irish church's present profound difficulties, centring on a cover-up of clergy guilty of child abuse, are partly due to a lack of talent in its bench of bishops. For decades Rome looked primarily for obedience in its bishops. Towards the end of his long career Daly himself was accused of not doing enough to end the abuses. But for decades his church's good fortune was to have in him both a formidable philosopher and an almost completely orthodox defender.

He was utterly orthodox in opposing divorce, contraception, abortion, the ordination of women and any idea of dropping clerical celibacy. He and his colleagues fought a determined, though ultimately unsuccessful, campaign against the emerging increasingly secular and more permissive Ireland.

But he was not a mere automaton unthinkingly following directions from Rome. His brainpower was recognised at an early stage, and he recalled that he could not remember a time when he did not want to be a priest. His father was a County Antrim rural schoolteacher, his mother a particularly devoted Catholic.

The family was not well off: their cottage had no running water and the future cardinal shared the duty of fetching water in buckets. He had an early brush with the IRA: he was four when republicans burnt down the Daly home in the course of an attack on police. "My father and mother lost all their possessions," he remembered.

Born in 1917, Cahal Brendan Daly studied classics and theology in Belfast, at Maynooth College and in France. He spent 20 years lecturing in scholastic philosophy, and acted as an advisor at the Second Vatican Council in Rome in the early 1960s. In 1967 he was appointed bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, where he quickly distinguished himself as a thinker and writer. A senior churchman wrote of him: "His scholarly reputation, combined with his energy, meant that his fellow bishops often looked to him to provide leadership in terms of ideas." He is said to have written or drafted the bishops' major pastoral letters.

He subscribed fully to the approach laid out some 800 years ago by St Thomas Aquinas, who specified the conditions for a just war. The IRA was not, Dr Daly flatly and firmly decided, engaged in a just war. In 1982 he was pitched into the front line of the clash between the prelates and the paramilitaries when he was ordained bishop of Down and Connor, which includes Belfast's republican heartlands. His absolute rejection of IRA violence had a shining simplicity. It was warmly welcomed by almost everyone in authority in Britain and Ireland and by all who wanted an end to the violence of the IRA, which in the early 1980s was killing an average of 50 people a year.

But the uncomfortable fact was that a substantial part of his flock were nowhere near as clear-cut as he was in their attitude towards violence. Many actively supported the IRA while others felt he paid too little attention to loyalist violence and to security force misdeeds.

Others still disagreed with his assertion that IRA violence was the root of the problem, cleaving instead to the traditional nationalist belief that the underlying cause was the British presence. While there were occasional walk-outs from churches in protest against Dr Daly's presence or his words, none of this deterred him from his combative attitude towards republicans.

A complicating factor was that his arrival in Belfast coincided with the electoral rise of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, which gained in strength in the wake of the republican hunger strikes of 1981. In the following year Sinn Fein took 10 per cent of all votes cast. In a sustained rhetorical pitched battle between the bishop and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, Dr Daly compared republicanism to "the gangsterland of Capone's Chicago".

He denounced the IRA campaign as immoral and evil, speaking of the "sinfulness of armed struggle" and arguing that it put the Catholic community at risk and hardened Protestant attitudes. One of his admirers said at the time: "He has a philosophical basis for opposing the violence. He sees the government as being a lawfully constituted government and democracy. The Thomist conditions for any sort of violence do not exist; therefore it's evil and it's wrong. He and Gerry Adams are engaged in a public dialogue for hearts and minds – Cahal might say souls. They're competing."

Daly said that the activities of the IRA "are killing the souls of those involved in it or actively supporting it," warning that any cooperation with the IRA was "most gravely sinful." He repeatedly urged voters not to support Sinn Fein.

In return Gerry Adams accused him of being dishonest, opportunistic and offensive. He challenged the bishop to spell out an alternative to the "armed struggle", rejecting his call for an IRA ceasefire as "a call to surrender." As the verbal jousting went on Daly broadened his position to make more criticisms of security force tactics and the legal system, holding aspects of security policy to be heavy-handed and counter-productive.

He also had harrowing first-hand experience of the effects of the loyalist campaign of assassination which claimed scores of Catholic lives. He once said: "I have been at 41 funerals of victims of sectarian violence in seven years. That for me has been a horrific experience. Sometimes I cannot keep back the tears. I simply sit and weep with the widow and family." That was a rare personal glimpse of a man many thought bookish and prim, though others said he had charm and warmth.

He continued to be seen as first and foremost the hammer of republicanism. A priest working in a republican area said privately at the time: "He's perceived - unfairly, I think - by the population at large as being a bit of a Brit. His language of condemnation of the police and the Brits would be very temperate, compared to what he'd say about the Provos."

Some in his church were uneasy with his approach, among them the lawyer and prominent layperson Mary McAleese, who is today president of Ireland. "I'm quite happy to say this because I've said it to the cardinal face to face," she once explained. "The message is too like the messages of all the other politicians – 'scum, maniacs, not human beings.' It's not the language of the Christian. If I was hearing that about myself, I would shut myself off further and further. I wouldn't listen. I think the church should have dialogue with the Provos."

Dr Daly conceded that it worried him that people said they were excluded from society and politics – "but I sometimes wonder if they're self-excluded from genuine dialogue with others." He rejected calls to meet Sinn Fein.

This point, it was to emerge, was not simply some theological nicety but one which was to prove essential in generating today's Irish peace process. When it emerged that the nationalist leader John Hume was in contact with the republicans the bishop was one of the few to praise Hume, saying he greatly admired his courage.

In doing so Daly made the switch, as unexpected as it was adept, from the politics of isolation and anathema to an approach of inclusion and outreach. On Daly's death Hume in turn praised him for the "complete support" he offered in the fraught early days of the peace process.

He was respectful of Protestant rights, giving them much thought and repeatedly insisting that the unionist commitment to Britain had to be accommodated. But his generalised commitment to ecumenism did not prevent him from firmly opposing religiously mixed schools. He took strong exception to the more extreme statements of Protestant clerics such as the Rev Ian Paisley, denouncing "a weekly torrent of polluted propaganda poured out by Christian pastors who preach prejudice and lies and hatred in respect of their fellow Christians."

Daly retired as cardinal in 1996, but was in office for the initial wave of revelations of child abuse and sexual misbehaviour within his church. He was heckled and jeered during a Dublin television appearance in 1996. He was not the first senior Catholic to experience public displeasure: four bishops have resigned, under pressure, in the last few weeks.

He offered apologies, but many thought he had not reacted energetically enough as the horrifying stories emerged, and had not attempted to cleanse what are now regarded as the Augean stables of the Irish Catholic church.

David McKittrick

Cahal Brendan Daly, priest: born Loughguile, County Antrim, Ireland 1 October 1917; ordained priest, 1941; Classics Master, St Malachy's College, Belfast, 1945–46; Lecturer in Scholastic Philosophy, 1946–63; Reader, 1963–67, Queen's University, Belfast; Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois, 1967–82; Bishop of Down and Connor, 1982–90; Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, 1990–96, then Emeritus; Cardinal, 1991; died Belfast 31 December 2009.