Monsignor Denis Faul

'Provo priest' who championed individual human rights and was finally condemned by the IRA
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The Independent Online

Denis O'Beirne Faul, priest: born Dundalk, Co Louth 14 August 1932; ordained priest 1956; teacher, St Patrick's Academy, Dungannon, Co Tyrone 1958-83, Principal 1983-98; died Dublin 21 June 2006.

Monsignor Denis Faul was one of the most prominent political clerics in Northern Ireland of recent decades, a highly individual voice repeatedly in the thick of controversy, almost always on the side of unpopular causes. In terms of the Troubles he ranked in clerical importance second only to the Rev Ian Paisley, with a highly eventful career divided into two sharply differing and apparently contradictory parts.

In the first phase he was widely regarded as a Provo priest who, it was said, assisted the IRA with his relentless attacks on the British human rights record in Northern Ireland. Yet, following the 1981 hunger strikes, which he helped bring to an end in a way which did not suit the IRA and Sinn Fein, he was fiercely denounced by republicans as a "treacherous, conniving man" working in the interests of Britain.

But he had by then built such a reputation in nationalist and human rights circles as a champion of individuals against the state that most dismissed this characterisation of him. He was in any event unafraid of isolation and criticism and possessed of huge self-belief.

Born south of the border in Co Louth, he was for many years a teacher and headmaster of a Tyrone school, St Patrick's, Dungannon, which scored some of Northern Ireland's highest exam results. He taught Latin, religion and ancient history. Known to all as Father Faul, he devoted a vast amount of time to human rights work, making more than a thousand formal complaints against the authorities. He and another priest, Fr Raymond Murray, produced a prodigious stream of scores of pamphlets and newspaper articles criticising the authorities.

Their causes included internment without trial, army and police harassment of civilians, ill-treatment of suspects in custody, loyalist assassinations, the use of plastic bullets and controversial shootings by the security forces. Since almost all of these topics coincided with IRA propaganda, it was not surprising that the two priests should have been regarded as republican fellow-travellers.

He regularly condemned the killings of the IRA, which he described as a murder gang, but such statements were eclipsed by his attacks on the authorities. "We were regarded as crypto-Provos," he later freely admitted:

The image of being Provo priests was thoroughly unjustified. We were always condemning the Provo atrocities, but people didn't notice that then.

Many Faul complaints seemed outlandish at the time but were confirmed by subsequent events, the most obvious example being the case of the Birmingham Six, the Irishmen jailed for life for IRA attacks on pubs. Faul's pamphlet protesting their innocence was published in 1976, a full 15 years before the men were eventually released by the Court of Appeal.

He also served for 25 years as a chaplain at the Maze prison, formerly Long Kesh, and it was there that the republican hunger strike proved a pivotal point in his life. The IRA turned on him when, after 10 men were dead and more deaths looked inevitable, he encouraged mothers to save the lives of their sons by having them fed. Republicans never forgave him.

Afterwards he was much more acceptable to Unionists and to British governments, though he continued to complain about what he saw as human rights abuses. Some say he changed tack, but he himself insisted that he continued to oppose injustice from whatever quarter. He once summed up his philosophy:

Justice is the big thing, justice is the solution. Most of the problems were created by the British government. We could have wiped out the Provos long ago if the government had put proper discipline on to the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British army.

All we've ever asked for is for the security forces to behave within the law - don't torture, don't shoot to kill, don't unjustly harass people.

Although the Irish Catholic hierarchy often felt he created too much fuss, he was completely in tune with its hard line on issues such as abortion, divorce and contraception. "I like pretty rigid, old-fashioned morality," he once said. In particular he was fiercely protective of the separate Catholic education system, decrying the integrated schools movement as a "dirty political trick" to undermine Catholic education. He conjured up a hellish future for Catholics, predicting:

Pictures of the Sacred Heart and Our Blessed Lady would have to be removed to avoid offending Protestants, and in their place we would get Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Dick Whittington and his cat.

He was only half-joking when he said of the Catholic system: "People accuse us of being in the business of brainwashing children. Well, I make no bones about it - we are." Ironically, over the course of his life the Irish church was to lose a great deal of authority, while republicanism gained greatly in influence.

Unlike most nationalists, Fr Faul was deeply distrustful of the developing peace process. He said republicans had "a smell of Fascism" about them, warning of the process:

I am afraid that there is no substance, but shadow - deep, dark, menacing shadow. Destruction by "peace" is a new and deadly tactic.

It was at that point that he parted company with the nationalist mainstream, which in general was strongly in support of the process. In another contentious opinion, he insisted that most northern Catholics would prefer justice to a united Ireland.

In his last years he gave up teaching and became a parish priest in Carrickmore, Co Tyrone, where republicans grumbled about his presence. One of his later suggestions was to incorporate the name of the RUC into the name of Northern Ireland's new police service. The idea was viewed as strange, coming as it did from a figure who had denounced RUC behaviour on hundreds of occasions; it found few takers among nationalists.

But, as ever, he was never uneasy about being out of step with prevailing opinion and never flinched from offending powerful forces, whether it was the British government, the IRA or his own hierarchy. He will go down in Troubles history as perhaps the ultimate troublesome priest.

David McKittrick