Declassified Files: British lobbied Vatican over new Primate - and Nuncio didn’t object

Installation of the New Bishop of Down and Connor Cahal Daly at St Peters Pro Cathedral, Belfast.
Installation of the New Bishop of Down and Connor Cahal Daly at St Peters Pro Cathedral, Belfast.

A senior Vatican figure discussed who should become the most senior Catholic cleric in Ireland with the Government, a previously classified memo has revealed.

In a development which has both political and theological implications, at least three arms of the British Government were involved in discussing how to lobby the Vatican over the key ecclesiastical decision.

And it appears that the Catholic Church was not only open to taking on board the views of the Government before it decided who should be Archbishop of Armagh, but actually brought the issue up with the British Ambassador to the Vatican before he even had the chance to raise it.

The situation arose after the death in May 1990 of Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, who had been Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland from 1997, and the Government largely appears to have expressed its views via the Papal Nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Emanuele Gerada.

With the Government seeking to harness the moral authority of the Catholic church in its fight against the IRA, meetings with senior bishops and parish priests were frequent and the Government wanted to influence the most senior Irish appointment open to the Vatican.

A confidential June 5, 1990, internal NIO memo from Brian Blackwell in the Security and International Liaison (SIL) Division said that “following discussion at the Secretary of State’s morning meting on 9th May... SIL was asked to provide co-ordinated advice on the modalities of transmitting an appropriate message to the Vatican to register our interest in an element of consultation over the appointment of a successor to Cardinal O’Fiaich.

“Confidentially, our Ambassador to the Holy See was already scheduled to meet Archbishop Gerada in Rome on 21 May.

“During their discussion it seems the Archbishop, without any prompting from the Ambassador, launched straight into the question of the search for a new Cardinal.

“He made it clear that he was already well aware (presumably from his earlier conversation with Dr Mawhinney) of our interest and he said that he intended that the three names which, under the rules of such appointments, he was required to put forward, would all be people whom he knew were well regarded by us.

“Gerada actually went on to mention the names of Bishops Edward and Cahal Daly [who was ultimately appointed] in this context.”

The confidential memo went on: “In response to a question from the Ambassador, Archbishop Gerada indicated that he felt that an approach to the Secretariat of State in the Vatican might not be wise at this juncture; this was delicate ground and the Holy See was jealous of its preserve.

“The Ambassador, while agreeing that the matter is rather delicate, in fact sees no difficulty in raising the issue in Rome; for instance when he meets Archbishop Sodano on other business.

“As he pointed out, the Vatican is well used to frank speaking in private.”

The memo went on to say that Bishop Cahal Daly had also written to the Secretary of State asking for a meeting with Archbishop Gerada, something which officials recommended that Peter Brooke agree to accept.

Mr Blackwell went on to say: “In the light of the Archbishop’s willingness to discuss the matter of Cardinal O’Fiaich’s successor with our Ambassador to the Vatican it is likely that he will raise the matter again in conversation with Mr Brooke.

“If however he does not, we see no difficulty in the Secretary of State mentioning it, albeit in a low key way.

“The Secretary of State might simply say that he is aware that the matter of Cardinal O’Fiaich’s successor was touched on in the Archbishop’s recent conversation with Dr Mawhinney and he would simply like to endorse the minister’s view that it would be beneficial to all if the late Cardinal’s successor was someone who could carry forward the Catholic outlook and philosophy on major issues within a more broadly based and tolerant framework than had perhaps been the case in recent years.”

In further evidence of how various arms of the British Government – from Belfast to Whitehall to the Embassy in Rome – were involved in the lobbying, the memo went on to set out how the Foreign Office was “still considering whether the question of Cardinal O’Fiaich’s successor should be raised with Archbishop Barbarito.

“Gerada had told our Ambassador to the Holy See that now that Cardinal O’Fiaich has died, the main obstacle to a visit by Archbishop Barbarito to Northern Ireland has disappeared and he thought that Bishop Cahal Daly should go to Belfast.”

Referring to Archbishop Gerada’s “obvious sympathy to our interest and his knowledge of Northern Ireland”, Mr Blackwell advised against doing anything beyond raising the issue when the Secretary of State met Archbishop Gerada.

He added that the Government was “fortunate” that Archbishop Gerada was keenly interested in Northern Ireland and “takes on board the views of the more moderate leaders of the Catholic community”.

“For instance, during the conversation reported above with the Ambassador, Gerada confirmed that he had recently discussed the question of social justice in Northern Ireland with John Hume who had agreed with him (Gerada) that there was no justification today for any suggestion that social justice did not exist in Northern Ireland.”

Michael Kelly, editor of The Irish Catholic, said that he was unsurprised by the revelation and that he had no doubt that Dublin was similarly making submissions about who should become Archbishop of Armagh.

Mr Kelly, a keen observer of how the church operates, said that while it would seem to be lobbying, the Vatican would probably prefer to call it “taking soundings” and that it was still common today for the Church to write to interested parties when deciding on a bishop.

Mr Kelly said that the Vatican had been making such appointments for 1,700 years and that it was “not the first time that people have attempted to influence them on the appointment of a bishop – ultimately they will choose who they want; they’re not going to appoint someone they’re not happy with.”

And he said that Bishop Daly was the senior bishop in Northern Ireland at the time so his appointment “wasn’t strange”.

Mr Kelly said that Bishop Daly was “seen as much less sympathetic to republicans than Cardinal Ó Fiaich” and that the views of the British and the Vatican would probably have “closely aligned” on the matter.