Shea on Scull, 'The Catholic Church and the Northern Ireland Troubles, 1968-1998'

Margaret M. Scull
Margo Shea

Margaret M. Scull. The Catholic Church and the Northern Ireland Troubles, 1968-1998. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 272 pp. $84.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-884321-4

Reviewed by Margo Shea (Salem State University) Published on H-Diplo (October, 2020) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version:

Winner of the British Association of Irish Studies 2020 book prize, Margaret M. Scull’s The Catholic Church and the Northern Ireland Troubles 1968-1998 charts Catholic institutions and their representatives’ efforts to negotiate the complex terrain of political conflict and its social, moral, and diplomatic dimensions. Arguing that the Irish Catholic Church’s response to the conflict should be understood as “an entangled history,” Scull refocuses the lens to both broaden and deepen the scope of analysis heretofore provided (p. 7). Specifically, her study targets the ways the English and Welsh Catholic Church hierarchy responded to key events during the Troubles, often corralling Irish and Northern Irish leaders into fraught positions. At the same time, the book carefully follows the public, political, and community work by priests and religious women on the ground in Northern Ireland and in prisons holding Irish prisoners in the UK, tracing key points at which their work oriented them toward political conflict in ways that diverged from official church positions. As a result, The Catholic Church and the Northern Ireland Troubles 1968-1998 displaces the idea of the Catholic Church as a monolithic institution and reveals the complexities and tensions at play as its leaders, spokespersons, and those called to religious vocations—and by extension, lay Catholics in the North, Ireland, and abroad—responded to the many causes and manifestations of political violence. The unequal playing field upon which citizens, representatives of the church, the church’s institutional hierarchy, political parties, extralegal paramilitary organizations, the Irish government, and the British state in all of its formulations serves as the stage for this engaging and rich study.

The research is organized chronologically around key events that simultaneously framed and reflected the conflict, from the civil rights movement, internment, Bloody Sunday, and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981 to efforts to advocate on behalf of the Birmingham Six, Guilford Four, and Maguire Seven, confrontations over republican paramilitary funerals, denouncement of the Enniskillen bombing, and finally, various efforts to negotiate a process for peace. Scull draws on newspaper accounts, oral history transcripts, and memoirs as well as government records and archival research.

The narrative here echoes the history of this period, from early shock and outrage that reaches cataclysm with Bloody Sunday in 1972, through the normalization of atrocity like sectarian assassinations of civilians in the mid-70s and bearing witness to deaths of hunger strikers while British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher insisted that she would not “negotiate with terrorists,” to the procedural and strategic relationships in the 1990s that preordained the peace process.[1] Through analysis of government and diocesan archival records, accounts in a diverse array of press sources, and interviews with key figures in both the Catholic Church and the republican movement, Scull captures  how the conflict in Northern Ireland was refracted through the prism of the life experiences, moral imaginaries, political calculations, and notions of righteousness and justice of a diverse array of historical actors. That these actors were unequally situated to influence policy decisions, advocate social and political change, call for redress of injustice, or ultimately shape political outcomes is obliquely if not directly addressed. 

The Catholic Church and the Northern Ireland Troubles 1968-1998 highlights the ways soft power operates dynamically if unevenly in conflict zones even as it offers both models for and cautionary tales about the role(s) religious institutions and those who represent them play in mediating conflict, using Northern Ireland as a case study. As Scull shows, for example, priests and nuns often lived and worked in Catholic communities hard-hit by death, violence, intrusions by police and army surveillance, internment, and disturbances brought about by paramilitary activity; thus they found themselves negotiating constantly in the course of carrying out their pastoral responsibilities—with republicans, with the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British Army, and with their superiors. Whereas their experiences and perspective shaped efforts to mitigate the worst effects of the Troubles and to inform national and international opinion about causes and consequences of conflict, leading figures in the church often found themselves stuck between representing the laity and reflecting an official narrative in line with the stature and power afforded to them, necessary so that they might contribute to political negotiations that occurred behind the scenes with the British and Irish governments, for example, and the Vatican. 

Ever sensitive to contingency, Scull charts some of the influences that shaped key figures’ responses to significant events and how their responses changed (or did not) over time and in light of their own new roles and responsibilities within the church. For example, she draws a deeply nuanced portrait of Cardinal Tomas O’ Fiach. Beginning with his Northern nationalist background, Scull captures his sense that the republican cause was legitimate and his rooted knowledge of the Irish church coupled with a warm informality and genuine love for people. In chapter 3, she explores O’Fiach as a critical player in the church’s evolving relationship with PIRA hunger strikers and their families in the context of efforts to respond to poor prison conditions, the blanket and dirty protests, and ongoing efforts to resume Special Category/political prisoner status for republicans serving time. O’Fiach, who was created a cardinal in 1979, made a successful public plea to the hunger strikers to call off the strike in 1980. His efforts to intervene in 1981 were more complicated. O’Fiach, according to Scull’s analysis, had good reason to think he was providing paths for British government representatives toward an end to the strike, but knew that ultimately any agreement between the Catholic Church and the British government would have disheartened Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland and left them feeling isolated. In her discussion of O’Fiach’s dealings with Thatcher, Scull notes that the prime minister referred to him as  “romantic Republican whose nationalism prevailed over his Christian duty” and that her staff took his advice on how to end the hunger strikes as merely suggestions (p. 95). Meanwhile, the British press flayed O’Fiach for what it saw as a soft touch, portraying him as a terrorist sympathizer for not calling the hunger strikers’ protests suicide and thus a mortal sin, which presumably would have tempered the laity’s support for the them at the ballot box when they were put up for MP in nationalist districts. Of course, the press also criticized the pope for not excommunicating the hunger strikers.

Scull’s discussion of prisoners, both those in the H-Blocks and Irish men and women held throughout the UK, examines the corridors of power where leaders—religious and secular—tried to influence core issues that begot and accelerated violence in Northern Ireland. Why, she queries, did Pope John Paul II refuse to weigh in on the hunger strikes on the grounds that it was not the Vatican’s place to enter into the political sphere, when just a short time later he came out unequivocally and vocally to try to put an end to the Falklands War? In some ways, of course, the answer to that question is quite simple. Northern Ireland was and remains a part of the United Kingdom. During the conflict, British security forces and the overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary operated with the full imprimatur of state authority and could call upon a rich array of resources to shape discourse, impose order, and respond to and punish perceived threats to the state. The pope demurred from intervening in British affairs.

Another example of Scull’s fine research is her treatment of Rev. Dr. Edward Daly’s tireless efforts to assert the innocence and advocate on behalf of the Birmingham Six. Daly had maintained close ties with three of the prisoners since the early 1980s. Here, she presents Daly as David against the Goliath of the British justice system. Daly also serves as a stand-in for the Irish Catholic Church hierarchy: “Daly’s repeated efforts and unwavering support demonstrated the institutional Irish hierarchy’s support to overturning these human rights abuses” (p. 134).

Scull’s overall treatment of Daly deserves attention. She interviewed Daly, and quotes from his books as well as a plethora of other sources he, a consummate record-keeper and archivist, left behind. Clearly, Scull knows his oeuvre well and she charts his rise from a parish priest at the Bogside’s St. Eugene’s to Bishop of the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe, which includes part of the Republic and Northern Ireland. From his support to civil rights and his advocacy for prisoners to his denunciation of the weaponization of republican funerals for political gain, Daly is represented here as a model for Catholics’ efforts to locate and articulate a moral center in a quagmire of political, economic, and sectarian complexity. His story represented here brings home the extraordinary demands the conflict made on local parishes and the church. It seems odd, then, that Scull does not more squarely address his position on the IRA as an “unjust and morally unjustifiable conflict in pursuit of a legitimate political objective.”[2] With so much of Daly’s writings quoted here, the absence of his assessment that the church “had not done enough, or in a concerted or centralized way to respond to injustice,” leaving that work to organizations that often tacitly or explicitly sympathized with the republican cause, seems conspicuous.[3]

At some points in the book, Scull does not directly engage with significant issues of power in the conflict. One is occasionally puzzled by discussions that assume that all parties to the conflict exercised power in the same ways and to the same degree. Paramilitary organizations on either side of the divide had no institutional authority and relied on resources that were soft to the point of porous—such as community support, press coverage and international opinion—to assert the legitimacy of their purpose and mitigate the fallout from unpopular bombing campaigns and targeted assassinations. The IRA relied on Sinn Féin to amplify and justify its tactics and occasionally to negotiate the terms of ceasefires, while loyalist motives were largely represented vis-á-vis the state itself. Scull’s work sidesteps these divergences between loyalists dedicated to shoring up and expanding the purview of state authority and republicans whose tradition and quest for a united Ireland dates back to the nineteenth century and whose goals were met unevenly across the island in 1920. In this the book follows a long line of Irish histories in the extreme care they exhibit to avoid even a hint that might be justifying the existence, let alone the actions, of republican paramilitary organizations.[4]

Likewise, the author describes poor or unjust treatment faced by Catholics—nationalist, republican, or barely political—as “perceived” instances instead of simply “instances” (for examples, see pp. 22, 31, 54, 118). This is suggestive of the long-standing trope of the Northern Irish Catholic grievance culture codified by Marianne Elliot.[5] This convergence of these tendencies seems most problematic in the discussion of Cardinal William Conway’s efforts to call attention to the loyalist targeting of Catholic civilians in the spring of 1972. Scull neglects to explain that ninety-five Catholics were murdered, which would have helped to explain why Conway was decrying the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s response. Instead Scull quotes Conway, using his situated perspective to narrate these events instead of laying out for the reader that ninety-five Catholics had been murdered by loyalist paramilitaries. She leaves out some fairly critical information—for instance, BBC journalist Peter Taylor’s point that the assassinations of Catholics in the spring of 1972 were part of the Ulster Defence Association strategy to push the IRA to end its ceasefire.[6] In these ways, the book alerts us that the historiographical debates in Irish history are not over.

In addition to offering significant insights and ideas for further research into the history of the Troubles, the book raises a host of interesting questions about the past and future of Catholicism in Northern Ireland and on the island as a whole. The cleavages between Catholics and the church itself is an underdeveloped but fascinating issue. Hopefully Scull will explore in greater detail the role of funerals throughout the Northern Ireland Troubles in the scholarship she is currently working on.

This is an important book and it should certainly be read carefully and mulled over by anyone interested in Northern Ireland specifically and in the intersections between politics and religion more generally, with all of the moral, ethical, and cultural considerations therein.

Margo Shea is an associate professor of history at Salem State University. Her book, Derry City: Memory and Political Struggle in Northern Ireland, was published in 2020 by University of Notre Dame Press.


[1]. See Con Coughlin, “Margaret Thatcher: It was an Iron law that there would be no surrender to terrorism,” Telegraph, April 13, 2013, last accessed September 17, 2020,

[2]. Edward Daly, A Troubled See (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2011), 42.

[3]. Daly, A Troubled See, 206.

[4]. For more on this, see Nancy Curtin, “‘Varieties of Irishness’: Historical Revisionism, Irish Style,” Journal of British Studies, 35, no. 2 (1996): 195-219; 211.

[5]. See Marianne Elliot, The Catholics of Ulster: A History (New York: Basic Books, 2001), especially chapter 11, “Catholics in Northern Ireland 1920-2000.” More recently, Christopher Norton has picked up this trope to describe Northern Catholics in his monograph, The Politics of Constitutional Nationalism in Northern Ireland 1932-1970: Between Grievance and Reconciliation (New York: Manchester University Press, 2014).

[6]. Peter Taylor, Behind the Mask: The IRA and Sinn Féin (London: Bloomsbury, 1999).

Citation: Margo Shea. Review of Scull, Margaret M., The Catholic Church and the Northern Ireland Troubles, 1968-1998. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. October, 2020. URL:

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