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An Archbishop, a Taoiseach and an angry face-off over IRA violence and ‘genocide’

Garret Fitzgerald said the New York meeting was the most tense he has as Taoiseach outside Ireland.

Bobby Sands' funeral in May 1981, four years before the meeting in question.
Bobby Sands' funeral in May 1981, four years before the meeting in question.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

A DOGMATIC CATHOLIC Archbishop of New York who refused to unconditionally condemn the IRA without also condemning British forces led to the most heated meeting Garret Fitzgerald had during his time as Taoiseach.

Notes from the May 1985 sit-down between Fitzgerald and Archbishop of New York John O’Connor have been released under the 30-year rule.

They document an incredibly tense meeting in which the Taoiseach got increasingly frustrated with O’Connor and at one point accused the Provisional IRA of waging a “genocidal campaign”.

Their meeting took place at the headquarters of the Archdiocese on New York’s First Avenue. The Archbishop asked the Taoiseach what he could do to help support efforts for a resolution in Northern Ireland.

Fitzgerald told O’Connor that it would be helpful if he and other US bishops came out with an “unconditional condemnation of IRA violence”.

O’Connor responded by saying that he has already denounced violence by all sides, but that he would not condemn IRA violence alone and ignore other actors to the conflict.

He said doing this would alienate many of his Irish-Americans followers.

O’Connor said he must “include in any such statement denunciation of British oppression in Northern Ireland”. A note written by a department official read:

Perhaps in time they would as a body come out with a statement, but they would be unable to say anything so one-sided as to denounce only the violence of the IRA. He could not afford to alienate himself from a large body of Irish Americans.

According to the notes of the meeting, the Taoiseach was “shocked” by the remarks.

The Taoiseach said that there is only one side to terrorism: the murder of ordinary individuals.

Fitzgerald went on to say that his government “is continually raising the excesses of the security forces with the British authorities”. But to compare the two would be “wrong”, he added.

“It was wrong to equate what is done by security forces trying to maintain law and order with the violence of the bomb and bullet,” Fitzgerald said.

It’s been estimated that British security services were responsible for 363 deaths in Northern Ireland between 1969-2001 while the Provisional IRA were responsible for 1,823.

PA-8684650 New York Archbishop John O'Connor, right, pictured in Rome in May 1985. The same month he met with the Taoiseach. Source: AP/Press Association Images

It’s apparent from the meeting notes that this back and forth went on for some time with the Taoiseach repeatedly emphasising that IRA violence was different to that of the British security forces:

The Taoiseach said what we want is unambiguous condemnation of terrorism. The IRA’s aim is to establish a totalitarian state. They murder people.

The Archbishop reiterated that he had a duty to the followers in his diocese, many of whom have “great feelings of resentment against the British”.

He was said to be ardent that the United Kingdom also has a role in the continuing violence:

Of course he will renounce violence but simultaneously he will not be naive about the role Great Britain has played in the Troubles.

PastedImage-33484 Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald speaks to RTÉ about the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985. Source: RTÉ.ie

Notes on their exchange indicate that the violence of Loyalist paramilitaries was never mentioned during the meeting. Loyalist groupings are believed to have been responsible for an estimated 1,027 deaths during the troubles.

The Taoiseach is recorded as saying that the Provisional IRA are the main reason for violence in Northern Ireland, equating their actions to genocide:

The situation with regard to the north of Ireland is one of proportion and identifying the primary source of violence. The IRA is involved in a genocidal campaign which does not equate with the excesses of the security forces in Northern Ireland, however deplorable the latter may be. To equate the two would be a moral aberration.

Strained

The context of their conversation is a St. Patrick’s Day homily that O’Connor had made a number of months previously. His words had been construed by the UK media as categorising the IRA’s campaign as a “just war”.

He took exception to this description.

This is an extract of Archbishop O’Connor’s homily that was highlighted by the Department of the Taoiseach ahead of the meeting:

I reiterate and re-emphasise publicly what I have said repeatedly before: I cannot accept, support or encourage support of the violence in Ireland by whomever perpetrated it. And that includes both physical violence and moral violence.
The violence of those who shed blood and engage in acts of terrorism, the violence of those who rob people of justice, deprive them of their birthright and inflict on them continuing indignities. I cannot and I will not condemn the legitimate struggle in Ireland for justice and human rights.

PA-8631498 Chicago's Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, left, New York Archbishop John O'Connor, centre, and newly consecrated auxiliary Bishop of New York Edward Egan. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Strained

Years later in his biography, Fitzgerald wrote that the face-off between the two men, “was probably the most contentious meeting I had with anyone outside Ireland during the course of my years as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Taoiseach”.

One of our officials who accompanied me remarked later that he had never previously attended a meeting like it.

Read: Thatcher in ’84: ‘The Irish don’t like to move, but they’re all terribly happy to move to Britain’ >

Read: This 8-year-old wrote to the Taoiseach in 1984 because RTÉ was ‘mean to block sunshine’ >

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