British lobbied over Cardinal Ó Fiaich successor

British lobbied over Cardinal Ó Fiaich successor Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich.

The British government lobbied extensively while the Vatican was trying to find a successor to Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, newly declassified state papers reveal. The authorities were keen that a new Primate would be less critical of British policy in the North.

Files released by the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) reveal that at least three arms of the British government discussed how to the lobby the Vatican following the cardinal’s death in 1990.

The cardinal had served as Primate of All-Ireland since 1977 and was considered a thorn in the side of the British authorities whom he regularly criticised publicly for human rights abuses in the North.

Dr Ó Fiaich notably crossed swords with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.


A confidential Northern Ireland Office memo written just weeks after the cardinal’s unexpected death from the Security and International Liaison (SIL) Division said that “following discussion at the Secretary of State’s morning meeting 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 Ó Fiaich”.

The cardinal’s death had only been announced the previous evening

The memo added that “confidentially, our ambassador to the Holy See was already scheduled to meet Archbishop Emanuele Gerada [then papal nuncio to Ireland] in Rome on May 21.

“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,” the memo said.

To a question from the ambassador, Archbishop Gerada indicated that he felt that an approach to the Vatican Secretariat of State might not be wise at this juncture. He told the diplomat that the appointment of a new bishop was the sole prerogative of the Holy See and warned that Vatican officials would not take kindly to lobbying.

“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 [Angelo] Sodano on other business. As he pointed out, the Vatican is well used to frank speaking in private.”

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 Ó Fiaich’s successor should be raised with Archbishop Luigi Barbarito [then papal representative in London].

Cardinal Ó Fiaich had staunchly opposed Archbishop Barbarito visiting the North fearing this would give the impression that Rome’s man in London has a role in the region. The memo adds: “Gerada had told our ambassador to the Holy See that now that Cardinal Ó Fiaich has died, the main obstacle to a visit by Archbishop Barbarito to Northern Ireland has disappeared”.

The memo reveals that Archbishop Gerada assured British authorities that the three names he would present to the Pope for consideration as Archbishop of Armagh “would all be people whom he knew were well regarded by us”.

Cahal Daly – then Bishop of Down and Connor and a fierce critic of republican violence – was appointed to Armagh six months later. Although the most senior bishop in the North at the time, his appointment to the primacy was seen as somewhat of a surprise given that at 73 he was just two years away from the Vatican-mandated retirement age for bishops. Dr Daly eventually went on to lead the Church in Ireland until his 79th birthday in 1996.

Cardinal Daly saw defeat of Gerry Adams as ‘desirable’

Cardinal Cahal Daly privately told the British government that it would be “highly desirable” if the SDLP defeated Gerry Adams in West Belfast, a declassified government file has revealed.

The then Archbishop Cahal Daly made the comment during a meeting with the British Secretary of State in November, 1990 – just a fortnight after he had been elevated to be Primate of All-Ireland.

A confidential note of the meeting which has been released at the Public Record Office in Belfast recorded: “He referred to the possibility of the SDLP winning the West Belfast seat…he thought this highly desirable but was not confident that they would do it…he was not convinced that the [SDLP] party was sufficiently close to the community and he was not confident that the party machine in the area was sufficiently effective and hard working.”

Little impact

The declassifed files also contain a note of a June 6, 1990 dinner between Mr Alston of the NIO and three Catholic priests. One of the priests was the late Fr Matt Wallace but the names of the others have been redacted, presumably because they are still alive.

The civil servant was told by the priests: “the SDLP made little impact in West Belfast because of lack of organisation and as a reflection of the fact that it was a party of individuals.”