‘We are in a different place’

Denis Bradley shares his story with Martin O’Brien

Denis Bradley shares his story with Martin O’Brien

When Pope Francis prayed last month “Lord, free your people from a spirit of clericalism and aid them with a spirit of prophecy” his words would have been music to the ears of Denis Bradley.

Former  Derry priest, witness to Bloody Sunday , co-founder of the Northlands alcohol/drug addiction centre, secret channel between the IRA and the British government for more than 20 years,  policing pioneer and joint progenitor of Dr Richard Haass’ ideas for contending with the North’s Past, Denis Bradley has seen it all.

He would have been pleased with Francis’ words for at least two reasons.

Lack of backbone

Firstly, it is apparent from talking to Denis that he thinks clericalism is the scourge of the Church, especially the Irish Catholic Church and considers what he perceives as its lack of backbone and independent thought to be endemic.

“If Francis had turned out to be to the far right of Benedict they [the Irish Church] would be backing him.”

And secondly, the South American-born Pontiff’s words, like so much of what he has said and perhaps more importantly done over the past 10 months, has encouraged serious  debate in the Church about how it runs itself and relates to the whole human family without compromising its core doctrines.

Denis Bradley (68) characteristically outspoken and thankfully well recovered from a diagnosis of kidney cancer two years ago is perhaps more reflective and engagingly provocative than he has ever been.

He is re-energised by the arrival of Pope Francis and evidently believes that a key indicator of the health of any society or any organisation temporal or spiritual is its capacity to debate issues and work out how to adapt to change.

Following the breakdown of the Haass talks Denis lost no time using his column in The Irish News and a BBC debate to argue that it is now up to the British and Irish governments to assume their responsibilities as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement to take things forward if the Northern parties can’t do so themselves.


He points the finger in particular at Britain as he believes under Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore’s leadership in Foreign Affairs the Irish Government has got “stuck in” after a period in which both London and Dublin had both “withdrawn too far” from direct day to day involvement in the North.

“It is not acceptable for the British Government to pretend that they are not central players,” he says.

He stresses the critical importance of the ongoing engagement of both British and Irish governments: “I did not vote in the Good Friday Referendum for an internal settlement but for one with an internal element which also had the guarantee of a relationship between the two governments.”

Denis Bradley, the youngest of eight children of Denis and Catherine (nee McLaughlin) was brought up “in a loving family” in Buncrana, Co. Donegal.

He became a boarder at St Columb’s College, Derry at the age of 12 and at 18 in 1964 went to the Irish College in Rome and studied for the priesthood at the “very right wing” Lateran University.

Ordained in Rome in 1970 he returned immediately to St Eugene’s Cathedral in Derry  as a young curate  “pastoring in a war zone” where his colleagues included the future Bishop Edward Daly and Father Anthony Mulvey, a close associate of John Hume.


He traces “the dislocation of the Irish Church [which became evident at the time of the child abuse crisis] to its failure to engage in any debate about the potential impact on it of the crisis in the North”.

“I am still waiting for that debate but it’s a bit late now.” 

Back in Derry he discerned “a tension between engagement and monasticism” among the priests with many of his fellow priests being severely critical of the likes of Fr Mulvey and Fr Daly for “getting their hands dirty in the streets, indulging their egos and speaking to the media”.

In the middle of it all the then bishop, Dr Neil Farren and his clerical circle “were dumbfounded by what was happening”.

He describes Pope Francis as a shining example: “By washing feet and saying priests must be shepherds with the smell of their sheep about them Francis underlines the core message of the Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount. You cannot wash feet and be not involved in the real world.”

He recalls that on the night of Bloody Sunday in 1972 himself and a fellow young priest, Fr Tom O’Gara saying together: “Everything has changed, we are in a different place, we have lost the young people.”

He gave evidence to the discredited Widgery Inquiry and to the Saville Inquiry playing a major role in the public debate which resulted in Martin McGuiness, as an IRA leader in 1972, giving evidence to Saville.

He says “the burden and cloud of Bloody Sunday” was only lifted nearly 40 years later with Prime Minister David Cameron’s apology after the Saville Report “for which he deserves great credit”.


This enabled Derry to “express its joyfulness” as the UK’s first City of Culture last year.

He says  Cameron was “advised to make a more tepid and defensive statement” but “tore up what was put in front of him and re-wrote the statement himself”.

In 2001 Bradley courageously stepped up to the plate to become the founding vice chairman of the Policing Board having been recommended for the post by the Irish government.

He played an important part in bedding down the new police service, arguably the greatest achievement of the Good Friday Agreement.

“Before that the nationalist experience with the police had been mostly acrimonious and suspicious at least.”

He became a target for dissident republicans but declined police protection and insisted on his normal routine in Derry despite several death threats.

Petrol bombed

His home was petrol bombed in 2004 and he was hospitalised after a serious assault from a dissident thug wielding a baseball bat in 2005. 

He refused to be cowed and completed his term of office lasting four and a half years.

Today Denis Bradley does not underestimate the dissident threat and says it can be best countered by “a pan-nationalist front” comprising the Irish Government, Sinn Féin and the SDLP supported by the GAA and the Catholic Church with the British and the unionists “staying out of it”.

Ultimately it may be necessary to  hold a referendum  of  all the Irish people expressly rejecting the use of violence to achieve reunification and if the dissidents still rejected the sovereign will of the Irish people they would be exposed as fascists  and this would warrant the “next step” of increasingly severe measures  by An Garda Siochana and the PSNI.

One senses that Denis is still a priest by desire and that there may be residual hurt and frustration that he had to choose between his love for his wife, Mary, and remaining in the priesthood.

He has been “surprised and buoyed up” by Francis and hopes he “will succeed in knocking clericalism out of the way and replacing it with a more mixed leadership”.

He wishes Francis could “find a way of bringing back a lot of people who have left or were pushed out and find a sacramental role for them”.

“If I was Francis I’d say to the hierarchies of the world go and find a way of bringing back as many as possible of these people.”

He stresses this should be dealt with in a “sensitive and indirect way” and that his suggestion “poses no theological or doctrinal difficulty”.


“The Pope could say to the hierarchies, find a method within your own culture, within your own communities and within your own churches of bringing these people back.”

He suggested that a return to the priestly fold of many former priests would help redress the current situation where he claims “the Church at a clerical level has been taken over by very young and very conservative young men. I think half of them are in Opus Dei.”

Denis Bradley may have to wait some time for the Synod of the Irish Church he would dearly like to see. But when it takes place there can be no doubt that if he is there his contribution will be challenging and informed by his evident love for the Church.