Adams ‘always more interested in the political approach’

Cahal Daly’s views sought about possible end to Sinn Féin’s abstentionist policy on seats in Dáil and any Northern assembly

A leading Catholic bishop warned a government official in 1986 that Gerry Adams’s plan to end Sinn Féin’s abstentionist policy would not mean an end to the armed struggle.

Bishop Cahal Daly was one of a number of Catholic Church figures in Northern Ireland whose views were sought about the prospects of an end to Sinn Féin's abstentionist policy on seats in the Dáil and any Northern assembly.

"For Adams, the bishop commented, political involvement and the 'armed struggle' are merely two sides of the same coin. The latter will certainly continue 'and with a vengeance' lest anybody think that the Provos have been weakened by the new development," department of foreign affairs official David Donoghue reported in November 1986.

He said the bishop believed Sinn Féin would not gain a single seat in the Dáil "though they will undoubtedly be a disruptive factor", and would campaign in Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan and Louth.


“He was very critical of John Joe McGirl, whom he knows from his own days in Longford, and regretted the latter’s popularity in Leitrim where a sizeable section of the electorate continues to be susceptible to Sinn Féin thinking.”

Dr Daly, a native of Co Antrim, served as Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise from 1967 until 1982, before returning to the North as Bishop of Down and Connor. In 1990 he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh, and consecrated as a Cardinal.

Negative impact

In November 1986 he speculated that the takeover of the Provisional movement by Adams and other leading Northerners might have a negative impact on the movement’s potential in the Republic. “The Northern accent, after all, grates on a lot of Southerners,” said Bishop Daly.

The bishop’s time in Longford appears to have given him a different perspective on the violence in the North than some of his leading priests who were more sympathetic to Mr Adams in their conversations with foreign affairs officials.

Fr Hugh Starkey of the Sacred Heart parish in north Belfast commented that many of his parishioners no longer had the capacity for moral outrage and were morally "lethargic" in response to violence.

“Bishop Daly still seems to have a capacity for outrage and his statements reflect it, but Fr Sharkey attributed this to the fact that the bishop returned to Belfast after a long spell in Longford and has to some extent been the ‘returned native’ ever since,” observed Mr Donoghue.

Another priest, Dean Gerard Montague of the Falls Road parish, told Mr Donoghue that the proposal to end abstentionism was very popular in the North, and was consistent with the way in which Sinn Féin had been developing under Adams's leadership.

General election

“Many of those who gave Adams their vote in the last general election did so in the hope of strengthening the trend away from violence and towards politics which they detected in the Republican movement.

“Adams (whom Dean Montague knows well) has never had a reputation as a gunman. He has always been more interested in the political approach and has ‘got away with this’ essentially because his Republican credentials are impeccable (both his father and his grandfather had IRA involvement). He is extremely popular in West Belfast, and has a calming effect on some of the ‘wilder types’ among the Provos.

“Dean Montague is certain that Adams will win the vote at the ardfheis. He expected that this would precipitate a split of some kind in the movement.”

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins is a columnist with and former political editor of The Irish Times