The decision by the Bishop McKeown of Derry to allow the unnecessary trappings of a state funeral for Martin McGuinness inside Long Tower church was a retrospective whitewashing and deodorizing of McGuinness’ IRA activities in the wake of the latter’s claim shortly before his death that he remained proud of his IRA past and an unholy reversal of former Bishop Edward Daly’s brave stance against paramilitary culture and killings. None of the dignitaries attending the funeral could have made this unprecedented recognition a condition of their participation except McGuinness’ IRA and Sinn Fein comrades. Honouring McGuinness in this way was dishonouring victims and declaring a new and favourable judgment of IRA violence by the catholic church.

Bishop McKeown’s surrender on IRA funeral theatre inside a church teaches young people that vice may masquerade as virtue, that murder, bombing, torture and constant lies have somehow become the church’s new description of statesmanship and that the preaching of Gospel values may be silenced in response to the rise of political paramilitarism on a grand scale.

Bishop McKeown’s Belfast diocesan colleague Fr. Gary Donegan’s unqualified assertion that McGuinness was ‘a hero in life and in death’ has redefined heroism as joining and leading the IRA’s killing machine and then working for peace, immunity from prosecution and political gains while remaining proud of IRA activities and still lying to many victims about involvement in ordering and participating in bombing and murders and in the interrogation, torture and murders of alleged informers. Surely the true heroes in Northern Ireland are those who did not submit to the false and deadly lure of the gun and bomb in response to political events and whose consciences are clear of engaging in killing their neighbours on a grand scale?

The ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church’ states that ‘a lie does real violence to another, affects his ability to know, which is a condition of every judgment and decision, contains the seed of discord and all consequent evils, is destructive of society, undermines trust among men and tears apart the fabric of social relationships and entails the duty of reparation.’ Fully aware of McGuinness’ continued membership of the IRA, of his abject failure to reject his past violence and of his constant lies to his victims and failure to offer them the reparation of truth, Bishop McKeown and Fr. Donegan have taught young people that the church in Northern Ireland will now not only remain silent on these sins but will reward them.

The church’s unpopular vocation to uphold truth and victims, previously undermined by a catalogue of clerical abuses of children and episcopal failures to eradicate these, was further enfeebled by its decision to cosy up to the newly empowered IRA leadership in the Long Tower in preference to the IRA’s victims. The church failed to rise to the challenge and duty to preach to Gerry Adams and others that victims and society have an unconditional right to the truth in all circumstances and that lies are sinful and injurious to salvation.

In assessing Martin McGuinness’ legacy, it is important to consider why the media has perhaps unfairly highlighted one IRA murder victim more than any other, Frank Hegarty, who was found shot in the head on a border road near Castlederg after a mock IRA trial for allegedly informing. Frank Hegarty’s case caused Martin McGuinness’ chuckle mask to slip and uncover the horrible fact that the IRA believed – and still believes – that it had the perfect right to abduct, torture and murder any citizen but more particularly one of its own unfortunate members.

Rose Hegarty, a mother like McGuinness’s own, stated unto her dying day that Martin ingratiated himself with the family by regular visits and promised on bended knee that if Frank returned home that he, Martin, would guarantee Frank’s life. Based on this most false lie to a mother, the family encouraged Frank to return home and even drove him to Buncrana where the IRA abducted him, interrogated him and then shot him in the head, dumping his body on the roadside and delivering to the family home a tape in which Frank was supposedly heard admitting informing on the whereabouts of IRA arms’ dumps.

Irish Times journalist Peter Murtagh, then reporting for The Guardian, visited the Hegarty home shortly after Frank’s murder. Within minutes of his arrival, IRA men entered the house, ushered him to a car outside where Martin McGuinness informed him that the Hegarty family was upset and could not talk right then, that in fact McGuinness was declaring the interview over. McGuinness had not merely ordered IRA surveillance of the Hegarty home in the wake of Frank’s murder, but also participated directly in intimidation of the grieving Hegarty family and the visiting journalist. McGuinness publicly stated, ‘I do not condemn the IRA action. Condemnation from John Hume and clergymen is pathetic.’

Unlike the Roman centurion who gave orders to others to do his bidding, why did IRA leader Martin McGuinness personally command the operation to deceive the Hegarty family into bringing Frank home to his doom? Was it because Frank had information that might lead to McGuinness possibly serving decades in prison for IRA activities? Or was it McGuinness’ personal fanatical belief that bloody retribution must at all costs be applied to an informer who had caused 130 guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition to be captured? How many lives were saved by the capture of 130 guns including 60 AK47 assault rifles and many thousands of bullets? It is perfectly reasonable to assume that Martin participated directly in the interrogation and murder of Frank Hegarty and that he may have been emboldened by knowledge of the guarantee by British Intelligence of his own immunity from prosecution during years of secret negotiations.

Catholic church leaders, including Bishop Edward Daly and Bishop Cahal Daly, had regularly called upon catholic laypersons to inform the police about IRA murders and bombings in order to save lives and in so doing had put them at risk of IRA retaliation, while they themselves were bulletproof as clergymen. The church, therefore, was bound by morality and loyalty to innocent citizens to side with victims of violence but it capitulated to the perpetrators of violence in honouring as a statesman an IRA leader and killer who never gave victims’ relatives the truth they had so often asked for. ‘If you come to the altar to offer your gift and there remember that your brother has something against you, go first, be reconciled to your brother and then come and offer your gift.’ These words from St. Matthew’s Gospel have not changed in 2,000 years and neither have IRA leaders complied with them in 30 years.

How could a catholic priest like Fr. Gerry Reynolds ever have held that asking Gerry Adams if he was in the IRA was ‘a stupid question’? How could a follower of Christ ever hold that victims of murder and bombing – and society in general – would be ‘stupid’ to ask for truth? After 30 years of brave and often unpopular church teaching that all murderous violence was utterly wrong in all circumstances there now appears to be a more popular but corrupted clerical consensus that a paramilitary organisation might after all create its own paramorality and be retrospectively excused from the requirement to tell the truth about some of the worst atrocities ever committed in Britain and Ireland. There is the very real possibility that McGuinness and Adams have been the victims of spurious spiritual direction by beguiled priests encouraging them in their arrogant silence before God and their victims.

What a truly lamentable outcome to the decades of unnecessary IRA armed struggle and moral corruption that its unrepentant leaders achieve political power, considerable wealth and the impunity of immunity while catholic church leaders flounder in ambiguity and immoral collusion leaving a cancerous impression for young people that an IRA career can end in a funeral bedecked with unprecedented honours by the catholic church.

The catholic church has for many years had a formal ruling that an ordinary member in a second marital relationship without proper annulment of the first one may not participate in the Eucharist and yet no formal ruling whatever on Eucharistic participation by paramilitary leaders and members responsible for scores if not hundreds of murders. It is this unbelievable dual standard that allows for the retrospective incensing of paramilitary coffins and the inevitable accommodation to new and morally dubious political realities. It also allows for a long-standing belief among young catholic men that IRA paramilitarism can be justified in the end.

[First published in The News Letter, Belfast, May 5th, 2017]