The Irish Monsignor and the British Propagandist

Whilst studying previously secret files in Kew National Archives, London, as part of my on-going research into my grandmother’s murder in the McGurk’s Bar Bombing of 4thDecember 1971, I came across a very interesting archive. At first glance it is a brief, quite non-descript information report from one British civil servant in the Dublin embassy to another British civil servant in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

Looks can be deceiving though.

The Information Policy Report from the Republic of Ireland dated 23rd September 1971 (FCO 2/703) was prepared by Information Officer, PJC Evans, for DN Brinson, working in the Guidance and Information Policy Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Evans’s report briefly outlines the objectives and methods of the small and seemingly stretched Information Section a few weeks after internment. Nevertheless, it was sent with a “Secret Annex on the IRD activity” which jumped out at me as it highlighted that the post was run by the Information Research Department (IRD). The heartbeat flutters when you track and find secret annexes like this.

Covert British Propagandists

The IRD was a deeply covert propaganda unit that was set up within the FCO primarily to combat the communist threat during the Cold War. It was also brought into Northern Ireland by British Prime Minister, Edward Heath, in the early 70s to be used against the IRA. It features in my book, The McGurk’s Bar Bombing: Collusion, Cover-Up and a Campaign for Truth, due to the covert management of information and dissemination of black propaganda in the aftermath of the atrocity and death of my grandmother.

Here the IRD helped manage British information policy and reorganise the information activity of agencies including Headquarters Northern Ireland, the office of the UK Representative and the RUC Information Office. Whilst researching my book, I accessed a file which proved that the IRD appointed Clifford Hill and Hugh Mooney to the office of Howard Smith, the UK Representative at Stormont who was Whitehall’s man on the ground in Northern Ireland. Hugh Mooney liaised closely with the British Army’s top-secret Information Policy Unit which was run by expert propagandist Colonel Maurice Tugwell and reported directly to the General Officer Commanding (GOC). Mooney’s post of Information Adviser to the GOC was a “cover appointment for the representative of the Information Research Department” (Annex b to A/BR/180/MO4, section1). In Stormont circles, Hill was simply known as “Cliff the Spy”.
Evans notes that his Dublin section was distributing “a variety of IRD written material on aspects of world Communism” to contacts including the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). The DFA, Evans says, though, was “small and overworked” and “scarcely able to digest IRD material” never mind put it to any propaganda use. These were evidently overt channels of dissemination but Evans also relays that information was being “passed in confidence to one or two trusted local journalists” who wrote about Communist affairs. He also records that the:

“second category of IRD activity at this post concerns the ‘indoctrination’ – if that is not too strong a word – of journalist contacts writing on Anglo/Irish affairs”

It is newsworthy and quite current to find record of a state –and a foreign state at that – seeking to exert control over information that is placed in the Irish public domain via so-called trusted media. Indeed, Evans writes that the stated “aim is to induce, as we frequently can, reliable journalist contacts to publish articles in their own names which contains substantial amounts of information provided by the Information Officer”.

Nevertheless, such journalistic contacts are the stock and trade of the Information Officer’s job so I anticipated such IRD activities as these, no matter how shocking it may be to contemplate that indigenous media would be so open to foreign propaganda. Furthermore, these are unnamed channels for the dissemination of material manufactured by the British IRD.

There is a named source within this secret annex, though, and he was a man in a position of great spiritual and civic influence.

Bishop Newman was head of Maynooth before becoming Bishop of LimerickEvans recorded that the very well-known, high-ranking Irish Catholic cleric was a contact for the department and in receipt of “certain IRD material”. His name was Monsignor Jeremiah Newman and he was the President of Maynooth College, “the training centre for the Catholic Priesthood in Ireland” as Evans tells Brinson. Newman later became Bishop of Limerick.

“Eastern European topics” seems to be the primary concern of this “selected material” and it is unsurprising that the Catholic hierarchy would have an ear for anti-communist propaganda due to the historical antagonism between the ideologies (1) . Indeed Evans hints that it is an easy sell as he writes “With the priests in charge of religious seminaries who send priests on missionary work abroad, we are preaching to the convert”.

Internment and the War in the North

Nevertheless, a war was raging in the north east of the island at that time and the British administration had recently ranged the highly discriminatory Special Power, internment without trial, against its Roman Catholic population and its Roman Catholic population alone. Indeed, when internment was introduced a few weeks beforehand on 9th August, the British Army killed 11 Catholic civilians in Ballymurphy, West Belfast, over three days, including the local parish priest. So for a high-ranking, influential Irish cleric to be in such close contact with a clandestine unit of the British administration and in receipt of its propaganda, is highly controversial. Nevertheless, stark questions regarding the relationship between the IRD and Newman remain to be answered:

  •  Was this relationship sanctioned by the Catholic hierarchy?
  • Did the Irish Government know about the relationship?
  • What propaganda was promulgated – was it simply anti-Communist or did it expand to include material on Northern Ireland?How long did the relationship last and were other clerics targeted?
  • What did Newman and/or the Catholic Church get from the relationship?
  • Were the young Irish priests aware that the information being fed to them was provided by the highly secret and classified agency of a foreign power (never mind the British State)?
Newman’s Toxic Legacy

Jeremiah Newman (2) was a scholar of note who studied in Louvain and Oxford Universities after Maynooth. He taught scholastic philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast (1951-2) before returning to teach at Maynooth, becoming President of the College in 1968. His output as an author was prodigious with over 20 books on subjects ranging from regional planning to post-modernism and the Church and State. Then in 1974 he was appointed as Bishop of Limerick which dragged him from his closeted academic existence.

By this time Ireland was growing more prosperous and Irish society was changing fast, becoming increasingly secular and liberal. Despite his intellectualism and, ironically, considering his name, Newman’s pastoral leadership was suited for the generation before Vatican II’s reforms of 1962. He stringently believed in the unassailable right of the Catholic Church to influence the civil law of Ireland and he often intervened personally. He railed against secularism and ecumenism and his dogmatic pronouncements at times caused unease even amongst the Catholic hierarchy (3). The Irish Times recorded for posterity two of his most “characteristically controversial interventions” in his obituary printed on 4th April 1995. In May 1976, at a time when sectarian killings perpetrated by both sides in the north east were once more peaking, Newman:

‘Warned against the dangers to Irish society of “secularism, the strident propaganda of minorities and the effort to conciliate the North”, and urged action to prevent the incorporation of an “inordinate special position” for non-Catholic minorities in the State’s laws.’

Then the following January, during a Christian Unity Week service of all things, he reminded the cross-community flock that Catholics would still be the majority in a united Ireland. The Protestant Dean of Limerick, rightly outraged, said that with such a statement the bishop “might as well go North and load the guns of the UVF”. His views on sexual morals, contraception, divorce and even disarmament were similarly dogmatic and authoritarian.

Child Abuse Scandal

Nevertheless, Newman’s bitterest legacy will be felt by some of those who were vulnerable children in his diocese. In September 2012, the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland, fingered Newman for inadequate handling of accusations of child abuse by his clerics. In one instance, he knowingly allowed an abusive priest return from England and minister in the Limerick diocese where that priest is believed to have continued his rape of children. Newman’s strict sexual moral code did not it seems stretch to include the protection of children from his own priests.

It is not as if Newman’s toxic legacy did not need the further slur that he was a close contact for a covert British propaganda unit and a willing conduit for its material.

Download the secret files

Read the Irish News article by Andrea McKernon


(1) An example would be the Decree Against Communism by Pope Pius XII in 1949 which excommunicated all Catholics who collaborated with Communist organisations and effectively excommunicated millions of Catholics. The Sanctum Officium, the office which oversees Roman Catholic doctrine, issued further condemnations of communism throughout the 50s and 60s.

(2) Much of Newman’s history in the following 3 paragraphs is taken from various obituaries especially the Irish Times, April 4 1995

(3) Irish Times, April 4 1995

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