A personal view from Fr Desmond Wilson
A recent propaganda handout from the Army in Northern Ireland shows Hugh Beattie cutting hair. Beattie is a soldier, has completed parachute courses with 100 descents, learned the art of war with NATO forces including French, American and Italian fighting men.
He served in the Army in a number of places from which the Army received much criticism for its methods — Cyprus and Borneo, for example. For his military prowess he was awarded the MBE,
He was with the Highland Light Infantry also. As he says himself, Hugh Beattie seems never to have been far away from the "Paras." The Paratroop is the regiment which has earned most opprobrium in Northern Ireland because of its actions against civilians.
Hugh Beattie is a soldier, then, who cuts hair. The Army needs barbers, and Beattie is one of them. He spends a considerable amount of time doing this, because his other Army duties do not take up much time.
It brings him into contact with soldiers whom he would not otherwise meet, who would not normally come to him if it were not for his being a barber. He is not, however, officially paid by the Army for being a barber. He is employed as a Catholic priest.
In 1969 the British Army was sent into Northern Ireland in force. The purpose, as was later revealed by Harold Wilson, was to uphold the government which at that time had broken down: the police were demoralised and exhausted, welfare services had failed, people were policing, and getting ready to defend, their own areas, In order to uphold what civil authority remained, the Army was sent in, in force. As time went on their function was more and more described as a "peace-keeping operation" and from time to time the padres of the Army were used in the peace-keeping operations. About 1975 a public controversy broke out about the morality of padres gathering intelligence and relaying it back to Army operations bases; can a priest use his confidential position in order to ask questions of people whose attitude to priests is normally reverential, thus gathering information ' which might be otherwise difficult to obtain?
The answer of the padres was, yes he can — an answer which was upheld by Bishop Tickle, then Bishop in charge of chaplains, and by Irish church authorities. Some priests disagreed and said so, and were rebuked either publicly or privately for so doing. But the use of padres for gathering information seems to have stopped from then on.
The story of Fr Beattie and the haircuts is part of the current spate of Army handouts featuring priests, designed to reinforce the image of a peacekeeping force in Ireland in which behind-the-scenes life is jolly, decent and helpful.
The news story about Fr Beattie is probably meant to reassure Catholics abroad that the stories put out about Army tactics against civilians, even by certain Catholic priests, are not true. Would Beattie the barber countenance his boys doing any such deeds? Of course not.
Another kind of Army handout came to notice last August. The Belfast Newsletter carried a story that a Belfast priest had been arrested, detained and questioned in Zurich about trying to get detonators. The Belfast Newsletter is read mostly by Protestants in Northern Ireland, who would of course be suitably convinced by such a story that Catholic priests were really hand in gove with armed men. Inquiries were made which have just now been completed.
These inquiries have shown that the Swiss newspapers had no account of any such event, that the appropriate embassies in Switzerland knew of no such event (they would have known if it had really happened), and the police in Zurich knew nothing of any such event.
There is little doubt but that the Belfast Newsletter published the story in good faith. After all, the source was good — it was, as the newspaper said, "a security source," The story was untrue, and is being referred to the Press Council, not by way of complaint against the newspaper but as a complaint against the use of a newspaper by security forces in Northern Ireland to create danger for individuals.
As far as can be ascertained there was only one Belfast Catholic priest in Switzerland at the time mentioned, and his going to Switzerland had been no secret. The danger to himself and his family could have been serious.
This means that while the Army is publishing its stories of the innocent life of clerical barbers there is another, grimmer, side to what is happening. It involves black propaganda and the use of confidential relationships for intelligence gathering.
And in both cases Catholic priests have been the willing or unwilling puppets on the military string. That the Army creates this situation is not surprising: that the Church condones it is very puzzling indeed.