'IT'S not a priest's duty to be popular," said Monsignor Denis Faul a few years ago, during yet another exciting period in his astonishing life. For Faul, the job of a priest was "to stand in the middle between two factions - you sometimes get knocked down." Many of his enemies tried, over and over again, but they never knocked him down.
I met him first in 1997. I had spent a tedious day in court in Dublin, waiting to give evidence for my friend Henry Robinson, of Families against Intimidation and Terror (FAIT), who had been libelled by a magazine as an agent of MI5.
All activity was behind the scenes, and to the irritation of those of us who had other things to do, the word came from the negotiating lawyers in the afternoon that the case would be going ahead: the magazine had decided to stand its ground. Just then this little round smiling priest arrived and Henry's face lit up. Faul went around shaking hands with everyone he knew and introducing himself toeveryone else.
Within 10 minutes, the defendants had agreed to Henry's terms, so Faul was able to catch the next train back to the school he ran in Downpatrick. Henry had several other character witnesses, but Faul was the silver bullet: the defendants and their lawyers knew they simply would not be able to undermine or get the better of this icon of courage and integrity.
Next time we met was at a conference a few years later. When in a completely matter-of-fact way he described the IRA as fascists, the usual republican spokesmen and fellow-travellers looked cross but they didn't even protest. Faul said things as he saw them and there was no point in arguing with him.
He was morally rigid. In terms of Catholic dogma, he accepted utterly what he'd been taught at Maynooth in the Fifties. That priests should be celibate, contraception and abortion should be illegal and Catholic children should be taught in Catholic schools were among his givens. But what made him stand out from other conservative Irish priests was that he regarded violence and cruelty as the biggest sins and believed it was his life's mission to fight them actively.
As a teacher at St Patrick's Academy, Dungannon, Faul ranged far beyond his duties. He annoyed cautious bishops by marching with the civil rights movement in 1968 and was rebuked and silenced by Cardinal Conway for alleging in a 1969 pamphlet that the Northern Ireland judicial system discriminated against Catholics. During the Seventies, along with Father Raymond Murray, he collected evidence in the form of witness statements and photographs of state violence against internees and prisoners, made over 1,000 serious complaints to the police and army and thus helped cases that would finally have Britain successfully prosecuted for torture in the European Court of Human Rights. Contemporaneously, there were his campaigns on behalf of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four.
So far, so republican. But unlike Fathers Raymond Murray and Des Wilson, and although nicknamed "The Provo Priest", Faul was not tribal. He faced down the whole republican movement over the hunger strikes. As Daily Ireland put it last week, "he told the families that to take their sons off the hunger strike was not only possible, but the moral thing to do, and it earned him the undying enmity of many republicans the length and breadth of Ireland and beyond." His new nickname was "Mrs Thatcher's Priest".
It was to the victims of paramilitaries that Faul devoted himself primarily henceforward. With money and advice, he helped FAIT deal with terrified poor people threatened by loyalists and republicans with beating or shooting or death, and with the hitherto ignored families of the disappeared. He tutored Henry Robinson in how he should deal with IRA propaganda techniques. "They'll try to discredit their victims and you as well," he said. "Be ready for them." And he taught him too as he taught all his allies how to prepare cases, expose injustice and get the support of the media. "Throughout his life, he broke the silence," said Robinson. "He had no fear. What had to be said he said."
In 1999, by now parish priest of Carrickmore, Faul developed a good relationship with the local police which further infuriated his republican enemies, who began a vicious campaign of intimidation and agitation to have him removed from the parish. Faul was unperturbed and stayed put.
There was a wonderful simplicity about Denis Faul. In a world of grey, he saw black and white: in a world of moral relativism, he saw good and evil.
"Don't have high-faluting arguments with these people, Henry," he said once apropos paramilitary apologists. "Just say what they're doing is wrong."
Now there was a man who deserved a state funeral.