By Anne Cadwallader and Jack Holland
BELFAST — A furious row has broken out in the village of Carrickmore, Co. Tyrone, over the attendance of its parish priest, Msgr. Denis Faul, in an RUC community liaison meeting.
Amid local people claiming Faul has "misrepresented" the people of the parish, and outside commentators accusing republicans of intimidating the priest, parishioners are now demanding his removal in a move thought to be unprecedented in Ireland.
Sinn Féin is distancing itself from the campaign, insisting a petition to rid Carrickmore of Faul is inspired by local people. The party’s local assemblyman, Barry McElduff, insists he only chaired a public meeting in the village because no one else came forward.
The SDLP, however, has accused republicans of intimidation and in fat of being behind the campaign.
Ever since the 1981 hunger strikes, when Fr. Faul was instrumental in convincing relatives of the prisoners to end their protest, republicans have regarded him as a thorn in their side. But Faul, a staunch nationalist himself, has impeccable republican credentials, having been among the first to catalogue RUC abuses.
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The Daily Telegraph newspaper in London reported that the actions of those protesting against Faul were "part of continuing attempts by hardline republicans to maintain their authority over the area" and accused them of "intimidating" people.
The paper quoted RUC sources saying "the campaign of intimidation by republicans in Carrickmore" has put future meetings of the forum in doubt. It quoted the RUC source saying: "This protest is about territorial control of the area by republicans. They do not want anyone else to come in and have a say on how their community is run."
The row has even had reverberations in the south. The Fine Gael leader, John Bruton, accused local people of trying to intimidate Faul. "It’s important that the leadership in Sinn Féin is seen to take a very strong line against this sort of behavior. I expect they will do so," Bruton said.
"Politics cannot be normalized if intimidation exists at local level, and the republican movement must behave locally with the same moderation it seeks to portray globally," Bruton added.
Six people along with Faul attended a meeting in Omagh on Dec. 12. A group of about 32 angry locals entered the room and accused the priest of misrepresenting the village to the RUC and the outside world.
The local people said the group of which Faul was a member had made no effort to discover if their involvement had local backing and accused them of meeting the RUC "in secret" at a meeting place outside the village of Carrickmore itself.
According to local sources, one of the six local people who attended that meeting now feels they were "used" and that they had been persuaded to attend the meeting under false pretenses, believing it to be a community forum with no official RUC presence.
Subsequently, 700 people packed the local parish hall and began circulating the petition seeking Faul’s ouster. And a delegation of five people is preparing to meet the archbishop of Armagh, Dr. Sean Brady, to formally seek Faul’s removal.
An RUC source said local people are "terrified and you can’t blame them when people like this call at their doors. I think Fr. Faul is the only one who hasn’t apologized. That man has some backbone. I never met anyone like him."
The row began after Faul had attended two RUC community liaison meetings. The RUC say such meetings are intended purely to coordinate efforts against crime, but nationalists say they are more akin to a "PR exercise" and are particularly controversial at a time when the force is fighting a rearguard action against the recommendations of the Patten Report, which calls for sweeping reforms of the force.
Neither the SDLP nor Sinn Féin participated in any of the 150 or-so local committees, seeing them as a cosmetic exercise intended to boost RUC claims that it is acceptable to nationalists. SDLP members who have broken this policy have, in the past, been expelled from the party.