British annoyance at Vatican stance
British ministers and officials became increasingly impatient during 1972 with what they saw as the failure of the Vatican and the Irish Hierarchy to condemn the IRA in sufficiently strong terms.
The meeting between the Prime Minister, Mr Edward Heath, and Pope Paul VI on October 4th was seen as a chance to correct this.
In a briefing for the visit, the Foreign Office complained that "the Pope's previous utterances on Northern Ireland have not been as helpful as we would have liked". The "balancing item has usually crept in, i.e. any denunciation of violence tends to be offset by a reference to long-standing grievances which by implication go some way towards explaining and excusing the violence".
Pressing for "excommunication" of the IRA was "unlikely to be a profitable line to pursue with the Popeit is not in accord with the present temper of the Catholic Church."
The "best line would be to give particular examples of IRA violence which offended Christian ethics." One example would be a newspaper item which described "a man who crossed himself devoutly before taking a gun from a bag and trying to snipe (sic) a British soldier."
In the account of the Heath audience with the Pope, the latter is reported to have said "world opinion is against this measure", referring to internment. The Pope regarded Britain as "the land of liberty" and habeas corpus.
Mr Heath agreed internment should be got rid of "as soon as possible" and claimed the numbers interned had been reduced from 1,000 to 71. The Pope said "violence and terrorism are indeed deplorable" and he had "tried to make this clear" and would continue to do so. But he seemed more interested in criticising British society for being too "permissive", citing liberal homosexual and abortion laws.
Mr Heath urged the Pope to use Cardinal Conway to try to get the nationalist parties in Northern Ireland, such as the SDLP, not to boycott the forthcoming Darlington round-table conference.
The Governor General of Northern Ireland, Lord Grey of Naunton, had the previous August written to Mr Whitelaw on the need to lobby the Vatican as "the Pope's view of British policy is based almost entirely on reports from Cardinal Conway". However, the letter went on: "There is good reason to suppose that the majority of Catholics in Northern Ireland are dissatisfied with the Cardinal's leadership (or lack of it) in secular matters and his invariable practice of following timid criticisms of Irish nationalist excesses by words desiring to avoid offending the extremists."
Lord Grey also cited the Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr Philbin, as "more courageous and liberal-minded than the Primate".
Lord Grey hoped that Dr Philbin "might perhaps be persuaded by Rome that if certain parishes in the Diocese of Down and Connor did not clearly disassociate themselves from the IRA, he should consider their interdiction (closing churches, withdrawing sacraments). I am advised that the threat of any such action normally suffices."