Thirty Years Later

This article appeared in Far East Magazine November 2014 issue and Columbans Ireland website

It is hard to believe that it is thirty years since the story of an Irish Missionary priest facing death in the Philippines hit the headlines in Ireland. It was a story that captured the headlines not only in Ireland but also, in many other countries around the world, especially Australia and the United States. Lots of things have happened in the intervening period for the Catholic Church, not all of them positive stories, but the story of the Negros Nine should not be forgotten and for all the right reasons.

I was a young reporter in RTE (Ireland’s National Radio and TV Station) when the story broke. Two Columban missionary priests, one secular priest, and the six lay leaders had been arrested and charged with the murder of a local Mayor on the island of Negros in the Philippines. I can vividly recall Niall O’Brien being interviewed on RTE Radio from his prison-cell in a place called Bacolod, telling how he and his two fellow priests, Australian, Brian Gore and secular priest Vicente Dangan, along with six lay leaders, were facing a possible death sentence on a trumped-up charge.

In essence this was a simple story of priests siding with the local sugar-workers on the island of Negros, helping them in their struggle to get better conditions. For their efforts, they were framed with the murder of the Mayor of Kabankalan, Pablito Sola. Even though the Mayor had been killed by members of a rebel group called the New Peoples Army, it suited the local ‘sugar barons’ to accuse them of the murder.

The background to the story was simple. Since the mid-sixties the dictator Ferdinand Marcos had ruled the Philippines. From 1972 to 1981 the country was under martial law. In 1981 over one million people flocked to Bacolod for the visit of Pope John Paul II. He was unambiguous in his description of what was happening in the country at the time. “Injustice reigns when the laws of economic growth and ever greater profit determine social relations, leaving in poverty and destitution those who have only the work of their hands to offer”. The local Bishop Antonio Fortich summed up the situation in Negros. “We are sitting on a social volcano which could erupt at any time”.

So it was against this backdrop that the case of the ‘Negros Nine’ came to such international prominence. On the evening that the news broke, I was told by my boss, a genial Kerryman Rory O’Connor, that I was going to the Philippines. I hadn’t a clue in what part of the world it was. Within twenty-four hours I arrived in Manila where the airport was ringed with tanks and armed soldiers. Then it was on to Bacolod City on the island of Negros. There I encountered a remarkable group of people, Niall O’Brien and his eight fellow inmates in Cell 8 in the Bacolod Provincial Jail.

It was like stepping back in time. What I imagined prison to have been maybe a hundred years earlier. Once you had been allowed to enter through the outer gate into what I described at the time as a stockade, families were cooking food on open fires for their relatives who were locked up in the inner part of the prison. It was a scene and a place that I became very familiar with over a period of about four months. In total I spent almost nine weeks over three separate visits to Negros.

The trial of the Negros Nine was a complete sham. In the end it was international pressure on the Marcos dictatorship, which resulted in a formula to bring the whole affair to an end. President Ronald Reagan was due on a visit to Ireland. The Marcos regime was clearly sensitive to the pressure coming from the United States and Australia. But that was not the only pressure. Tens of thousands of ordinary people wrote letters and campaigned tirelessly for their release. I can vividly recall sitting in that prison cell on St Patrick’s Day 1984 with Niall as he sifted through the thousands of cards he had received, from all over Ireland, Britain and Australia.

In the end, a deal to end the sham trial was agreed. It resulted in the case being dropped and the innocence and safety of the Negros Nine guaranteed, but on condition: that the two priests, Niall O’Brien and Brian Gore would leave the Philippines.

It was a difficult decision for the two priests but, as Niall O’Brien said, their “banishment” was a price they had to pay for the safety of their Filipino co-accused. On the 3rd of July 1984 Niall O’Brien and the others left jail, and a few days later he arrived home in Dublin to a hero’s welcome. Both Niall and Brian Gore returned to the Philippines under a post-Marcos regime. Brian still works there but, sadly, Niall died on 7 April 2004, while undergoing treatment for a rare blood disease.

For my own part as a correspondent for RTE, travelling in many strange and troubled parts of the world over the years, I have come across many Irish missionary priests and nuns doing remarkable work, standing up for the oppressed and disadvantaged. Just like he ‘Negros Nine’ long may that tradition continue.

Charlie Bird is a journalist and broadcaster, formerly Chief News Correspondent for RTE.

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