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The politician, the policeman and the priest

Wreckage after the Claudy bombing

Wreckage after the Claudy bombing

The report of the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman about the inquiry into the Claudy bombing of 1972 was published today. 9 people, including 3 children, died in the Claudy bombing, for which there was no warning.

The report details the collusion between the security forces, the government and the Catholic Church to maintain control of the situation.

The PDF of the report is now available from the RTÉ site. In a joint statement, Cardinal Seán Brady (Archbishop of Armagh) and Bishop Séamus Hegarty (Bishop of Derry, under which Claudy falls) accepted the findings of the of the investigation without admitting any cover-up.

Father James Chesney, suspect in the Claudy bombing

Father James Chesney, suspect in the Claudy bombing

The main suspect in this and other bombings seems to have been, and still is, Father James Chesney, believed to be the chief of operations in the South Derry area. Discussions took place between the leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal William Conway and the Northern Secretary William Whitelaw to decide what to do in this difficult situation:

The arrest of a priest in connection with such an emotive atrocity at a time when sectarian killings in Northern Ireland were out of control and the province stood on the brink of civil war was feared, by senior politicians, as likely to destabilise the security situation even further. A deal was therefore arranged behind closed doors to remove Fr. Chesney from the province without provoking sectarian fury.

A note to a police officer quoted in the report:

Many thanks for your note on Father Chesney. You will be relieved to hear that Secretary of State saw the Cardinal privately on 5 December and gave him a full account of his disgust at Chesney’s behaviour. The Cardinal said that he knew that the priest was a very bad man and would see what could be done. The Cardinal mentioned the possibility of transferring him to Donegal.

This document was passed to (among others) Sir Graham Shillington. He noted his preference for a transfer to Tipperary, presumably because it was so far away.

We now know what happened to other "very bad men" in the priesthood, rapists and other sex-offenders, shuffled around Ireland to keep things quiet and tidy. This is just another example of the Church's anti-democratic, anti-judicial and exceptionalist approach to civil society. The Catholic Church is incompatible with the secular state by virtue of the fact that it believes in the absolute truth of its own decrees.

In a lucid opinion piece for the BBC, Mark Simpson gives us another viewpoint. He considers the possible consequences if the RUC had brought Chesney in, arresting a clergyman in probably the worst year of the Troubles.

The sudden death of Fr Chesney in 1980 means he is not able to defend himself. The failure to arrest him meant he never got a chance to tell his side of the story. Although the police had a huge file of intelligence information linking him to terrorism, they did not seem to have much hard evidence. However, for most people in Claudy, Fr Chesney will be forever remembered as the priest who got away with murder.

This step outside the legal system left Chesney in limbo, never proven guilty or innocent, or given any chance to speak. A priest guilty of a terrorist bombing would have shaken and shocked Ireland, north and south, to such an extent that it was easier to just avoid the issue.

The current Northern Ireland Secretary told reporters that the British government was "profoundly sorry" that the priest's role in the bombings was not properly investigated and that justice had been denied to the victims and families.

Interesting questions

  1. Was the Irish State consulted on the plan to move Chesney south of the border?
  2. What was the response and who, if anyone, authorised the move?
  3. Did An Garda Síochána investigate Chesney at any stage?
  4. Would anything happen differently today?

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