On 31st July 1972 three car bombs exploded in the village of Claudy. The first bomb to go off killed six people, including eight-year-old Kathryn Eakin, 15-year-old Joseph Connolly and 59-year-old Elizabeth McElhinney, graphically illustrating the contempt of the bombers for age or sex.
In total nine people (five Roman Catholics and four Protestants) were murdered by the terrorists who planted the bombs that morning. Many others were injured.
We have now learned that the police were suspending their investigation into this IRA atrocity unless new information came to light.
Given the wealth of evidence uncovered by the Police Ombudsman report into Claudy in 2010 this beggars belief. Al Hutchinson’s report raised disturbing questions about a cover-up by the Government, the RUC and the Roman Catholic Church.
Inquest papers examined by the Ombudsman found that a distinctive car which had been travelling from Claudy on the morning of the bombings stopped at Feeny and a passenger got out to use a telephone box which was later found to be out of order.
The car was then driven to Dungiven where two men got out and went into separate shops. As there had been damage to the telephone exchange due to an earlier attack the phones were not working and shop assistants were asked to tell police in Dungiven that there were three bombs in Claudy. By the time police in Claudy received this information the first bomb had already exploded.
In August 1972 the colour and style of the car was not common in Northern Ireland and a man who owned a similar car, referred to in the Ombudsman’s report as Man A, was arrested on suspicion of involvement in Claudy.
During interview he denied involvement and claimed that on the morning of the bombings he was at Bellaghy Parochial House with a close relative and James Chesney.
Chesney supported this alibi and Man A was released. The Ombudsman established, from a document dated August 1972, that police believed Man A’s alibi had been prepared in advance and that the priest was involved in the bombing.
Intelligence from August 1972 identified Chesney as the quarter master and director of operations of the IRA in south Londonderry. This lead a police officer, in November 1972, to write to the NIO saying:
"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."
The letter was circulated to senior police officers, including the Chief Constable, Sir Graham Shillington. Next to his initials dated 11 December 1972 a note attached to the document read: “Seen. I would prefer a transfer to Tipperary”.
The Ombudsman was able to establish by Roman Catholic Church records that Cardinal William Conway met the Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, on 5 December 1972.
In January 1973 a Detective Inspector at Special Branch Coleraine, said that Chesney was a ‘particularly active officer of the Provisional I.R.A’ and had been implicated in ‘most of the bombings and murders in County Derry’ during the preceding twelve months, including the bombing of Claudy.
He continued: "We, here, would be only too happy, were he to be made amenable for this activity, but before we take on ourselves to arrest a Clergy-man for interrogation under the C.A.S.P. (Special Powers)Act we would need to be prepared to face unprecedented pressure. Having regard to what this man has done I myself would be prepared to meet this challenge head on."
There was no response from Police HQ to the letter. An entry dated Sunday 4 February 1973 in Cardinal Conway’s diary mentions another meeting with the Secretary of State:
"I began by referring to a certain person about whom he had spoken to me. I said I had spoken to his Superior who had challenged him and he strenuously denied the charge. The Superior had also got a colleague to speak to him alone in the hope that he might confide in him, but here also he had strenuously denied. The most he was prepared to admit was that he had transported some people and this might explain the traces in the boot of the car. I told him how I had come to know of this before he spoke to me. The Superior however had given him orders to stay where he was on sick leave until further notice. He seemed pleased with this".
The Ombudsman was unable to say who the Cardinal was referring to as Chesney’s ‘Superior’.
Chesney was moved to the Republic of Ireland. He was never questioned about Claudy or any other IRA action and died in 1980.
In 2002, Martin McGuinness issued a statement to BBC Spotlight, saying: "I have never met Father Chesney, nor do I have any knowledge of him other than from media reports."
But in 2010, following the Ombudsman’s report, McGuinness was asked again about Chesney and responded and said he had met the priest on his death bed.
Huthinson found that the actions of senior RUC officers in seeking and accepting the Government’s assistance in dealing with Chesney had compromised the investigation and the decision had “failed those who were murdered, injured or bereaved”.
Now the PSNI have told us their investigation is suspended the families of those murdered and those injured and bereaved deserve to know how far the police went in their investigation into the activates of state, police and the Church in the cover-up of one of the most disgraceful episodes in the history of our Province.