Belfast Telegraph

Claudy bombing: Church and state colluded to free 'Provo bomber priest'

By David McKittrick

It was on the last day of the worst month of the worst year of the Troubles that three IRA bombs exploded in the village of Claudy, Co Londonderry.

The carnage was terrible: nine people, including a little girl, were killed, bringing the overall death toll in Northern Ireland for July 1972 alone to almost one hundred. To many, it looked as if the conflict would escalate out of all control.



Yesterday an official report confirmed that the police, the British government and Catholic Church conspired to protect the prime suspect: a Catholic priest. But it also revealed the profound moral and political dilemma which faced all those involved: the arrest of a Catholic clergyman would likely have inflamed an already dire political and security situation, but the failure to apprehend him risked hampering the search for justice for those who were killed.



Within days of the attacks, there was strong intelligence that one of the bombers was Fr James Chesney, the local republican quartermaster and "director of operations." William Whitelaw, then the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, decided in consultation with the Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal William Conway, that the priest should not be arrested but instead discreetly transferred across the border into the Republic.



The present Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, said yesterday he was profoundly sorry Fr Chesney "was not properly investigated for his suspected involvement in this hideous crime, and that the victims and their families have been denied justice". But he added: "I recognise of course that all those involved in combating terrorism at the time were making decisions in exceptionally difficult circumstances and under extreme pressure."



The Bishop of Derry, Seamus Hegarty said yesterday he was "shocked and ashamed" that a priest would have been associated with the bomb attack, though the church insisted it had not been party to a cover-up.



The Police Ombudsman, Al Hutchinson, reported he had found no evidence of criminal intent by anyone in the government or the church, but added that he had unearthed collusion. He said the decision not to pursue the priest was "wrong and contrary to a fundamental duty of police to investigate those suspected of criminality".

Click here to download full report (pdf 2.45mb)

Mr Whitelaw and Cardinal Conway are both dead but the Ombudsman recovered material from their files and diaries. While their exact thought processes remain unknown, the signs are they quickly agreed that Fr Chesney should be transferred.



There were many ecclesiastical precedents for moving priests – as has been seen in its reactions to various child-abuse scandals. In addition, in the months before Claudy, loyalists had begun to kill Catholics in large numbers. The emergence of an active IRA priest could quite possibly have encouraged them to kill clergy.



From the government's point of view, the idea a priest was an active terrorist would have made far more difficult its attempts to persuade Catholics and Protestants to co-operate in a new partnership government. Furthermore, the arrest of a priest could have caused uproar, since many Catholics would have found it impossible to believe he could be a bomber.



A sense of the tensions of the time was given in the memoirs of the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath, when he wrote: "I feared that we might for the first time be on the threshold of complete anarchy."



The Cardinal seems to have been persuaded by a file shown to him by Mr Whitelaw which referred to Fr Chesney's involvement in Claudy and other acts of terrorism. According to an official document, the Cardinal said "that he knew the priest was a very bad man". In his diary, the Cardinal described the meeting as a "rather disturbing tête-à-tête". He also reported that in interviews with churchmen, Fr Chesney had strenuously denied any involvement in the IRA. Some state documentation showed that some individual police officers pushed for him to be arrested, even at the cost of causing a major stir.



One Special Branch detective inspector wrote in a memo: "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." When the Northern Ireland Office wrote to the then Chief Constable, Sir Graham Shillington, saying it was proposed to shift Fr Chesney to Donegal, he went along with the idea, noting: "Seen. I would prefer transfer to Tipperary." By this he meant he would prefer Fr Chesney to be moved further away from Northern Ireland than Donegal, which is on the border.



Relatives of those killed were unimpressed by yesterday's report. Mark Eakin, who was blown off his feet in the blast that killed his eight-year-old sister, Kathryn, said he wanted an apology from the Government.



"An apology, yes, but... I would like to see somebody brought to justice for this," Mr Eakin said. "The families need to know how far up the conspiracy went." Mr Eakin, a Protestant, added: "I just feel so sorry for some of the Catholic people. I feel they've been let down by their church."



FORGOTTEN ATROCITY OF THE TROUBLES

The triple car bomb attack that ripped the heart out of the quiet rural village of Claudy has been described as one of the forgotten atrocities of the Northern Ireland Troubles.

Launched on the same day 12,000 British troops entered republican no-go areas in Belfast and Londonderry in a bid to regain control, the outrage was not even the lead item on some news bulletins.

As the military operation dubbed Motorman continued 11 miles away in Londonderry's bogside, the first device exploded without warning outside McElhinney's shop and bar on Main Street.

Police believe the bombers attempted to telephone a warning from nearby Dungiven but the lines were down as the result of past bomb damage to the phone exchange.

They then told Dungiven shop owners that three bombs were planted in the village, but the proprietors were also unable to contact the authorities due to the line problems.

One shop owner rushed to Dungiven police station with the warning but it was too late.

Minutes after the first bomb went off, killing three and fatally wounding three others, police officers discovered a second device in a van beside the post office.

They frantically evacuated people towards the Beaufort Hotel, but little did they know that a third bomb had been concealed in another van outside the hotel.

Soon after the second bomb detonated, the third exploded, killing three more.

The IRA denied responsibility for the murders, with the leadership claiming an internal "court of inquiry" indicated that its local unit did not carry it out.

But this account was long doubted, with many believing the republicans were unwilling to own up to an operation they viewed as botched due to the phone warnings not going through.

Rumours soon circulated that young curate Father Jim Chesney was involved. A flamboyant character, he was already suspected of being an IRA sympathiser.

Moved to another parish in Donegal, he died of cancer in 1980 having never been questioned by police.

At the Claudy bomb inquest, a coroner described the outrage as "sheer, unadulterated, cold, calculated, fiendish murder". Later poet James Simmons described the moment of the attack in his work, Claudy.

"An explosion too loud for your eardrums to bear, and young children squealing like pigs in the square, and all faces chalk-white and streaked with bright red, and the glass and the dust and the terrible dead."

BOMBED GOING ABOUT THEIR BUSINESS

Nine people were killed in the Claudy bombings. Young and old, five Roman Catholics and four Protestants - the attack did not discriminate.

  • Patrick Connolly, 15, Catholic. The teenager died in hospital over a week after being caught up in the first blast outside McElhinney's pub and shop.
  • Kathryn Eakin, 9, Protestant. The young girl was cleaning the windows of the family's grocery shop on Main Street when the first bomb exploded.
  • Arthur Hone, 38, Catholic. The married father of two died a fortnight after the bombing. Two of his uncles - both priests - conducted a requiem mass at the insurance salesman's funeral.
  • Joseph McCloskey, 39, Catholic. The factory worker died instantly when the first bomb detonated.
  • Elizabeth McElhinney, 59, Catholic. The owner of the pub and shop where the first car bomb went off was serving petrol from the shop's pump when she was killed.
  • James McClelland, 65, Protestant. The street cleaner was killed by the third and final bomb contained in a mini van.
  • Rose McLaughlin, 52, Catholic. The mother of eight and cafe owner died in hospital four days after the outrage.
  • David Miller, 60, Protestant. The street cleaner was killed by the third blast.
  • William Temple, 16, Protestant. The milkman's helper from nearby Donemana in Co Tyrone was on his round in the village when the bombs went off.

Belfast Telegraph

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