Claims of collusion between Church and state to cover up the suspected role of a priest in the Claudy bombing are no surprise, argues Eamonn McCann
The immediate concerns of the major players won’t have been decisive in the cover-up of Father Chesney’s role in the Claudy atrocity.
A long standing mutual understanding between Church and state provides a vital element of the background.
The Church — ironically, perhaps, in the circumstances of Claudy — had been a force for moderation within the Catholic community since the inception of the state, always available to condemn violence from the pulpit and to discourage the involvement of young Catholics in the IRA.
Chesney’s role in a campaign of shooting and bombing wasn’t typical but a distinct aberration.
Secretary of State William Whitelaw, one assumes, will have had this in mind, at least in general terms, when he connived in the decision to let Chesney go.
In return for doing its best to keep the resentments of its followers in check, the Church was handed control of the education of Catholic children and access to successive Unionist Governments to explain and assert its views.
Catholics may have been excluded and discriminated against — but not the Catholic Church.
The instinct of the Church hierarchy to secrete Chesney away from the authorities conformed to traditional practice, too.
We now know the extent of the cover-up of clerical child sex abuse over the decades and that transferring accused priests to other parishes was one of the standard methods of thwarting justice in such cases.
This didn’t happen because Church authorities took a uniquely lenient view of these particular crimes.
Fundamentally, the reason was that the Church sees itself as the embodiment of God on earth: the law of the Church, logically, then, regarded the law and interests of the Church as superior to the law of the land. As Pope Benedict XVI has suggested in recent times, scandalising the Church is a greater sin than the cause of the scandal. If a raped child, why not Kathryn Eakin?
In the Republic, the collusion by state officials, including some at a very high level, in aiding and abetting the Church in the enterprise, is by now well known.
We are very likely to find when the archives are finally opened in this jurisdiction that practice in Northern Ireland, if not as commonplace or enthusiastic, was little different in practice and not at all in principle.
Both sides had form in this matter long before the bomb that shattered Claudy. This is not to deny that the immediate circumstances made collusion all the more likely. As has been heard a hundred times since lunchtime yesterday, the circumstances were more fraught than at any juncture in the Troubles.
Bloody Sunday had happened earlier the same year. The Widgery report had been published in April. The anger of the Catholic people was seething.
The arrest of Chesney would have led to bitter comment on the contrast between the Paras being allowed to escape scot-free and the priest being taken into custody. In those circumstances, the ability of the Church to hold back the tide would have been seriously compromised, if not undermined entirely.
For all of these reasons, allowing Chesney to scarper must have made sense to all the powerful institutions involved on both sides. As well, of course, collusion by the state in covering up serious crime related to the Troubles should come as no surprise.
The active role of MI5 and the Force Reaction Unit in the UDA killing spree, in which the solicitor Pat Finucane was among the victims, is well established and was known of at senior level within the security services: it is difficult to believe that the civil authorities at a high level had not been briefed by their military equivalents.
The Mount Vernon UVF comes also to mind.
It is not that any of these cases conform to the detail of the Claudy cover-up, but that the idea of the perceived interests of the state taking precedence over truth and justice and the rights of bereaved families appears, on the face of it, to be by no means out of character.
Nor is this practice a Northern Ireland phenomenon.
The manoeuvres of Western political and military establishments in seeking allies among insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the process ignoring incidents in which numbers of their own military personnel will have perished, has been the stuff of scores of journalistic and leaked military reports. It is not possible to believe that the same pragmatic approach, ignoring the requirements of legality and convention, was not, on occasion, applied in Northern Ireland.
Thus, although the facts which have now emerged may be shocking, and deeply distressing to the McCloskey, Eakin, Miller, McClelland, Temple, Connolly, McElhinney, McLaughlin and Hone families, none of it should surprise us.