Why the State and church feared acting against priest
Fears over a huge escalation of sectarian warfare ensured that the authorities chose |not to take any action against Father James Chesney, writes Malachi O’Doherty
When Secretary of State William Whitelaw met Cardinal Conway to discuss James Chesney, the bomber priest, an appalling prospect loomed before them.
It was that the public disclosure that a Catholic priest was an IRA bomber would confirm the prejudices of loyalism against the Catholic Church and make all priests legitimate targets.
Chesney was a nasty piece of work, in the view of both the police and the church. He had directed the bombing of the village of Claudy on the day of Operation Motorman, when the Army moved against the no go areas. He had killed nine people, three of them children. And he had shown himself up as an incompetent.
He had not, presumably, wanted to kill children, but the bombers looked around after they'd left the bomb to find a working phone to make a warning call. They couldn't find one because the IRA had bombed the exchange the day before.
Neither police, nor government, nor the Catholic Church was ready for radical action against Chesney.
The police asked the NIO to talk to the cardinal, and Cardinal Conway transferred Chesney to a parish in Donegal, where he might continue to lead the faithful in prayer and administer the sacraments to them.
It was the only solution any of them had the stomach for in those dangerous times, though the Chief Constable, Graham Shillington, aired the view that it would have been better if Chesney had been sent to Tipperary. Donegal was hardly out of range of the IRA command structure.
The potential that they all had reason to fear was of a massive escalation of sectarian warfare, triggered by the disclosure that a priest was a suspected IRA killer, and this at just the moment when it seemed as if the mayhem was coming under control and political negotiations were starting.
This fear may never have been realised, of course. Loyalists often talked as if they believed that the Catholic Church was their enemy but they did not conduct their backlash against the Catholic community primarily on that premise.
Some priests had been killed, but not by loyalist paramilitaries. Two were shot by the Army, by soldiers who perhaps had no idea that their targets were clergymen.
But loyalist rhetoric said that the church was the enemy and Chesney might have appeared to many as embodied proof of that.
Rev Martin Smyth, later a Grand Master of the Orange Order, is reported as having told an Ulster Vanguard rally in spring
of 1972, that all the Troubles would come to an end if the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, would put his house in order. An absurd notion.
And the greatest champion of the idea that the Catholic Church was conspiring to absorb Ulster into a Catholic Ireland was the firebrand preacher Ian Paisley, later to be our First Minister.
There have been reports and rumours of other priests aligning themselves with the IRA.
The novelist Brian Moore painted a plausible picture of an unctuous Provo priest in Lies Of Silence.
Sean O Callaghan, the police agent inside the IRA, wrote of meeting a priest who helped IRA operations in the North, and there was a widely believed understanding that IRA activists in the early days, when terrorist leaders were religious men and women, would receive confession and communion before going to shoot people.
There have been priest activists and agitators and rumours of other real Provo priests, but the tricky line that campaigning priests like Des Wilson, Raymond Murray and Denis Faul trod was in opposing the methods of the state without endorsing the IRA.
Fr Wilson pointedly repeatedly refused to condemn the IRA, while criticising the actions of the Army and blaming the state for creating circumstances in which people would understandably express their wrath with violence.
Raymond Murray, when in Armagh, was a campaigner against the SAS and had documented, along with Denis Faul, numerous cases of attacks on republicans.
Denis Faul himself was a long-time campaigner for prisoners and argued the eccentric case that easing life for those inside would reduce tension on the streets. He fell out with the Provisionals over the hunger strikes campaign, which he believed was prolonged for Sinn Fein political advantage.
None has been the headache than James Chesney was. It is now clear that the police, the Secretary of State and the Catholic Church authorities believed that he was, in Cardinal Conway's words, “a very bad man”.
The compromise that the Cardinal and William Whitelaw reached was that Chesney be posted to Donegal. This is the same strategy the church used until recently in removing the embarrassment of a priest caught sexually violating children.
The outstanding injustice is that Chesney was never charged, Claudy victims were denied truth and Chesney himself never given a chance to clear his name.
But what is almost grisly too contemplate is that this man, whom the Cardinal accepted was a mass murderer, a slayer of little ones, was sent to a Donegal parish to hear children’s confessions and mediate God's forgiveness to them for their own peccadilloes.
The Ombudsman indicts the RUC of collusion in seeking to address the Chesney problem through the Government and the church rather than arresting him.
One of the shocking findings of the report is that it was the police themselves who initiated the process by which this suspect was transferred across the border.
The Ombudsman gets the point that there might have been serious consequences after the arrest of a priest. He doesn't spell them out.
The first is probably that the loyalists would have turned on the Catholic Church.
Another is that a campaign might have rallied around Chesney, seeking to portray him as an innocent victim of an anti-Catholic state.
Whitelaw would have worried that, just having taken over from Stormont to rule Northern Ireland in a conspicuously non-sectarian fashion, he would have been branded as having failed to curtail bigotry in the RUC.
And with the SDLP being gently coaxed towards talks at Darlington and Sunningdale, Whitelaw may have feared that the arrest of a priest would have raised a popular issue that would have mobilised opinion against its participation, especially if Chesney had been interned, an option at the time.
The RUC, of course, may have judged that interning Chesney or charging him and then seeing him acquitted would have done worse damage than merely ushering him away.
They may even have been just at the end of their tether in the face of the charge that they were a sectarian force and lost all hope of being able to pursue a case like this and be trusted to be acting from good motives.
They hadn't the credibility in the Catholic community to carry it off; it is probably as simple as that.