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Don’t blame the police chief for the priest who got away

Respected, pleasant but ineffectual. With these words, Field Marshal Lord Carver dismissed Sir Graham Shillington, RUC Chief Constable at the time of the Claudy atrocity in 1972.

Elsewhere in his memoirs, he recalled proposing that a "non-Irish deputy should be introduced as heir-apparent to Graham Shillington, who ought to retire soon".

Who was Graham Shillington? And was Michael Carver right in his assessment of him?

Born in 1911, Graham Shillington graduated from Cambridge and, in 1933, joined the RUC as an officer cadet at the depot in Newtownards.

He became Deputy Inspector General to Anthony Peacocke in early 1969. When rioting broke out in Londonderry at the end of the Apprentice Boys' march on August 12, Shillington went to assess the situation on the ground and told Peacocke Army intervention was needed. Peacocke refused. Another 24 hours passed before the Army was called in.

Had Shillington's advice been taken, the shape of the next 40 years might have been quite different. In the wake of these disturbances, Peacocke was replaced by Sir Arthur Young, Commissioner of the City of London Police. Shillington remained as deputy.

Young left in November 1970 and Shillington succeeded him to a chorus of disapproval from nationalists who held against him the fact that his father had been a Unionist MP.

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But Graham Shillington was apolitical. A highly professional policeman, he took over at the most difficult time in the RUC's history.

Although still an unarmed force, .38 Webley revolvers were issued to officers and new weapons were ordered. Body armour was provided, but officers remained vulnerable to bomb or bullet and four men were murdered in January 1972, one an off-duty reservist.

All four deaths occurred before Bloody Sunday, after which the situation worsened and IRA membership increased. Such were the pressures of office that year that Shillington suffered a heart attack and his deputy, Jamie Flanagan, took over temporarily.

When Graham Shillington returned to duty, among the problems he faced was what to do about the involvement of a Catholic priest in the Claudy bombings.

Thirty-eight years later it is easy to say that not arresting the Rev James Chesney was wrong. At the time, however, those involved faced a situation that the Ombudsman cannot begin to imagine. Had a Catholic priest been arrested on suspicion of involvement in the Claudy outrage, how many more Catholics would have perished?

What would have been the outcome for the police? Accusations of sectarian bias would have boosted IRA recruiting with many more lives lost in consequence.

Chesney could certainly not have been interned, especially as Whitelaw was ending internment. For those faced with deciding what to do with this troublesome priest, exile must have seemed the best option. For Graham Shillington, Donegal wasn't far enough: he would have preferred Tipperary.

Was Lord Carver right about Shillington? One former senior officer disagreed. In his eyes, the Chief Constable was a "decent man, a good organiser" and someone "always prepared to listen". Quite simply, Sir Graham Shillington, who died in 2001, was a first-rate officer who cared for his force and its officers and who did much for that force in a very difficult time.

Richard Doherty is the author of The Thin Green Line: The History of the Royal Ulster Constabulary GC 1922-2001 (Leo Cooper, £25)

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