'Families need to know how far up the conspiracy of silence went'
Published 25/08/2010 | 05:00
IT was on the last day of the worst month of the worst year of the Troubles, when it looked as though the conflict could escalate out of all control, that the bombs exploded in the Co Derry village.
The three IRA devices went off in Claudy on July 31, 1972, bringing the overall death toll for that month to almost 100.
The carnage was terrible, with eight grown-ups and a little girl killed.
An official report published yesterday confirmed how the incident posed a profound moral and political dilemma for the Conservative government of the day in Britain.
Within days, there was strong intelligence that one of the IRA bombers was a Catholic priest, Fr James Chesney, who was in fact the local republican quartermaster (in charge of weapons) and "director of operations".
William Whitelaw, then Northern Ireland secretary and later deputy prime minister, decided in consultation with the Catholic Church that the priest should not be arrested but instead be discreetly transferred across the Border.
The present Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen Paterson, said yesterday that he was profoundly sorry that 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".
Mr Paterson spoke of the tensions of the time, saying: "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 Catholic Bishop of Derry, Seamus Hegarty, said he was "shocked and ashamed" that a priest would have been associated with the attack, although the church insisted it had not been party to a cover-up.
The Police Ombudsman, Al Hutchinson, reported that he had found no evidence of criminal intent by anyone in the British government or the Catholic Church. However, he added that he had unearthed collusion.
The Ombudsman described the decision not to pursue the priest as "wrong and contrary to a fundamental duty of police to investigate those suspected of criminality".
The two who arranged the deal were William Whitelaw and the then head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal William Conway.
Both are now dead, but the Ombudsman recovered material from their files and diaries.
The exact thought processes of the two men remain unknown, but the signs are that they quickly agreed that Fr Chesney should be transferred out of Northern Ireland.
In church terms, there were many precedents for moving priests, as has been seen in its reactions to various child-abuse scandals.
In addition, in the months before Claudy, extreme loyalists had begun to kill Catholics in large numbers. The emergence of an active IRA priest could quite possibly encouraged the assassins. The cardinal might also have feared that clergymen would be targeted.
From the British government's point of view, it was then immersed in attempts to persuade Catholics and Protestants to co-operate in a new partnership government. The idea that a priest was a terrorist involved in multiple murders would have made this far more difficult.
Even the arrest of a priest could have caused uproar, since many Catholics would have found it impossible to believe that he could be a bomber.
The cardinal seems to have been convinced to move the priest 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 tete-a-tete". He also reported that in interviews with churchmen Fr Chesney had strenuously denied any involvement in the IRA.
The documentation shows 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, 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."
The families of those killed were generally unimpressed by the 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 British government.
"An apology, yes, but more than an apology I would like to see somebody brought to justice for this," he 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 that had to sit up there today and listen to that about their own church. I feel they've been let down by their church."
The church was also criticised by the outgoing Ulster Unionist party leader Reg Empey, who described its response as "entirely inadequate".
He added: "In particular, the absence of an apology to the victims of Claudy falls very far short of what should be expected of church leaders."