Ruth Dudley Edwards: The context was frightening but church collusion was still wrong
The church must make a full confession about its part in the Fr James Chesney case, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards
First, let's look at the extenuating circumstances: those colluding in protecting Fr James Chesney from interrogation over the Claudy murders were genuinely terrified that the arrest of a priest might unleash murderous rage against the innocent, from loyalist and republican paramilitaries alike.
1972 was a terrible year in Northern Ireland. There were 497 Troubles-related killings (including 259 civilians, 134 soldiers, 74 republican and 11 loyalist paramilitaries, and 17 police). The Claudy deaths on July 31 (nine people ranging in age from eight to 65) were the last of a particularly terrible month. Just under 100 died that July. Loyalist paramilitaries shot 22 civilians and republicans killed 16 civilians, 14 soldiers and a policeman. Soldiers shot 10 republican paramilitaries, and nine civilians and others had died in the cross-fire or at unknown hands. And then there was Bloody Friday, 10 days before Claudy, when the IRA detonated 20 bombs in 75 minutes all around Belfast, killing nine -- six civilians, two soldiers and a policeman, and injuring 130 (mostly shoppers).
After they'd cleaned up Claudy, the RUC believed they knew two of the perpetrators: the person the Ombudsman identified as Man A, and Fr Chesney, who, along with a close relation of A's, had given A an alibi. Special Branch had intelligence that Chesney was the quartermaster and director of operations of the brutal South Derry IRA and that, with Man A, he'd been involved in other terrorist incidents. In September, he was thought to have helped Man A (who later left the country) to evade arrest.