A FORMER senior SDLP figure said yesterday that he was "absolutely convinced" that a Catholic priest played a central role in one of the North's worst bombing atrocities.
Ivan Cooper, a former MP and one of the founding members of the nationalist party, as well as a former Minister for Community Relations in the Northern Ireland power sharing Assembly, claimed that the late Fr James Chesney was a member of a nine-strong Provisional IRA unit which planted three car bombs in the village of Claudy, Co Derry, in 1972, killing nine people.
Mr Cooper, a native of Claudy, was MP for Mid Derry at the time of the killings which became known as Bloody Monday.
Following allegations reported this week in the Belfast Newsletter that Fr Chesney was OC of the IRA's South Derry brigade, the unit believed responsible for carrying out the attack, Mr Cooper said he'd known for over 20 years of Fr Chesney's alleged involvement.
Mr Cooper said his information had come from contacts he had with republican sources.
He added that it was his personal belief that the priest, whom he knew, did not intend to murder anyone on the day of the explosions.
The priest, who died in 1980, was never questioned by the police about his alleged involvement in the IRA operation.
He was, however, questioned by the then Bishop of Derry, Dr Neil Farren, and by retired Bishop of Derry, Dr Edward Daly, about the claims.
In his recently published autobiography, Bishop Daly said he interviewed Fr Chesney twice about the claims and that on both occasions the priest "vehemently denied the allegations".
Yesterday, however, Mr Cooper claimed that both the Catholic Church and the police have known for several years the identities of those responsible for the Claudy bombings.
"At that time my ear was very close to the ground," said Mr Cooper.
"I learned that Fr James Chesney had been a member of the unit which actually carried out the bombings and I also believe that he held rank in the South Derry unit of the Provisional IRA, which carried out the operation.
"I have no doubt about that whatsoever.
"It's time now for the Provisional IRA to acknowledge that they carried out that heinous atrocity.
"I know it's a very serious thing to say that a priest played a pivotal role in one of the North's worst atrocities, but I carefully checked out my facts and I am aware of the seriousness of the allegation I am making. I have never before stated in public my knowledge that Fr Chesney was involved.
"But I had to answer the question when it was put to me and I had to answer it honestly.
"I am not irresponsible on this one and I am not flying kites. I knew the people who died that day, they were my kith and kin, it was my home village.
"I very seriously investigated the Claudy bombings and I spoke to a number of republican sources.
"My information emanated from senior republican sources and I have absolutely no doubt in my mind whatsoever that what I am saying is the truth and I stand over every single word of what I am saying about Fr Chesney and about his role in the bombings.
Mr Cooper added: "I also believe that the police are well aware of the names of all of the nine people involved, I believe the Catholic Church was well aware of the identities of the people involved, but I do not believe that the Church was involved in a massive conspiracy to cover up Fr Chesney's involvement.
"I don't retract a single word. Having said that, although he held republican views I don't think Jim Chesney was the type of individual who set out to murder so many people on that day."