Police ombudsman confirms Claudy bombings collusion

 

Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsman said in a report today the RUC, the British government and the Catholic Church protected a Catholic priest allegedly involved in the 1972 IRA Claudy bombings.

Al Hutchinson’s report, released today, endorses the allegation that at the time the RUC had high-level intelligence that Father James Chesney was a senior figure in the IRA gang that planted three bombs in the Co Derry village on July 31st, 1972.

Nine people – five Catholics and four Protestants – died and 30 were injured after the no-warning car bombs exploded along the main street of Claudy. Three of the victims were children.

The damning collusion verdict was directed at the police over how senior RUC officers sought the assistance of the Northern Ireland Office and former northern secretary William Whitelaw, who then spoke to the Catholic primate Cardinal Conway about the belief that Fr Chesney was one of the Claudy bombers.

This series of events “compromised the investigation of the Claudy bombing; failed those who were murdered and injured; and undermined the police officers who were investigating the atrocity", he said.

"In the absence of explanation the actions of the senior RUC officers, in seeking and accepting the government's assistance in dealing with the problem of Father Chesney's alleged wrongdoing , was by definition a collusive act," he said in Claudy today.

Mr Hutchinson briefed the bereaved and the surviving injured in Claudy this morning on his findings about the three no warning car bomb explosions that wreaked devastation in the Derry village on July 31st 1972.

The ombudsman made clear that at very senior levels the RUC, the British government and the Catholic Church were aware of Fr Chesney's alleged involvement, yet he was never arrested or questioned. Instead, the priest was transferred to a parish in Donegal at the apparent behest of Dr Conway.

He was never again appointed to a parish in Northern Ireland. The report says he regularly travelled across the Border but was never arrested, questioned or further investigated by the RUC in connection with the Claudy bombings or other terrorist activity. He died in 1980 aged 46.

Even after his transferral to Co Donegal, there was intelligence that Fr Chesney continued IRA activities in 1973 and for an unspecified time thereafter, Mr Hutchinson said.

He also reported how Fr Chesney provided an alibi for a prime suspect - known as Man A - who was arrested a week after the bombing. Fr Chesney and another person corroborated that Man A "had been at Bellaghy parochial house with a close relative and Fr Chesney" on the morning of the bombings.

Mr Huchinson detailed how Fr Chesney was the "quartermaster and director of operations of the South Derry Provisional IRA" at the time of the Claudy bombings and that he had been involved in other IRA attacks.

Investigators found "that following the bombing police held extensive intelligence and other material, which they received from a variety of sources, from which they concluded that the priest was the IRA's director of operations in South Derry and was alleged to have been directly involved in the bombings and other terrorist incidents”.

“This intelligence picture should have led police to pursue further investigative opportunities, which could either have implicated the priest in the bombings or eliminated him from their enquiry,” Mr Hutchinson said.

His investigators also spoke to a "former special branch detective, who said that he had wanted to arrest Fr Chesney in the months after the bombing but that this had been refused by the assistant chief constable special branch , who had advised that 'matters are in hand'".

Mr Hutchinson's team also examined correspondence, in which the unnamed assistant chief constable wrote to the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) on November 30th 1972 saying that he had been considering "what action, if any, could be taken to render harmless a dangerous priest, Father Chesney.”

The letter also suggested that "our masters may find it possible to bring the subject into any conversations they may be having with the Cardinal or Bishops at some future date."

The following month, an NIO official responded that Mr Whitelaw met Cardinal Conway on December 5th "and gave him a full account of his disgust at Chesney's behaviour. The Cardinal said that he knew that the priest was a very bad man and would see what could be done".

The official also reported that “the Cardinal mentioned the possibility of transferring him to Donegal”.

This correspondence was also circulated to a number of senior police officers, including the then chief constable, Sir Graham Shillington. In response to this memo, Sir Graham noted: “I would prefer a transfer to Tipperary.”

Catholic Church records indicated that when questioned by his superiors, Fr Chesney denied involvement in terrorist activity. But, said Mr Hutchinson, his denials were never tested by the police.

Mr Hutchinson said that his investigation found no evidence of criminal intent on the part of any Government minister or official or on the part of any official of the Catholic Church. He said the "collusive act" was initiated by the RUC.

Mr Hutchinson said that he accepted that the decisions about Fr Chesney must be considered in the context of the time. "I accept that 1972 was one of the worst years of the Troubles and that the arrest of a priest might well have aggravated the security situation. Equally, I consider that the police failure to investigate someone they suspected of involvement in acts of terrorism could, in itself, have had serious consequences," he said.

"The morality or 'rightness' of the decision taken by the government and the Catholic Church in agreeing to the RUC request is another matter entirely and requires further public debate. Placing this information in the public domain in a transparent manner enables that debate to take place,” he said.

"I am satisfied that the same situation would not be repeated today. Rigorous procedural laws, checks and balances, media scrutiny and offices such as that of the Police Ombudsman would ensure that similar actions could not occur without proper accountability."

Northern Secretary Owen Paterson said that the British government was "profoundly sorry" that Fr Chesney had not been properly investigated.

In a joint statement this afternoon, the Catholic Primate of All-Ireland Cardinal Seán Brady and the Bishop of Derry Dr Séamus Hegarty acknowledged that the Claudy bombing was an “appalling crime”.

They said they accepted the report's findings but denied the Church was involved in a cover-up.

“As the Ombudsman finds in his statement today, the Church was approached by the secretary of state at the instigation of senior members of the RUC. Furthermore, the Church subsequently reported back to the secretary of state the outcome of its questioning of Fr Chesney into his alleged activities,” they said.

“The actions of Cardinal Conway or any other Church authority did not prevent the possibility of future arrest and questioning of Fr Chesney.”

Dr Brady later said the incident put the church in an impossible situation and that he could not from a distance judge if the church had handled the matter correctly. In an interview with RTÉ Radio, he said such an incident would almost certainly be handled differently now.

The Bishop of Derry, Dr Seamus Hegarty, who was in Claudy today, told The Irish Times he was "ashamed and angry" that a priest could have been involved in the Claudy bombing.

What he had allegedly done went against everything the Church stood for, he said. But Dr Hegarty also queried why, if the RUC had such intelligence, they did not arrest Fr Chesney at the time.

Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson said the British government was “profoundly sorry” that Fr Chesney’s role in the bombings was not properly investigated and that the victims and their families had been denied justice. “My anger at the actions of those responsible for the attack is matched in strength by my sorrow that the survivors of the atrocity and the relatives of the dead did not see those responsible brought to justice for their crimes," he said.