Killings at Claudy
THE LIKELY involvement by a Catholic priest in the killing of nine innocent civilians in Claudy, Co Derry, as part of the Provisional IRA’s bombing campaign, represented an appalling moral, social and security prospect in 1972. The response by senior RUC officers, with the cooperation of the British government and members of the Catholic hierarchy, was to “render harmless a dangerous man” by having him transferred out of Northern Ireland.
Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland Al Hutchinson has concluded that senior RUC officers were “wrong” to have adopted this course of action and failed those who were murdered, injured and bereaved by the bombing. Their approach, he found, could have amounted to a criminal act and it undermined the officers investigating the atrocity. Separately, Mr Hutchinson ruled there was “no criminal intent” on behalf of British government ministers or Catholic Church authorities. The RUC had no information that might have prevented the bombings.
Ireland was a tinderbox of nationalist and unionist passions in 1972. The year opened with Bloody Sunday and the killing of 13 innocent civilians by the British army. Six months later, as the British army moved to regain control of the streets of Derry, nine civilians were killed when the nearby village of Claudy was bombed. Fr James Chesney was suspected of being centrally involved. Nearly 500 violent deaths were recorded in that year and Ireland, North and South, teetered on the brink of civil war.
Mr Hutchinson acknowledges the arrest of Fr Chesney could have “aggravated the security situation”. But he argues the RUC should have done so because of the information that implicated the priest as a senior Provisional IRA figure responsible for the bombing and other terrorist actions. Months later, his car was positively checked for explosives by a sniffer dog.
The involvement of former Northern Ireland secretary William Whitelaw and the late Cardinal Conway in having Fr Chesney removed from Northern Ireland represented an attempt to neutralise a dangerous and potentially damaging situation for both church and state. In view of that, the response to the report by Cardinal Sean Brady and Bishop Seamus Hegarty of Derry has been deeply disappointing. Here was an opportunity to make a clean break with the past. Instead, their reaction formed a familiar pattern of denial, blame-transference and guarded contrition.
While accepting the findings of the report, they denied there had been a Church cover-up. They found it shocking that a priest should be suspected of such violence. Ignoring the actions of their predecessors, they maintained that if the RUC had sufficient evidence, Fr Chesney should have been arrested and charged. The report itself records Cardinal Conway as admitting to Mr Whitelaw that Fr Chesney was “a bad man” and suggesting his transfer to Donegal. The Catholic Church may have been placed in an impossible situation. But it has been there before. Many times. It should learn from those unhappy experiences.