Truth must come out over collusion claims

In 1972, Northern Ireland looked to be on the brink of civil war. In many respects, the bombs that ripped through Claudy on 31 July epitomised the senseless brutality of the Troubles’ bloodiest year.

According to Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson’s report, the IRA were responsible for the Claudy bombing and its south Derry cell was led by a local Catholic priest, Father James Chesney.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary were aware of Father Chesney’s involvement, yet secretary of state Willie Whitelaw reached an agreement with Cardinal Conway, the Irish Catholic Primate, that allowed the priest to be spirited across the border to a parish in the Irish Republic, where he died in 1980.

Mr Hutchinson’s report – which was instigated following an anonymous letter sent to the ombudsman in 2002 – will go some way to explaining what happened but, 38 years after the atrocity, it raises awkward questions for both the Catholic Church and the British government.

Yesterday, Cardinal Conway’s successor, Seán Brady, said that the Catholic Church did not whitewash Father Chesney’s involvement in the Claudy bombing. Across Ireland, trust in the Catholic Church is at an historic low, in part due to Cardinal Brady’s own role in the cover-up of child sexual abuse by priests. Mr Hutchinson’s report again raises the spectre of collusion by the British state in Northern Ireland, just months after the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday.

Senior police officers, civil servants, even the secretary of state were all aware of Father Chesney’s role in Claudy, yet no effort was made to prosecute him.

Some will argue that the arrest of a priest for IRA activity would have tipped Northern Ireland into full-scale civil war. Owen Patterson has rejected the suggestion that an inquiry into Claudy be set up. The secretary of state for Northern Ireland is right, but for the wrong reasons. Perhaps the time has come for a full independent inquiry into British state’s involvement in the Northern Irish Troubles.

This piece first appeared in the Scotsman on August 24

Hellbent on violence – but it won't work

This comment piece on Monday’s dissident bombing in Newry appeared in The Scotsman on 24 February.

In November, the International Monitoring Commission, charged with keeping tabs on Northern Ireland’s paramilitary groups, suggested dissident republican ranks were being swelled by ex-Provisional IRA members.
The Newry car bomb has now confirmed the worst fears of the security services.

Since the turn of the year, dissidents have stepped up activities in an effort to derail the Hillsborough Agreement. In January, an off-duty Catholic policeman in Randalstown was lucky to escape with his life after a bomb under his car detonated. Recent security reports have identified a growing threat from hardline republicans in Lurgan and Derry and, only three days ago, experts staged a controlled explosion on a suspect vehicle in Co Armagh, near Newry.

The latest bombing has rattled security forces but will almost certainly not prevent devolution of policing and justice to Stormont. If anything, it will only harden resolve, on both sides of the tribal divide, to see devolution go ahead. The cross-party vote on policing is due on 8 March – the first anniversary of the killing of Constable Stephen Carroll by the Continuity IRA.

Both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have condemned the dissidents but the threat from republicanism’s fringe is causing Sinn Fein severe difficulties. The Ulster Unionist Party accused mainstream republicans of failing to provide the police with details of old associates in the dissident ranks.

This is particularly uncomfortable for Sinn Fein at a time when policing is set to come under the control of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Dissident republicans might be hellbent on dragging Northern Ireland back to the dark ages but they seem set to fail.

As the fallout from the Newry bombing reverberated, First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister McGuinness announced agreement on a long-awaited anti-sectarian programme. The dissidents might not like it, but Northern Ireland has changed.