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