The Cover-Up of a Priest's Alleged Role in IRA Terror

  • Share
  • Read Later
PA Photos / Landov

Undated picture of suspected IRA terrorist bomber Father James Chesney

Signaling the end of an eight-year investigation, a report released Tuesday, Aug. 24, by Northern Ireland's police ombudsman found that the police, the British government and the Catholic Church worked together to protect a priest who was suspected of being involved in one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles.

On a summer's day in 1972, the sleepy village of Claudy in County Londonderry was ripped apart by three no-warning car bombs. Nine people were killed — five Catholics and four Protestants — and 30 injured, some horrifically. Three of the victims were children, including 8-year-old Kathryn Eakin, who was earning pocket money by cleaning the windows of her parents' shop on the village's main street. According to ombudsman Al Hutchinson's report, top-grade intelligence indicated that Father James Chesney, believed to be the IRA's director of operations in south Derry, was a prime suspect in the attack. But after secret talks between Secretary of State for Northern Ireland William Whitelaw and Cardinal William Conway, the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Chesney was transferred to a parish in Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. He was never investigated by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) — predecessor to the current Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) — and died suddenly in 1980 at age 46. No one was ever charged with the Claudy attack.

Rumors of Chesney's involvement in the atrocity have been circulating for years — he was often dubbed the Provo Priest, a reference to his apparent standing in the militant Provisional IRA. But indications of a cover-up first came to light in 2002, when former PSNI assistant chief constable Sam Kinkaid reviewed the original RUC investigation. Although Kinkaid did not name Chesney in his report, he revealed that there were serious problems with the investigation and that the RUC knew the high-level talks between Whitelaw and Conway were happening. Kinkaid's findings were in turn examined by the police ombudsman.

After looking through correspondence and diaries from the time of the bombing, the ombudsman discovered that a detective who wanted to arrest Chesney after the attack was told by an assistant chief constable of the RUC Special Branch that "matters are in hand." Subsequent letters between the police and the Northern Ireland Office, the British government presence in Northern Ireland, showed that the assistant chief constable asked "what action could be taken to render harmless a dangerous priest" and suggested raising the issue with the church hierarchy. In December 1972, Whitelaw met with Conway. According to a letter written by a Northern Ireland Office official, "the cardinal said he knew the priest was a very bad man and would see what could be done." Shortly afterward, Chesney was moved to Donegal and, when questioned by his superiors, denied all involvement in terrorist activity.

Hutchinson found there was no evidence to suggest that the police had information that could have prevented the bombing, nor was there evidence of criminal intent on the part of church or state officials. He acknowledged that the arrest of a priest in 1972 — one of the worst years of the Troubles — could have aggravated the conflict. Nonetheless, he concluded that "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." Hutchinson added that the RUC's decision "failed those who were murdered, injured and bereaved in the bombing."

Hutchinson refused to comment on the morality of the decision taken by the British government and the Catholic Church in acceding to the RUC's request. But church and state representatives have been quick to respond. In a joint statement, the Catholic Primate of All Ireland, Cardinal Seán Brady, and the Bishop of Derry, Séamus Hegarty, called the Claudy bombing an "appalling crime." They said they accepted the report's findings but denied that the church was involved in a cover-up.

Owen Paterson, the current Northern Ireland Secretary, said the British government was "profoundly sorry" that Chesney's role in the bombings was not properly investigated and that the victims and their families had been denied justice. Saying the deaths in Claudy "were wrong and should not have happened," Sinn Fein spokesman Francie Molloy said that because of its "limited remit," the inquiry "could never deliver the truth about the circumstances surrounding the bombing."

Despite the damning details in the ombudsman's report, there are still more questions than answers about this bloody piece of history. The report does not reveal why Chesney was never questioned or arrested despite making frequent trips back across the border. Even more fundamentally, it fails to explain why he was permitted to leave Northern Ireland in the first place. Given that the main players — Conway, Whitelaw and Chesney — are dead, the full truth may never be disclosed.

Hutchinson said he's confident that, thanks to rigorous laws and media scrutiny, such an episode could never happen again. But that is little comfort to the families of the victims. Mark Eakin, brother of the young Kathryn who died in the attack, says the investigation can't end with the ombudsman's report. "I think it's ridiculous that they can say, 'That's what happened, so be it,' " he tells TIME. "That day I lost my sister. And I would say lost 50% of my parents, because their life was destroyed."