Suspect priest protected over N. Ireland bombings: probe

24th August 2010, Comments 0 comments

Top police, government and Catholic Church officials in Northern Ireland conspired to protect a priest suspected over 1972 bombings that killed nine people, an investigation revealed Tuesday.

Father James Chesney was transferred to the neighbouring Republic of Ireland -- beyond the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland police -- amid fears his arrest over the attacks in Claudy would inflame sectarian tensions.

Three car bombs exploded in the quiet village near Londonderry in 1972, one of the worst years in the three decades of violence in Northern Ireland known as "The Troubles", killing nine people and injuring another 30.

No-one was ever charged with the murders but Chesney has long been suspected as the Irish Republican Army militant who masterminded the plot, although the IRA denied responsibility.

Thirty-eight years later, the investigation by Northern Ireland's police ombudsman, Al Hutchinson, revealed the cover-up that allowed Chesney to escape trial.

It said there was "extensive police intelligence" linking the priest to the IRA and the Claudy attack, and said many police officers wanted to pursue him.

But Hutchinson's report found that a senior police officer contacted the British government asking for their help, in conjunction with the Catholic Church, to "render harmless a dangerous priest".

William Whitelaw, then the British minister for Northern Ireland, and Cardinal William Conway, the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, discussed whether he could be transferred out of the province, a suggestion passed on to police.

Chesney was moved to the Republic in late 1973. He died in 1980 aged 46.

Although the report's author said there was no suggestion police could have prevented the bombings, he deplored the cover-up.

"The decision failed those who were murdered, injured and bereaved in the bombing," Hutchinson said.

He acknowledged the reasoning for moving Chesney, saying: "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."

A joint statement from Cardinal Sean Brady, the current head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, and Londonderry bishop Seamus Hegarty, said it was "shocking" that a priest could have been involved in the bombing.

"This case should have been properly investigated and resolved during Father Chesney's lifetime," they said.

But they rejected any conspiracy, saying: "The Catholic Church did not engage in a cover-up of this matter."

Relatives of the dead said the investigation had raised more questions than it answered and they called for the British government to open a wider probe.

Mark Eakin, whose sister Kathryn was at eight years old the youngest victim, said: "We feel abandoned. Claudy seems to have been brushed under the carpet."

He said the families' anguish "has lasted for 38 years. It will last another 38 years."

Hutchinson described the cover-up as "collusion" but said he found no evidence of criminal intent by the church or the government, and said all those involved on the police side who might face investigation were dead.

Owen Paterson, the current British minister for Northern Ireland, said he was "profoundly sorry" that Chesney was not properly investigated.

The violence in Northern Ireland was largely ended by a 1998 peace deal but sporadic unrest still flares in the province.

© 2010 AFP

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