Suspect priest protected over N.Ireland bomb: report

24th August 2010, Comments 0 comments

Top officials in the police, government and Catholic Church 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 at the time.

Nine people were killed and another 30 were injured when three car bombs exploded in the quiet village of Claudy near Londonderry in 1972, one of the worst years in the three decades of violence known as "The Troubles".

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

An investigation by Northern Ireland's police ombudsman, Al Hutchinson, has now revealed the cover-up that allowed Chesney to escape trial.

It said that fears of a sectarian backlash prompted a senior police officer to approach then British minister for Northern Ireland William Whitelaw and the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal William Conway, to find a way to avoid arresting the priest.

In secret talks, Whitelaw and Conway -- who are now dead -- agreed to send Chesney out of the province. The priest died in 1980, aged 46.

Although the report's author said there was no suggestion police could have prevented the Claudy 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, 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."

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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