The North's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness confirmed today that he is prepared to meet the victims of the Claudy bombing.
The move follows the revelation that the senior republican met the chief suspect in the attack.
Mr McGuinness said yesterday that he spoke with Father James Chesney before the priest’s death in 1980, but claimed the no-warning car bomb attack which killed nine people in 1972 was never mentioned.
The Sinn Féin representative had previously denied ever knowing the priest, but has how claimed he forgot their meeting.
After bereaved relatives and campaigners said Mr McGuinness had questions to answer, he was challenged to meet with them.
Today, a Sinn Féin spokesman said: “Martin McGuinness has no issue in meeting with the families.”
But there was growing political criticism today from unionist and nationalist parties over Mr McGuinness’s handling of the affair.
Claudy happened six months after Bloody Sunday in Derry, 10 miles away, when Mr McGuinness was an IRA leader. But the Sinn Féin representative also denied the IRA in Derry was involved in the Claudy outrage.
Three devices exploded in the peaceful village, and while no group claimed responsibility, the IRA has always been blamed.
Fr Chesney had denied to church colleagues that he was involved in the attack.
But a recent report by the North's Police Ombudsman claimed a police investigation into the priest’s alleged involvement was stopped after senior officers conspired with the government and the Catholic Church to protect him.
Cardinal Sean Brady, the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, insisted it did not cover up the bomb atrocity by moving the priest out of the North. He said the transfer to Donegal did not stop the authorities arresting or questioning Fr Chesney.
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) East Derry MP Gregory Campbell said Mr McGuinness should provide more information on the events surrounding Claudy.
“Martin McGuinness needs to answer questions,” he said.
“He needs to answer questions, and the questions he needs to answer now are what was he doing and who was he with on the days immediately leading up to the Claudy bomb and the days immediately afterwards.”
Mr McGuinness sparked controversy yesterday when he revealed his meeting with Fr Chesney.
He said he had been asked to meet the dying priest because he was a republican sympathiser.
The Deputy First Minister denied the priest said anything to indicate he had been directly involved with the IRA, despite allegations the clergyman was a member of the paramilitary group.
“I never knew Fr Chesney before Claudy. I never knew Fr Chesney for many years after the Claudy bomb,” he said.
“I was asked – whenever I was told that Fr Chesney was dying, I was told he was a republican sympathiser – would I go to see him and meet with him in Co Donegal.
“I did that. There was no mention whatsoever of the Claudy bomb. During the course of that, he just talked about his support for a united Ireland and for Irish freedom.”
The controversy deepened when only hours after Mr McGuinness’s revelation over Fr Chesney, the BBC said a Sinn Féin statement from 2002 claimed Mr McGuinness had never met the priest.
Mr McGuinness later replied: “In 2002 I gave my statement to the BBC in good faith. It is only recently that in the controversy surrounding the publication of the Ombudsman’s report and the allegations from RUC sources about Fr Chesney that I was reminded of my visit to him shortly before his death. That is the only contact I ever had with Fr Chesney.”
Today, he repeated his claim that he had forgotten about his meeting with the priest and he questioned the authenticity of the security force allegations against the clergyman.
Mr McGuinness admitted several years ago that he was in the IRA at the time of Bloody Sunday when soldiers shot and killed 13 people, while fatally injuring a further man, at a Civil Rights march in Derry.
He claimed to have questioned the IRA in Derry, plus leaders in Dublin, and said they denied involvement in the Claudy attack.
But leader of the nationalist SDLP Margaret Ritchie said senior republicans had to reveal the complete truth of their role in the Troubles.
“Following Martin McGuinness’s recollection that he did in fact meet Fr James Chesney many people will now be asking what else has the Deputy First Minister and other senior republicans forgotten over the years, whether it be in relation to Claudy, the Disappeared or the multiple deaths of innocent people,” she said.
“Until they face up to this inconvenient truth, doubts about their credibility will remain.”
She added: “The SDLP believe that it is necessary to address the past in a comprehensive, inclusive and ethical basis to create a healed and reconciled society.
“The great enemy of the truth is not always the lie but persistent and persuasive myth that is allowed to build up about our past.
“This is perpetrated by those intent in abusing history by either re-writing our past or those who indulge in the deliberate non or partial disclosure of the truth in order to protect individuals either in government or in terror organisations.
“It is the belief of the SDLP that those who know the most, did the worst and have said the least should now speak up and allow victims and their families to have the justice they deserve.”