A police investigation into a Catholic priest suspected over the 1972 Claudy bomb outrage was stopped after senior officers conspired with the British government and Catholic Church to protect him, a shock new report revealed today.
Father James Chesney was transferred to a parish in Co Donegal, outside the Northern Ireland jurisdiction, following secret talks between the then Northern Ireland secretary of state William Whitelaw and the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal William Conway.
The two men discussed the scandal after being approached by a senior Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officer as the police were apparently reluctant to arrest the cleric for fear of inflaming the security situation.
Nine people, including a young girl, were killed and 30 injured when three car bombs exploded in the quiet Co Derry village in July 1972.
No-one has ever been charged with the murders, which happened on the same day as British troops stormed republican no-go areas in Derry in Operation Motorman.
That happened just six months after the Bloody Sunday killings of 13 civilians by soldiers in Derry when Martin McGuinness, now the Deputy First Minister at the Northern Ireland Executive, was the IRA’s second-in-command in the city.
Father Chesney, who died in 1980 aged 46, has long been suspected as the IRA man who masterminded the atrocity but today’s damning report by Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson also revealed the part played by the RUC in the high-level cover-up.
Mr Hutchinson’s officers examined diaries belonging to Cardinal Conway which confirmed contact with him and Mr Whitelaw over the rogue cleric and correspondence between the RUC, which was led by chief constable Sir Graham Shillington, and the British government.
Mr Whitelaw, a minister in Edward Heath’s Conservative government in the UK, died in 1999, Cardinal Conway in 1977 and Sir Graham in 2001.
Findings in Mr Hutchinson’s report disclosed:
:: Detectives believed Father Chesney was the IRA’s director of operations in south Derry and was a prime suspect in the Claudy attack and other terrorist incidents.
:: A detective’s request to arrest the cleric was refused by an assistant chief constable of RUC Special Branch who instead said “matters are in hand”.
:: The same senior officer wrote to the government about what action could be taken to “render harmless a dangerous priest” and asked if the matter could be raised with the Church’s hierarchy.
:: In December 1972 Mr Whitelaw met Cardinal Conway to discuss the issue. According to a Northern Ireland Office official, “the cardinal said he knew the priest was a very bad man and would see what could be done”. The church leader mentioned “the possibility of transferring him to Donegal...”
:: In response to this memo, RUC chief constable Sir Graham noted: “I would prefer a transfer to Tipperary.”
:: An entry in Cardinal Conway’s diary on December 5, 1972, confirmed a meeting with Mr Whitelaw took place and stated there had been “a rather disturbing tete-a-tete at the end about C”.
:: In another diary entry two months later, the cardinal noted that he had discussed the issue with Father Chesney’s superior and that “the superior however had given him orders to stay where he was on sick leave until further notice”.
Father Chesney was transferred to Co Donegal in late 1973 and never ministered again in the North. According to Church records, he denied involvement in the attacks when questioned by his superiors.
But he died seven years later having never faced police interview.
Mr Hutchinson said there was no evidence that the police had information that could have prevented the attack.
However, he said the RUC’s decision to ask the British government to resolve the matter with the Church, and then accept the outcome, was wrong.
“The decision failed those who were murdered, injured and bereaved in the bombing,” he said.
“The police officers who were working on the investigation were also undermined.”
Mr Hutchinson said the decisions made must be considered in the context of the time.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
As regards the role of Church and State officials, Mr Hutchinson said his investigation found no evidence of criminal intent on the part of any government minister or official or any official of the Catholic Church.
But he added: “The morality or ’rightness’ of the decision taken by the government and the Catholic Church in agreeing to the RUC request is another matter entirely and requires further public debate.
“Placing this information in the public domain in a transparent manner enables that debate to take place.”
The Ombudsman said he was confident such an episode would never happen again.
“Rigorous procedural laws, checks and balances, media scrutiny and offices such as that of the Police Ombudsman would ensure that similar actions could not occur without proper accountability,” he said.