State collusion, cover-ups, Claudy and Lockerbie.
As it turns out, they knew exactly what happened in Claudy on Monday the 31st of July 1972. The difference it seems is that all those personally involved in the Claudy bombing, whether in the subsequent investigation, the government response, the Catholic church or the planning and plotting behind it are now all deceased. The only poor sods left alive are the relatives of the victims, and for them, as so often seems to be the case, the truth has been incredibly late in arriving.
The details behind the bombing itself seem so familiar, so indicative of the morass which Northern Ireland had sunk into in 1972 that it almost comes across as mundane. Nearly six months to the day after Bloody Sunday, the massacre which radicalised a whole generation of young Catholics, three car bombs were left in the village of Claudy, itself only six miles outside of Derry/Londonderry. They had been planted, we now know, by an IRA cell organised by James Chesney, or as he was known to his parishioners in Bellaghy, Father Chesney. As with most bombs planted by the IRA, the intention it seems had been to issue the standard warnings prior to the time at which they were meant to detonate; only, due apparently to a previous attack, the local telephone exchange had been badly damaged and the phones both in Feeny and Dungiven where the cell attempted to inform the appropriate channels of the bombs were not working. By the time the police in Claudy eventually received the warning the first bomb had already exploded.
While it seems there was little direct evidence which tied Father Chesney to the bombing, he provided an alibi for a man owning a car similar to that which stopped in Feeny and Dungiven on the day of the bombing, saying that he had spent the morning at the parochial house with him and another man, who also corroborated the alibi. While there was also little firm intelligence prior to the bombing about Father Chesney, and none of which was related to plans for an attack in Claudy, intelligence after it connected him directly both to the IRA and the attack. One police officer wanted to have Chesney arrested and the parochial house searched, only for it to be refused by another officer in Special Branch, who advised that "matters are in hand".
Worth quoting in full was what this police officer wrote to the Northern Ireland Office:
‘For some time I have been considering what action, if any, could be taken to render harmless a dangerous priest, Father Chesney, who is leading an I.R.A. Unit in South Derry………I attach a précis of the intelligence on Father Chesney and suggest that our masters may find it possible to bring the subject into any conversations they may be having with the Cardinal or Bishops at some future date..…..’
The then secretary of state, William Whitelaw, subsequently saw Cardinal William Conway, with the following sent not only to the police officer but also to a number of senior police officers, including the then chief constable of the RUC:
‘Many thanks for your note on Father Chesney. You will be relieved to hear that Secretary of State saw the Cardinal privately on 5 December and gave him a full account of his disgust at Chesney’s behaviour. The Cardinal said that he knew that the priest was a very bad man and would see what could be done. The Cardinal mentioned the possibility of transferring him to Donegal.’
Chesney was hospitalised at the end of 1972 and subsequently posted to two separate dioceses in Donegal, before dying in 1980.
Quite why Chesney was never arrested when intelligence, if not evidence so firmly tied him to the bombings in Claudy is something that remains unexplained. The implication, as noted by another police officer, was that arresting a priest, even if the grounds on which to do so were sound, was liable to even further inflame the situation in a year in which Northern Ireland seemed to be descending into civil war:
We, here, would be only too happy, were he to be made amenable for this activity, but before we take on ourselves to arrest a Clergy-man for interrogation under the C.A.S.P. (Special Powers) Act we would need to be prepared to face unprecedented pressure. Having regard to what this man has done I myself would be prepared to meet this challenge head on.’
Making judgements now about a situation which at the time was dealt with what we have to assume was the best intentions is always fraught with danger. It's impossible to know how the arrest of Chesney, let alone the bringing of possible charges would have been responded to by both loyalist and nationalist communities. Clear however is that regardless of how the report's conclusion, tries, or rather doesn't, to define collusion, the state and the Catholic hierarchy came to something approaching an informal deal which removed Chesney from Northern Ireland, even if he seemingly continued his activities over the border. This deal, which there is little to no actual paperwork confirming outside of the reports filed by the police officers involved, the letters from the NIO, and the diaries of Cardinal Conway, effectively ensured that justice would never be done, and as almost all involved now are dead and unable to justify their actions, it is all but certain to stay that way.
Whether Northern Ireland at the certain adjunct in contemporary history is a special case or not is open to question. The next year the Diplock courts were introduced, with internment having already been brought back the year previous, and not discontinued until 1975. The Stevens inquiries also confirmed that there was active collusion when it came to the security services and loyalist paramilitaries, as had been so frequently alleged. While I find myself (as often) in agreement with Flying Rodent and Dave Osler when it comes to the recent revival of interest in the death of Dr David Kelly, and heartily recommend the asking of "cui bono?" when it is alleged that everything might not be as it seems, it's far too simplistic to always accept the official story as unalterable fact, as so many reports and subsequent investigations have proved. This isn't to fall into the trap of opening your mind so far that your brain falls out (as you would have to to believe the 9/11 truthers, say, or our own 7/7 variety), but rather to consider the possibilities when the authorised tale changes so dramatically as it did over Lockerbie. It's hard not to suspect it might take even longer than the 38 years it's been since Claudy before the full picture emerges about how Flight 103 came to be ripped apart on Wednesday the 21st of December 1988.