Claudy, and the meaning of Jim Chesney

I want to reflect – indeed, I need to – on Al Hutchinson’s report into the 1972 Claudy bombing. In an insightful piece, Malachi has already said much of what needed to be said, but there’s still some amplification I want to do in terms of the historical context.

The facts of the matter are relatively simple. On 31 July 1972, three 250-pound bombs ripped through the tiny village of Claudy outside Derry, devastating the village and leaving nine civilians dead, both Catholic and Protestant. No warning was received. No claim of responsibility was ever made, though it was universally assumed the Provos were to blame. Even by the standards of 1972, our worst year for atrocities, it was an exceptionally stupid and murderous act. No prosecutions were ever brought, which is the starting point for the Hutchinson report.

What has grabbed the headlines is the apparent involvement of a south Derry priest, Fr Jim Chesney, in the bombing. This isn’t altogether a surprise – Chesney’s involvement had been rumoured for decades – but it makes the bombing unusual in the extreme, and that is reflected in the cover-up.[1]

There is a general and a specific reason for Chesney to be a remarkable case. The general reason is that the Church doesn’t do war. Well, you can go back to the Crusades if you like, and the Franciscan Order has never quite lived down what its Croatian members did during WW2, but the general rule holds firm. That’s why, though many if not most Anglican churches contain war memorials and will fly the flag on certain occasions, you will not see anything of the sort in a Catholic church. And, even if the Church’s stringent conditions for a just war are met, priests are certainly not supposed to take up arms.

The specific reason has to do with the Catholic Church in the north of Ireland, which had long since reached a modus vivendi with the Orange State similar to the arrangements it reached with the Polish dictatorship – spiky, at times hostile, but mutually dependent. At the time, in 1972, and for many years afterwards, the British relied on the hierarchy as a moderating force holding the line against republicanism, the relationship intensifying in the 1980s when Douglas Hurd launched his programme of pacification through grantocracy. And this was reciprocated by the bishops producing fierce condemnation of the IRA as required, while offering very muted and qualified criticism of the state. In political terms, the bishops never quite ordered their flock to vote SDLP, but they came very very close. The establishment instinct ran very strong indeed.

Now, add to that the conformity you associate with a ghetto religion. If the Catholic clergy in the south sometimes resembled a mafia, discipline in the north was infinitely stronger. Considering that hundreds of priests would be active here at any given time, during the entire period of the Troubles there were precisely three priests who publicly fell out with the hierarchy. One of those was Pat Buckley, who doesn’t really count, as he’s a southerner and his problems with the hierarchy mostly related to his homosexuality. You had Fr Joe McVeigh in Fermanagh, who had an essentially republican viewpoint casting the bishops as pro-British; and Fr Des Wilson in Ballymurphy, who also started from a basically republican position but added to that social issues relating to the deprived urban area he was working in, plus some well-aimed criticisms of the elitist and cliquish practices of the Irish hierarchy. And that was it.

And this points up just how much of an outlier Jim Chesney was. There were a relative handful of priests who were known, quietly, to have strongly republican opinions, but that would be a matter of their opinions, and at most they might be thought to have turned a blind eye to certain activities. A priest actually becoming a bomber was literally unheard of; as I say, the rumours about Chesney have been circulating for many years, but I cannot think of any other named priest about whom there was anything similar, even on the level of rumour.

Which takes us to the cover-up, and we have some idea of the mechanics behind this. After the Claudy bombing, a detective sought permission to have Chesney arrested for questioning, but this was stopped by Special Branch. There then followed a series of discussions between British proconsul Willie Whitelaw, Cardinal William Conway and the top brass of the RUC on the theme of what to do about Chesney, which led to him being taken out of the north and transferred to a southern parish.

Note a couple of things about this. One is that the decision not to pursue Chesney was a political and police one, the two not really being separate in the north. The Church, in the person of Bishop Eddie Daly, interviewed Chesney twice; this was twice more than the cops did. Even after his transfer, there was nothing preventing the RUC from further investigating Claudy had they chosen to; they chose not to. Why?

One of the most common pitfalls to make when considering the north of Ireland is to assume that it works in a basically analogous way to Surrey or Hampshire, or indeed Dublin or Cork. It doesn’t – it especially didn’t in the febrile atmosphere of 1972 – and policing and criminal justice show that starkly. To say that the RUC lacked credibility in nationalist areas is to put it very mildly. It would be more accurate to say that the RUC was viewed as essentially a sectarian militia whose main purpose was to keep the Catholics down; a view shared by Protestants, who by and large thought this was a good thing. Internment was in full swing at the time. “Taken in for questioning” was not an innocuous phrase when it was known that suspects were being tortured. The loyalist gangs styled themselves as auxiliaries to the state forces, and in later years it would become clear that many of them, including some of our most notorious mass murderers, were actually on the state payroll.

Let’s take this further. What would have been the effect of arresting a priest on bombing charges, in the atmosphere of 1972? At the time, it wasn’t unknown for Catholic churches to be attacked by loyalist mobs. Two priests had relatively recently been shot by the British army. Is it implausible to think that ghetto opinion would have rallied behind Chesney, either believing the case to be a stitch-up or not caring, just seeing a priest under attack from the hated state? And what of the reaction on the other side? Loyalist political and religious leaders frequently claimed that the Vatican was controlling the IRA, often in collaboration with the Kremlin and sometimes the Freemasons or Illuminati. Some still do. Would the exposure of a bomber priest confirm that narrative? Was the fear of an enormous pogrom, dwarfing even that of 1969, an unreasonable fear?

So, when sketching out a police and state cover-up in which the Church was also complicit, the reasoning is not really all that mysterious. Since it appears that, despite plenty of intelligence pointing to Chesney, there was a lack of hard evidence coupled with the man’s own denials, it’s all too easy to see how a political-police decision (and all policing here is political) might be reached that pursuing Chesney through the criminal justice system was more trouble than it was worth. Having reached that conclusion, the next question was how to get him out of the picture before he did any more damage, which is where Conway comes in.

Jim Chesney has now been dead for thirty years. Willie Whitelaw is dead; William Conway is long dead; of the senior RUC officers involved, most will be dead by now. Justice, in the judicial sense, is probably out of the question at this point, and all the survivors and victims’ families can be left with is some transparency about what happened. Not that this will be much consolation. It’s a murky story, and nobody comes out of it well. As can be said about much in our history.

[1] In fact, we’re still at the point where intelligence rather than hard evidence is pointing to Chesney, and some people who know about these things are sceptical about his involvement. But we’ll assume that for the sake of argument, as the cover-up was premised on the assumption of his involvement.


  1. DC said,

    August 31, 2010 at 11:36 am

    Its fairly clear I think that the Brits didnt want the spectacle of locking up a serving priest for IRA activity at that point in the Troubles. That the Church wouldnt have wanted this headache either is obvious, but its difficult to see how its being turned into a lurid Church conspiracy by some people. The Brits must have chosen not to pursue hundreds of suspects during the course of the Troubles, due to them being informers, or collusion, or for political reasons. But always for their own reasons of state. You dont need to draw a line between this alleged incident and what went on in the South regarding Church run institutions for example, which was quite different.

  2. Chris Williams said,

    August 31, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    Seems about right.

    The interesting bit here is the amazing level of historical ignorance exhibited by the BBC and other media outlets breaking this. I was going through one of my rare TV-watching weeks when it came out, and at no point did any of the reporters busy crying ‘foul!’ note that arresting Chesney might have kicked the whole sorry mess over the edge, leading to scores more deaths. Thing is, that would also be an interesting story. As ever, it’s all about framing and context.

  3. August 31, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    This strange, strange case illustrates the long and very friendly partnership beween the Catholic Church and the British State in Ireland. There were numerous Catholic pulpit denunciations of Fenianism, which is unlike any of the three principal British political traditions in being a product of the French Revolution. Hence its tricolour flag. And hence its strong anticlerical streak, always identifying Catholicism as one of Ireland’s two biggest problems.

    In reality, those two biggest problems are the abiding legacies of the two main streams feeding into Irish separatism. The Orange Lodges opposed the Act of Union of 1800, the best thing that ever happened to Ireland, which incorporated one of the most backward countries in Europe into what became in the nineteenth century the most advanced country in the world. The consequent improvements in Ireland’s agriculture, industry, education, infrastructure, welfare provision, honest and responsible administration, and so on, were almost incalculable, and enjoyed the strongest possible support of the Catholic Church, without which many, most or even all of them could not have happened, especially at local level.

    But to the Orangemen, the Union meant Catholic Emancipation, and indeed the necessary Unionist majority in the former Irish Parliament was secured on that very basis, by Protestant Emancipationists who secured the votes of the Catholic commercial class by promising to deliver the Union that would deliver to those voters the right to sit in Parliament. Those voters delivered that majority, that majority delivered the Union, and the Union delivered Catholic Emancipation, which the old Irish Parliament would simply never have countenanced.

    Protestant pioneers are sometimes produced by Republicans as a sort of trump card. But those believed their own Protestant, “Saxon” nation to be the only nation, as such and with all national rights accordingly, on the Irish island. They had no more interest in or regard for Gaels and Catholics than their contemporary, Thomas Jefferson, had either for the “Indians not taxed” or for his own slaves. They viewed those other inhabitants of Ireland as anti-monarchist opinion has regarded the Australian Aborigines from the Victorian Period to the present day, as Hendrik Verwoerd regarded the non-white peoples of South Africa, as Ian Smith regarded the Mashona and the Matabele, and as Golda Meir regarded the Palestinians when she denied that they existed at all, a view still widely and deeply held.

    Such notions have been ridiculous when viewed from east of the Irish Sea at least since Dr Johnson asked “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” But when the Stormont Parliament and its supporters opposed integration because integration meant Civil Rights, then they were in no way out of keeping with the anti-Unionist thinking of their ancestors. In the meantime, separatist leaders as late as the Gladstone years had seized on the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, with all its implications for the system of tithes, as a nullifying breach of the Act of Union.

    The other main stream feeding into Irish separatism arose out of the urban Catholic bourgeoisie that the Union had so greatly expanded and entrenched. But it was largely directed from outside Ireland, and very often from thousands of miles away. It was, and is, the wannabe leprechaun pretensions of those who, if they had ever seen what they saw as the pure Gaelic folk-culture at all, had only ever done so from their carriage windows, so that they had no understanding whatever of people whose circumstances compelled them to live like that, people who warmly welcomed the drastic elevation of their condition by the alliance of Throne and Altar, however many tears that may have brought to the eyes of those whose wholly detached world had by then passed from Jacobinism to Romanticism, and who for the most part did not live in Ireland.

    When those fantasists seized their moment during the international distractions of 1916, almost no one in Ireland had ever even heard of them, and barely any more people took them remotely seriously. By the time that the Home Rule legislation, with its built in delay until after the War, actually came into effect, then even the “official” reasons given for it by its proponents no longer applied.

    That red saltire on the Union Flag was, and is, no word of lie. The Irish were vigorous participants in British imperialism, and especially in its military aspects. It was under that Flag, and by those means, that they propagated the Faith to the ends of the earth.

  4. August 31, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    I don’t know if you noticed in the Daily Telegraph version of the story the nugget that the hierarchy suggested to Willie Whitelaw that Chesney (QM of the South Derry RA by some accounts) be neutralised or punished by being ‘moved to Donegal’. Whoever suggested that had a very dry, dark sense of humour, or a very great contempt for British ignorance indeed….

  5. Chris Williams said,

    August 31, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    Yes – that was in the Beeb ‘n all. What a very long distance from centres of pIRA activity that would have been, then…

    On the other hand, not a lot of people know about the ongoing low-level cross-boarder collaboration between the RUC and the GS, either: Donegal might have made a bit of sense as somewhere where the local Guards were spring-loaded to keep an eye on him.

  6. neilcaff said,

    August 31, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    Good post.

    Much of the British media take on the Claudy bombing has been ludicrous quite frankly. However this article takes the gold in the silliness sweepstakes:
    Apparently the good journalist in question has decided to give up Catholicism in disgust after hearing about the Church’s role in the Claudy bombing! For some reason the Intelligence/Police role in the cover up hasn’t persuaded her to lose faith in the British state. Who’da thunk it?

  7. Marc Mulholland said,

    August 31, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    On Priests with interesting links to militant republicanism, there was, of course, Father Patrick Ryan. More enormous Brit screw-up, and stoopid Thatcher load-mouthing, than conspiracy in that case, however.

  8. Fred Dagg said,

    September 1, 2010 at 8:44 am


    I don’t agree. It’s quite obvious why the British didn’t want to prosecute. It’s rather like the Case of the Deep South Sheriff, used to illustrate act utilitarianism to first-year philosophy students. Why risk a full-on civil war for the sake of one (potentially legally tricky) prosecution?

    By contrast, the Catholic Church simply let him get on with his life as a priest as if nothing had happened, ie, they chose to do nothing themselves. As usual, just about every non-Catholic will understand the hypocracy of this, but the Catholic Church itself will not.

  9. Philip Williams said,

    September 1, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    Interesting piece. The balance of it ‘feels right’ to me. The only thing I’d query, though, is the assertion that there are no WWI memorials in RC churches. I’m reliably informed that there are some in RC churches in Dublin. Given the heavy casualties among Irish regiments during the Great War, I’d be surprised if there weren’t some memorials around. But I’m prepared to be persuaded otherwise.

  10. andytownbob said,

    September 1, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    There was a fourth priest who also battled with his bishops and Cardinal. he being Fr Tony Marcelles of the Ardoyne. He was at the forefront of the Hooker Street roits with Martin Meehan amd Dutch Doc. I remember him riding his Harley with leathers and long blonde hair. I think he was also associated with a Rock Band. In the end he simply disappeared from the scene overnight…no one knows what happened him, some say he went to England into a monastary.

  11. Ciarán said,

    September 1, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    “Two priests had relatively recently been shot by the British army.”

    Two priests had relatively recently been shot dead by the British army.

  12. ajay said,

    September 2, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    That’s why, though many if not most Anglican churches contain war memorials and will fly the flag on certain occasions, you will not see anything of the sort in a Catholic church.

    This is wrong. Try Google. There are lots of war memorials, rolls of honour etc in and around Catholic churches in Britain and no doubt elsewhere in the world too.

    As for the Church “not doing war”: Google is your friend here too, and I’d suggest search terms like “Jozef Tiso”,”Francisco Franco”, “army chaplain” and so forth.

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