Fr Chesney defamed
Contrary to lazy reports, the NI Ombudsman’s report on the 1972 ‘bloody Monday’ bombings in Claudy did not damn local priest, Fr James Chesney
by Anton McCabe
“Media confusion seems to have begun because the press statement from the Ombudsman’s office had a significantly different emphasis to the report”
Media coverage of the Northern police ombudsman’s report into the Claudy bombing of 1972, when nine civilians were killed, was marked by an acceptance that Fr James Chesney was one of the bombers. This is at variance with one of the conclusions of the Ombudsman’s report: that detaining Fr Chesney “might have either implicated him in or eliminated him from the enquiry” (emphasis added).
This media coverage did not just come from the usual conservative British outlets.
The Guardian and the Irish Times carried a profile of Fr Chesney, beginning: “Fr James Chesney was as unlikely a character to fit the stereotype of a brooding terrorist as might be imagined”. Failing to grasp that there is no evidence the priest was a terrorist, brooding or otherwise. The profile then went on to quote as fact a description of a confession Fr Chesney allegedly made to an individual calling himself ‘Fr Liam’: “This horrible affair has been with me now for 30 years and it has been hanging over me like a black cloud. I must talk to someone in authority before I die . . . I must meet my maker with a clear conscience. The souls of the deceased are crying out not for vengeance but for justice”.
This ‘Fr Liam’ sent a letter to a Claudy victim, which led to the Ombudsman’s investigation. The BBC News website says: “Fr Liam, who has not been identified”. The Ombudsman’s report is explicit that the letter was a forgery: “The Police Ombudsman has concluded that the letter was unlikely to have been from a Catholic Priest. The letter contained significant errors including the description of Father Chesney’s forename as ‘John’ when he was known as James or Jim. It also stated that Father Chesney was posted to Malin Head in the summer of 1972, which is incorrect”. The Ombudsman also established that no priest exists with the details ‘Fr Liam’ had given about himself.
Thus a more useful question is: why did the Ombudsman carry out a lengthy and costly investigation based on a forged letter?
Media reports, almost without exception, accepted ‘police intelligence’ from 1972 regarding Fr Chesney as fact. In Northern Ireland in 1972 internment was in operation, based on this police intelligence. At any one time, up to 2,000 were being held, nearly all young Catholic males. Even many Unionist politicians now accept many internees were totally uninvolved with either the Provisional or Official IRAs.
Police actions in 1972 did not tally with their believing the intelligence on Fr Chesney. The priest was accepted as an alibi witness for a man being questioned about the Claudy bombing; now one of the police questioning the man says he believed at the time Fr Chesney was involved in Claudy. It beggars belief that the Northern police would free an IRA member because another IRA member provided an alibi – for a bombing both were involved in. Two months after Claudy, a police sniffer dog at a checkpoint reacted to traces of a substance similar to explosive in Fr Chesney’s car. At this time, police intelligence said Fr Chesney was both director of operations and quartermaster of the South Derry Brigade of the IRA (Provisional). But he was then allowed to go on his way. In the conditions of 1972, police were not going to free someone they believed was a senior IRA member after finding traces of explosives in his car. In October, police intelligence was reporting Fr Chesney’s ‘Independent’ unit of the IRA. This says a lot about the quality of the intelligence. The ‘Independent’ unit was the former South Derry Brigade of the Official IRA. It had split away because of the Official IRA ceasefire. It had nothing to do with the IRA (Provisional), of which Fr Chesney was supposedly a local leader.
The report is clear Fr Chesney was not moved to Donegal to prevent police detaining him for questioning. On 4 December 1972 the late Cardinal William Conway had a meeting with the late William Whitelaw, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The police had asked Whitelaw to speak to the Cardinal regarding Fr Chesney. The Cardinal noted in his diary: “…rather disturbing tete-a-tete at the end about C”; showing he knew the priest, not for a positive reason. However, there was no agreement to transfer Fr Chesney. A Northern Ireland Office note to a police officer states: “The Cardinal mentioned the possibility (emphasis added) of transferring him to Donegal”.
The Cardinal spoke to Fr Chesney’s superior (probably then Bishop Neil Farren of Derry), who in turn questioned the priest. After this, according to the report: “The
Superior, however ,had given him orders to stay where he was (Bellaghy in south Derry) on sick leave until further notice”. Nearly all media outlets reported Fr Chesney was moved to Donegal as a result of this meeting; the report says this was not until a year after the meeting.
Bishop Farren’s successor, Dr Edward Daly, with the Vicar General for the diocese, questioned Fr Chesney in April or May 1974. They uncovered nothing to make them suspect the priest was a Claudy bomber. Dr Daly said police actions were inconsistent with believing Fr Chesney was a mass murderer: “He travelled almost every week from 1973 until his death in 1980 to visit his mother in Maghera (Co Derry). He went through checkpoints. He could have been arrested any time the security forces wanted to. You couldn’t have got from Donegal to Maghera without going through a checkpoint. It is clear from the Ombudsman’s report that there was not a shred of evidence against him.” He also believes Fr Chesney was an unlikely IRA man: “He was an extrovert, who attracted attention. From my experience, he wasn’t the type of person that the Provisional IRA would have been interested in as a member”.
It is clear that media coverage got the Claudy report wrong. Media confusion seems to have begun because the press statement from the Ombudsman’s office had a significantly different emphasis to the report. Both are available at http://www.policeombudsman.org/
Shortly after the report was issued, the BBC Northern Ireland news website posted an inaccurate report, that the Ombudsman “confirmed what many have believed for 38 years – a Catholic priest was involved in carrying out the atrocity and that the police, British government and Catholic Church conspired to keep that fact a secret”. Because of the pressure of the ’24 hour news agenda’, journalists didn’t have the time to carefully read the original report. Thus a totally inaccurate media consensus was built.