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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

The prosaic truth about Fr Chesney

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

The saga of Fr Jim Chesney would make a great plot for a movie. The central character would be a charismatic priest with a taste for fast cars and, so it's rumoured, still faster women, struggling with divided loyalties and a diagnosis of terminal cancer as violence mounts around him. Caught between British military intelligence and the IRA, the Catholic priest is eventually spirited away to rural Donegal as part of a deal between his army handlers and church superiors.

Think of the wide shots of the handsome clergyman walking along the Donegal coast, skimming stones on the treacherous sea off Malin Head as he ponders the violent events that banished him to this quiet place. Later, when the fuss dies down, he is allowed to slip back to Faughan near Derry to spend the last three years of his life as chaplain of an old people's home. After he dies, a marble plaque is erected at a youth club in Burnfoot which records that Fr Chesney inspired this building, completed in 1984, four years after his death.

This action movie might depict the priest wrestling with his conscience. But is it possible that Chesney actually tried to prevent the murder of nine people in an IRA bomb attack in 1972 in Claudy, a quiet south Derry town, and was thwarted at the last moment?

Nothing can be categorically ruled out, but the truth about Chesney is almost certainly entirely prosaic. The British government traded justice for political stability, as usual, and the Catholic church avoided scandal at any cost, as usual. Chesney's story is a tale not of one man's struggle but of the corrupt relations between church and state, of political power speaking to religious authority behind the backs of the people they were both supposed to represent and care for.

Chesney, by all accounts, was a republican fanatic who did not wrestle with mixed loyalties or crises of conscience. He was a verbal supporter of the Provisional IRA until his death and defended this stance in interviews with Bishop Edward Daly who had asked the priest to be more restrained in his views.

Last week's report by Al Hutchinson, the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman, found intelligence that Chesney continued as quartermaster of the South Derry IRA after Claudy, in July 1972. Police sniffer dogs detected explosive traces in his car a few months later.

Last week I spoke to two retired senior police officers. One of them had read the police files on Claudy, and did not wish to be named. The other, Raymond White, joined Special Branch two years later and eventually became assistant chief constable. Neither knows of any record of Chesney giving information to the intelligence services.

But it is difficult to believe that if Chesney had the rank of quartermaster, as Hutchinson found, South Derry's weapons were never recovered. One Special Branch sergeant who gave evidence to Hutchinson, and later spoke to the BBC, said he was ready to raid Chesney's parochial house at Bellaghy, Co Derry, but was stopped by his superiors. The officer said he had army support standing by after receiving intelligence that a large quantity of weapons was being stored at the priest's house.

The officer was told that he would need a large vehicle to remove them and informed police headquarters that he intended to do so within half an hour. Fifteen minutes later, he says, he got a message to stand down the operation. Proponents of the "Chesney was an informer" thesis would say that only senior officers knew of the priest's secret role and his cover had to be protected from junior ranks at all costs. He might already have given military experts access to the weapons in order to tamper with them.

But there are other explanations. A memo from the head of Special Branch at the time described Chesney as "a dangerous priest", attached a precis of intelligence, and asked that "our masters" bring up the subject with church authorities. "Our masters" was a reference to William Whitelaw, the then secretary of state, and his ministers, who did indeed raise this troublesome priest with Cardinal William Conway.

White points out "there was political control of the police service at that stage – the RUC was seen as part of the problem in the early years of direct rule and was only really allowed to deal with ordinary crime without direction". Northern Ireland had passed the point of no return by 1972. The year opened with Bloody Sunday, and Chesney was part of the wave of recruits that flooded into the IRA in Derry afterwards.

The Bloody Sunday march was a protest against internment, which had stopped the previous IRA campaign and was applied with gusto by the unionist government at Stormont. This time it failed, with many of the wrong people being imprisoned, and the RUC Special Branch was blamed by the government for the inadequacy of intelligence files on which internment swoops were based.

The government had removed control of policing from Stormont, which collapsed as a result. The province was being run by Whitelaw, a Tory grandee desperate to halt the drift towards civil war. The Catholic hierarchy had opposed every IRA campaign and was an obvious ally.

White points out that, even if the parochial house had been raided and arms recovered, it might not have been possible to bring charges. "It was a place where people came and went," he said. "Chesney could well have claimed the arms were put there without his knowledge and could have found witnesses to say he ran an open house. What would have been the next move? To intern a priest? How would that have gone down in America and among the nationalist community?"

At that stage, forensics analysis was largely limited to fingerprints – there was no DNA-testing – so it would have been hard to link Chesney to any weapons recovered.

Such considerations are enough to explain why Whitelaw took the easier option of a quiet word with the cardinal, though such political calculating about killers will seem inhuman to the bereaved. Ivan Cooper, a nationalist MP at the time, was told that Chesney actually parked the first of three bomb cars beside eight-year-old Kathryn Eakin, the youngest of the nine people to die.

If the state let down victims, the Catholic church did not serve their interests either. Chesney told the cardinal he was only a supporter of the IRA, and that the explosives traces in his car might be explained by the fact that he often gave lifts to people. He remained a priest in good standing until his death in 1980.

When Conway transferred Chesney to Donegal, Graham Shillington, the RUC chief constable, said wryly in a memo that he would have preferred a transfer to Tipperary. Donegal was where the IRA planned much of its Derry campaign. Martin McGuinness, who became commander of the IRA in Derry city after Bloody Sunday, was based there.

So why did the church hierarchy not send Chesney abroad, where he could do less harm? Knowing what we now do about the shunting of sex-offending priests around the world, the inadequacy of the church's response to Chesney should not surprise us.

August 29, 2010

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on August 29, 2010.



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