Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cover-ups and the church in Northern Ireland

Cover-ups and the church in Northern Ireland
The Economist
Aug 24th 2010, 14:35 by D.M. | BELFAST

NORTHERN IRELAND'S turbulent past has come back to haunt the province once again, this time with an official report confirming that high authorities conspired to hush up a case of mass murder involving a Catholic priest. It goes back to the early 1970s, illustrating once more that things brushed under the carpet in Ulster, no matter how long ago, have a habit of resurfacing and causing major embarrassment.

All hell was breaking loose in July 1972, when the IRA bombed the quiet Londonderry village of Claudy. Nine people, Catholic and Protestant, died. Almost immediately rumours linked a local priest, Father James Chesney (now long dead), to the attack. Many thought the very idea ridiculous, since as an institution the Catholic church was dead set against the IRA and its violence.

But the new report put out on August 24th by the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman confirms that the rumours were true: Chesney was in fact IRA "director of operations" for the area. That is only the first part of the shock, for it has also turned up documentary evidence that a Catholic prelate of the time (Cardinal William Conway, head of the Catholic church in Ireland) reached a secret arrangement with a senior minister in the British government, William Whitelaw, then secretary of state for Northern Ireland and later Margaret Thatcher's deputy prime minister.

They agreed that Chesney, instead of being arrested, should be discreetly transferred across the border into the Irish Republic, where he spent the rest of his life. The police went along with the arrangement. The cardinal wanted to avoid damage to the Catholic church; the minister wanted to avoid political upheaval; both wished to avoid deadly loyalist retaliation.

So many other factors were in play that it’s impossible to say whether the cover-up saved lives at the time. It certainly saved face for the church, which avoided having one of its priests unmasked as an active terrorist. But the revelations come less than four weeks before the Pope's scheduled visit to Britain, which is already overshadowed by the church's paedophile scandals. They show up, to clerical embarrassment, that its reaction to Chesney was exactly the same as its response to many child-abusing priests—not to pursue justice but to quietly transfer the offenders out of sight.

(Photo credit: AFP. James Miller, whose grandfather died in the bombing, holds the police ombudsman's report at the The Diamond Centre in Claudy.)

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