On Monday 31 July 1972 three car bombs exploded in the village of Claudy, situated a few miles from Londonderry, killing nine people and injuring over 30 others.
By the time the RUC headquarters in Derry received the warning, the first explosion had already taken place at 10.15am, killing six people. Fifteen minutes later two other cars exploded. Although the second car bomb had been identified by police and people were moved away from it, the third vehicle remained unnoticed and caused the death of three other persons.
Those responsible for planting the bombs got into a car at Claudy. The car stopped twice for its occupants to make phone calls to the police. However, the local telephone exchange had been seriously damaged in an earlier attack, which made warnings by phone impossible. A woman shop assistant was then asked by two men who got out of the car at Dungiven to inform the police about the bombs. Time had elapsed and the information reached Claudy too late.
A week later, the owner of the get-away car who had transported the bombers was arrested and questioned. He denied any involvement and explained that at the time of the bombing he was at the Parochial House in Bellaghy. It was discovered later that his alibi had been pre-arranged and fabricated with the complicity of a close relative and Father James Chesney.
During the month of August, intelligence reports established that Father Chesney, a Roman Catholic priest, was involved in the Claudy bombings and could be linked to other specific acts of terrorism. Father Chesney was identified by police as the Quarter Master and Director of Operations of the South Derry Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). He was also suspected of being involved in other terrorist incidents.
Despite the intelligence gathered on Father Chesney, it was decidede by senior members of the police force not to arrest and question him. This prevented anyone who may have been involved in the atrocity from being arrested and prosecuted in order to protect the priest.
A request was made by a Detective Sergeant from Special Branch to arrest Father Chesney and to have the Parochial House searched. This was refused by a senior RUC Special Branch Officer who deliberately chose to pursue another course of action with the assistance of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and the Hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
On 30 November 1972 a letter was sent by a senior police officer from Special Branch to the Northern Ireland Office. He stated that for some time he had been considering what action “could be taken to render harmless a dangerous priest, Father Chesney, who is leading an I.R.A. Unit in South Derry”. Evidence was produced showing that the priest had been involved in acts of terrorism, including positive sniffer check by a dog for traces of explosives in his car at a police checkpoint in September 1972. He suggested that the matter be taken up by “our masters … with the Cardinal or Bishops at some future date”. Within a week, on 5 December, a meeting took place between the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland William Whitelaw and Cardinal William Conway.
According to a letter sent the next day on 6 December 1972 by the NIO to the senior police officer at Special Branch, Cardinal Conway stated that he knew that Father Chesney was “a very bad man”. He mentioned the possibility of having him transferred to Donegal. That letter was communicated to a number of senior police officers. Not one of them appears to have opposed this flawed process, including the Chief Constable of the Police, Sir Graham Shillington. A note attached to the document and bearing his initials reads: “Seen, I would prefer a transfer to Tipperary.”
The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland who has investigated the way the investigation was carried out by the police in 1972 makes clear in his report that the police, the State and the Catholic Church were engaged in “a collusive act”. The purpose was to avoid the arrest and likely prosecution of a member of the Catholic clergy. In doing so the police failed to discharge its fundamental duty, which is in all circumstances to investigate those suspected of criminality.
Opportunities to arrest and prosecute Father Chesney were lost. Although he was moved to Donegal he returned to Northern Ireland on a number of occasions before his death in 1980. Today, a number of people who took part in the bombings may still be at large, so there is still a window of opportunity for the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) to pursue investigations with the view of finally bringing those responsible to account.