The clerical bomb squad?
25 August 2010
Revelations about a bomb-happy Irish priest have set the Catholic church spinning – again.
There are few targets softer these days than the Catholic church, particularly in Ireland. After decades of cloying control of Irish society, the church is now the most mistrusted organisation in the nation (with the Dáil and Seanad, Ireland’s parliaments, coming a distant second).
Watching the church hierarchy squirm over revelations of covering up child abuse brought-up feelings of schadenfreude in many an ex-Catholic. On the other hand, knee-jerk anti-clericalism is a long way from developing a grown-up attitude toward the separation of church and state.
Yesterday, though, it was announced that the Catholic church – with the support of the British state in Ireland – had moved a priest for another reason: he was allegedly a bomber.
The police, the Catholic Church and the British government conspired to cover up a priest's role in one of the worst atrocities of the Northern Irish conflict, an investigation published yesterday has found.
Nine people died in bombings in Claudy, County Derry on July 31 1972 and, according to a report published by the police ombudsman yesterday, a key figure in the bombing was Catholic priest Fr James Chesney. For the record, the sectarian headcount was five Catholics and four Protestants.
Chesney, alleged to have been the IRA''s director of operations in the area, was then moved with the complicity of the church and the British government in order to avoid investigation. He died eight years later, in 1980, having never faced charges.
The church has denied any participation in a conspiracy but the report clearly indicates a lack of action – and a lack of interest in action, other than removing Chesney, on the part of both church and state. Something of a pattern?
It is impossible to avoid the similarities to how the church dealt with priests accused of sexual abuse.
But what does this all mean?
Many an Irish non-believer, such as myself, have long suffered a “cultural cringe” about Ireland’s Catholic conservatism but there is little joy to be had in the church’s slow-motion implosion.
The fact that a priest was also an IRA volunteer is not actually of much significance. Lots of people, priests included, believe lots of things and while many a hard-line Protestant is surely now arguing this proves they were right about ‘the Whore of Babylon’ all along, the simple truth is that one man’s actions are just that: individual.
What is significant, however, is that this turbulent priest never had to face a court.
It is impossible to say for sure but claims that revealing his alleged involvement would have sparked anti-Catholic pogroms are more than plausible. 1972 was the bloodiest year of the Irish conflict, seeing over 500 killings.
But is that reason enough for a cover-up?
Some will say, most likely correctly, that not only would British unionist gunmen have been emboldened by the revelation but also that Irish republicans wouldn’t have believed any charges against Fr Chesney were legitimate, seeing them instead as being purely politically motivated.
It’s not a pleasant or rewarding game to weigh up truth versus bloodshed, even with distant events.
Perhaps the issue of greatest significance here is the fact that both the British state in London and the Northern Irish unionist police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, were engaged in cover-ups. Interestingly, this inverts part of the typical view of British involvement in Ireland. When we talk about the RUC or British establishment colluding with terrorists we tend to only think in terms of pro-British unionist groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association. That the British would collude to cover-up a republican bomb should put our view of recent history into a tailspin.
Irish politics is hideously complicated and difficult to explain to outsiders. How, for instance, can it be explained that while the Catholic church is famously conservative most so-called “Catholics” have tended to the left in the Irish war? Simplistic binaries of Protestant versus Catholic are the stock-in-trade of reporters who cover the conflict, even today in its more than half-dead phase, but these tired old tropes obscure more than they illuminate.
No-one comes out out of this affair covered in glory and while it is futile to endlessly go over history, including atrocities, there is a distressing undercurrent to the entire affair.