A blast from the past…

SINN Fein MLA Francis Brolly has been arrested by the PSNI for questioning about the IRA bombing of Claudy in 1972, which claimed nine lives. The Claudy case will be one to watch, as there were major suspicions of a cover-up afterwards.

While the politician’s arrest yesterday confirms nothing, there are unanswered questions about the involvement of Father James Chesney, Martin McGuinness’s position in the IRA at the time, and the secretive meeting between the Secretary of State and the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland to discuss Chesney – whose unimpeded exit from NI quickly followed.

Since he was a suspect, why was he never questioned or arrested? Who did he provide an alibi for? Did Northern Ireland secretary, William Whitelaw, and Cardinal William Conway – even if outraged at Chesney’s IRA activism – decide that it would ultimately be better if the whole thing went away quietly?

Did they fear a wave of anti-Catholic sectarian violence if Fr Chesney was arrested or charged, that it would play into the hands of Protestant extremism? Was their reasoning that loyalist action would provoke a republican reaction, and the killing would escalate? With the RUC possibly desperate to arrest Chesney, someone who was a prime IRA suspect at the time, was the decision to ‘transfer’ the priest to the Republic rushed or even right?

Perhaps they believed that they were acting for the greater good by saving lives in the future, and that denying the Claudy bomb victims justice was a price that was worth paying in the long run.

While the two leaders may well have agonised over what was in the public’s ‘best interests’ – to prevent even more bloodshed or seek justice at the likely expense of lives – the next two years of the Troubles were to be the worst in its squalid history. If lives were saved, no-one noticed, as NI teetered on the brink of anarchy.

The Times noted that Whitelaw had other secret talks two weeks beforehand, with Martin McGuinness, who was second in command of the IRA in Derry at the time. The IRA was blamed for killing 34 people in Londonderry that year.

There have been suggestions that the South Derry brigade of the IRA aimed to take pressure of their colleagues in Derry city, who were hemmed in by the Army’s Operation Motorman (to retake ‘no-go’ areas). Did the responsible IRA unit decide to do this unilaterally, or were they following orders from their seniors in Derry?

If Whitelaw suspected the latter – and it would have been reasonable for him to do so – was he also protecting someone else? The IRA has always denied reponsibilty for the bombing. As there’s little real doubt about which organisation’s members were involved, it might suggest the unit was acting unilaterally or acting without sanction. But the IRA has also distanced itself from other atrocities carried out by its members in a similar way (Enniskillen, Kingsmills etc), so there are different views about what McGuinness, for example, knew.

The bombing of Claudy was a few months after the Bloody Sunday massacre of nationalist Civil Rights demonstrators in Derry. Such a show of strength would have been a propaganda coup for the IRA and diverted British resources away from the city.

What it ended up as claimed nine innocent lives on a village street. And what it left behind was a nasty political mess over 30 years later, and a suspected cover-up from which no-one really expects the truth to emerge.

“In the cause of peace, our government has to take difficult decisions,” the current Secretary of State wrote in the Guardian yesterday.

The problem is, the goverment doesn’t seem to have learned anything from them.