As the clamour over Claudy swirls and booms, let me list five points about that event in 1972. I know they will have no impact on those who smell a chance to further discredit the Catholic Church and republicanism, but I still believe making them might bring some hint of reason into discussion of the case.
1. Comparisons between Claudy and Bloody Sunday are invalid. What made Bloody Sunday stand out was the fact that the fourteen killings were inflicted by the forces of the state, whose job it is to protect citizens, not kill them. The IRA, a subversive force, has never claimed any such role.
2. Fr Jim Chesney (if allegations are true) was not and is not the only clergyman to support violence as a means to political ends. We might list off the many Protestant clergymen over the decades who’ve stirred the sectarian pot, particularly in Belfast, inciting young men to violence. Better, though, to focus on army padres. Such men don’t spend their days trying to dissuade the soldiers with whom they come in contact that they should beat their swords into ploughshares, learn to love their enemies rather than train to kill them. Instead, they bless the soldiers in their warlike endeavours, sustain them in battle and hail their heroism when the battle-smoke has cleared. No moral distinction can be drawn between such unequivocal support of those engaged in violence and the alleged actions of Fr Chesney.
3. The Claudy deaths were the result of IRA bungling, not calculated intention. Had the intention been to inflict maximum casualties, no attempts would have been made to warn the authorities. That still leaves those who brought in the bombs morally guilty of behaviour that might (and in their case did) result in terrible death and injuries. But their level of guilt is exactly comparable to those who planned and executed explosions where warnings were successfully given and no one was killed or injured.
4. The fact that Fr Chesney was a Catholic priest should not shock us. Admittedly the Catholic Church has never been supportive of the IRA and throughout history it’s been consistently opposed to violent outbreaks of Irish nationalism. Its non-violent stance loses credibility, however, when we look at the Church’s attitude to the British army in Ireland. The Church has never condemned as immoral either the British Army’s commitment to violence as a way of resolving political issues or its presence on the territory of a neighbouring state. So if they are true, the allegations that Fr Chesney supported political violence puts him out of step with the political-violence grouping he supported, not with the notion of supporting political violence.
5. Finally, politicians such as Ian Óg Paisley and Gregory Campbell, who responded to the Saville Report and the Ballymurphy Massacre campaign by calling for the book on the past to be finally closed, cannot now do other than urge people to leave behind the allegations of blame and cover-up over Claudy.
Simple soul that I am, I believe that if you use reason when addressing an issue rather than sloganeering or bigotry, you’ll acknowledge the rational argument behind the five points listed above. But then reason has rarely been employed by those opposed to republicanism and/or the Catholic Church.