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Father James Chesney and Ireland's religious war

Fr James ChesneyCardinal William Conway, Primate of all Ireland, was supposed to attend the Eucharistic Congress in Melbourne in 1973. But events in his own back yard meant he needed to stay at home. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Willie Whitelaw had presented him with a quandary: what to do about a priest in the diocese of Derry.

The priest was Fr James Chesney, whom the local police wanted to question about a role he was alleged to have played in a set of three explosions in the small village of Claudy at the end of the previous July. It is a mixed community of about 400 people and there did not seem to be any strategic or other reason for the attack — not that either side needed much by way of reason for what they were doing.

The police had a suspicion that Chesney was involved in the planning of the explosions which had resulted in the deaths of nine people and horrific injury to many others.

Conscious of not inflaming religious passions, the chief constable asked Whitelaw for his advice; the latter discussed the matter with the Cardinal who was aware of rumours about Chesney.

The net effect was that the priest was never questioned by the police — in fact, he was able to provide them with an alibi for an IRA man whose car had been seen in Claudy on the morning of the bombing. Instead he was transferred to a diocese in the Irish Republic, close enough for him to cross frequently and at will in and out of the north. He died of cancer eight years later at the age of 46.


So, here is the situation. A priest who may be a senior member of the Provisional IRA is not questioned by the police. Instead there are three-way discussions involving the RUC, the British Government and the Cardinal Primate, as a result of which the priest is transferred to a nearby diocese in the Irish Republic.

A cover-up? A conspiracy? The Police Ombudsman seemed to think so in a report released last week. The British government reacted by saying they were 'profoundly sorry' that Fr Chesney was not properly investigated.

Before you get too comfortable on your high horse, assured in your conviction about appropriate church-state separation, there is another side to this story.

Throughout more than 30 years of killing and maiming in Northern Ireland, the media, the governments of Britain and Ireland and politicians of every hue maintained that this was a political conflict. On one side were people who wanted the Brits out and a united Ireland; on the other side were those who saw the union with Britain as part of their birthright.

Though virtually everyone on one side was from the Catholic community and those on the other side belonged to one or other brand of Protestantism, nobody dared to call it a religious war.

For the record, after Claudy, five coffins went to one graveyard and four to the other — which way is irrelevant, they were all equally dead.

Now consider what would almost certainly have happened if this priest was questioned and charged with involvement in the bombing. The DPP appeared to consider that a conviction was unlikely. A court case would have inflamed both sides, the Catholics roused to anger that one of their priests had been victimised, the other side having their secret fears of priest-rebels confirmed.

Whatever its outcome, a public court case would have made every priest a legitimate target for the terrorists on the Unionist side, every Catholic church and school a possible mark.

The Provisional IRA have never been noted for logical reasoning, but neither have the other side — in that month of July alone, loyalist paramilitaries killed 22 civilians. It would take only one tit-for-tat attack to turn the conflict into what many suspected it was but no one was prepared to say: a religious war.

So there you have it, moral theologians. The next time you lecture to your seminarians, explain how Aquinas or Liguori or Rahner would have dealt with this dilemma?

Frank O'SheaFrank O'Shea is a retired teacher. His book Keeping Faith: 40 Years of Marist College Canberra was published in 2008. 

Topic tags: Frank O'Shea, Claudy, Northern Ireland, IRA, Cardinal William Conway, Fr James Chesney



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Existing comments

"if the priest was questioned and charged with involvement in the bombing" I agree with Frank's description of the likely outcome if the hypothetical situation had been realised.

However surely Fr Chesney was questioned by the Cardinal. If he was we don't know what he said. If he confessed to the Cardinal under the seal of confession, the cardinal's room to manoevre was very restricted.
Sending Fr Chesney into exile was one option - but just across the border seems ludicrous.
If he wasn't questioned by the Cardinal, why not?
I assume the Cardinal when faced with such a moral dilemma had to work on the Aquinas principle of accepting the lesser of two evils.

It would seem the chief constable and Mr Whitelaw acted with the greater good of Northern Ireland society in mind - avoid making a bad situation worse.
Sometimes the letter of the law, even the due process of law, is not the way to go.

Uncle Pat | 31 August 2010  

Fair go Frank. This is a legal question. If the DPP did not think there was a case to prosecute, then that is a legal matter. But that is all conjecture given that the police did not do their duty, which was to have investigated Fr Chesney if they had their suspicions of his involvement. But a suspicion of involvement is, by itself, not enough for anything. So I don't know why you say that the DPP "appeared to consider that a conviction was unlikely". If after investigation there was a case to answer it should have been put to Father Chesney in a court of law. Prognosticating about what might or might not have followed is idle.

The requirements of justice demanded that the matter should have been fully investigated. If the state will not find justice for the victims of the bombing and their families, who will? And since both Catholics and Protestants were killed and injured, who is to say what the community reaction would have been.

The conflict in NI was in fact inflamed whenever there were cases of injustices and failure of leak process, eg the Birmingham 6. Really Frank, it is a no-brainer. In the long run, the rule of law must be upheld no matter what the political interests of the state and the Church.

Fr John Fleming | 31 August 2010  

In my visits to Catholic and Protestant schools in Belfast in the 1980s I was often told that this segregation contributed to the conflict. In Abbotsford the children had religious wars in the 1950s in my street, which ceased with the immigrations, which filled the Catholic schools with more tolerant Italians and children of all religions as well. Protestant schools also had a wide range of religions.

Now we are funding segregation which the Catholic and Protestant mainstreams will regret supporting in their own interests, as all children are segregated into dozens of sects, many hating each other.

valerie yule | 31 August 2010  

Frank: No matter what way one looks at this question from a moral point of view it was and is a dilemma. Aquinas and Liguori would have known a great deal about tribal blood feuds. The latter, while on parish missiions, refused to leave communities until there was reconciliation. We are not looking at moral/ ethical systems or text book theologies here but rather how conflicting communities arrive at some sort of resolution in favour of the good.

In this regard, you might consider what was going on secretly, at the the very highest levels, in the bi-lateral meetings at the Clonard Gardens Monastery off Falls Rd during the 70s-80s. Away from the public glare and its associated sectarian posturings, people were actually talking to one another and seeking agreed common ground.

You might have some wisdom on that, if you in fact know what went on at that Monastery.

David Timbs ALBION. VIC. | 31 August 2010  

Fr Chesney was not a subject of the Cardinal. He remained in his parish in Derry Diocese for more than 6 months after the bombing. Derry Diocese covers both sides of the border. He was questioned by his Bishop, later questioned by the next Bishop Of Derry who lives still, who was convinced he was not involved. Until his death he spent his time working in his Diocese in a parish in the Irish Republic.

James Kane | 31 August 2010  

The article stipulates that Fr. James Chesney was suspected of IRA involvement. It would be safe to say that he had republican sympathies, as would many of the priests in the dioceses of the north of Ireland.Many of these priests would have come from the Catholic & Nationalist areas of Belfast & Derry, i.e. Ardoyne, The Short Strand, The Falls Rd, and the Bogside.No evidence has come forth to prove that Fr. Chesney was a member of the PIRA. He may have been a "fellow traveller".Mr. O'Shea is correct in his assertion that had Fr. Chesney been investigated and tried for membership of the IRA, priests would have become targets of the Loyalist Paramilitaries. Colusion has been proven to have existed between the Loyalist Paramilitaries, the RUC, and the British security forces. These three organisations have been implicated in the deaths of the solicitors, Rosemary Nelson and Pat Finucane.The former UFF leader, Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair is reported to have said, that if he was ever assassinated by the IRA, there were plenty of people who went to mass at Holy Cross Church, Ardoyne, for retaliations to take place. The arrest of Fr. Chesney would have inflamed the conflict to this extent. The loyalist paramilitaries chose their victims because they were Catholic. Their cause was sectarian and backed up by the bigoted bile of the Orange Order.

James Clarke | 03 September 2010  

Whichever way you look at, Irish Catholics drew the short straw.

It was their children the Government and the hierachy left floundering being viciously abused by Irish clergy for decades.

I wonder how moral theologians Aquinas Ligouri or Rahner would have dealt with that.

L. Newington | 28 September 2010