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Sinn Fein chief says he met Catholic priest involved in 1972 bombing, didn't discuss it

DUBLIN (AP) — The senior Sinn Fein politician in Northern Ireland's government acknowledged Wednesday that he did meet a Catholic priest responsible for a 1972 triple car bombing that killed nine civilians but insisted they never discussed the IRA attack.

A British government-sanctioned report last month into the Claudy bombing found that police, government and church leaders conspired to shield the priest, James Chesney, from prosecution amid fears that his arrest would deepen community divisions and increase violence.

The report put a renewed focus on Martin McGuinness, deputy leader of Northern Ireland's peacemaking coalition of Irish Catholics and British Protestants, who has long sidestepped his own record as the senior Irish Republican Army commander in the area at the time.

Investigators found that police had credible evidence that Chesney was operations director of an IRA unit that left three car bombs in the village of Claudy, south of Londonderry, on July 31, 1972. The attack came as Britain was launching "Operation Motorman," its biggest-ever military crackdown against the IRA in Londonderry, McGuinness' power base.

McGuinness initially denied ever meeting the priest, but on Wednesday said he met him once for 25 minutes in 1980 as Chesney was dying of cancer. The Sinn Fein deputy leader said they discussed politics in general.

"There was no mention whatsoever of the Claudy bomb," McGuinness said. "He just talked about his support for a united Ireland."

McGuinness reiterated his claim that he had asked other IRA figures in Londonderry — in 1972 and at other times since — whether the IRA planted the Claudy bombs. "They have denied it and I believe them," he said.

McGuinness' claims are at odds with all independent histories of the IRA and the Claudy bomb. Throughout the IRA's failed 1970-97 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom, it often denied responsibility when its members bungled attacks.

In the case of Claudy, the bombs detonated without warning because the attackers hadn't identified a working telephone from which they could make a warning in time. Witnesses said the attackers tried to use public phone booths and a shop's phone, but none was working because a previous IRA bombing had destroyed a local switchboard.

The Aug. 24 report by Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson found that detectives investigating the Claudy slaughter wanted to arrest Chesney, but they were overruled by a police commander and Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw.

Those authorities calculated that the arrest of a priest would inflame Catholic opinion — already enraged by the killing of 13 Catholic demonstrators by British troops on Bloody Sunday earlier that year — and also would risk triggering extremist Protestant attacks against Catholic officials, churches and schools.

The year 1972 was the deadliest of the entire Northern Ireland conflict, with more than 470 people killed.

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Online:

Claudy report, http://www.policeombudsman.org/Publicationsuploads/Claudy.pdf