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Sunday 12 November 2006

Faces streaked bright red, the glass, the dust, and the dead

IT WAS 1972, the most terrible year of all the terrible years of the Troubles, but on Monday
July 31, the little Londonderry village of Claudy was peaceful. In his Ballad of Claudy, the
distraught Jimmy Simmons set the scene after the ensuing horror. (He wrote it so soon that there
are minor errors in his account along with the great truth.)

The Sperrins surround it, the Faughan flows by,/at each end of Main Street the hills and the
sky,/the small town of Claudy at ease in the sun,/last July in the morning, a new day begun.

At 10.20am, 59-year-old Catholic, Elizabeth McElhinney, was serving petrol at the pump outside
the family pub and shop, and Kathryn Eakin, a nine-year-old Protestant, had begun to clean the
windows of her father's grocery store. I mention their religions, as this was a village
unbothered by sectarianism, which made what seems to have been an attack on them aided by a
priest, even more terrible.

How peaceful and pretty if the moment could stop,/McElhinney is straightening things in his
shop,/ his wife is outside serving petrol,/and then a girl takes a cloth to a big windowpane.

It is believed that the bomber saw Kathryn at work as he walked away from his lethal car. We
should not be surprised - one of the Omagh bombers smiled at a shopper as he strolled away from
his target. Other people were doing the things people do in a village - performing services for
each other or having a chat, like the 39-year-old Catholic factory worker, Joseph McCloskey, and
the 65-year-old Protestant, James McClelland.

Kathryn and Liz were lucky enough to be killed instantly - the 52-year-old Catholic
mother-of-eight, Rose McLaughlin; the Catholic 15-year-old schoolboy, Patrick Connolly; and the
38-year-old Catholic insurance representative and father-of-two, Arthur Hone, died from their
injuries later.

Sixteen-year-old Protestant William Temple, who had got up that day at 4.30am, was helping the
60-year-old Protestant, David Millar, with his milk round.

And McCloskey is taking the weight off his feet,/and McClelland and Miller are sweeping the
street,/and delivering milk to the Beaufort Hotel,/young Temple's enjoying his first job quite

And Mrs McLaughlin is scrubbing her floor,/ Artie Hone's crossing the street to a door,/and Mrs
Brown looking around for her cat,/goes off up an entry - what's strange about that?/

Not much - but before she comes back to the road,/That strange car parked outside her house will
explode,/and all of the people I've mentioned outside/will be waiting to die or already have

An explosion too loud for your eardrums to bear,/and young children squealing like pigs in the
square,/and all faces chalk white and streaked with bright red,/and the glass and the dust and
the terrible dead.

The police were there soon, to see what Simmons immortalised:

For an old lady's legs are ripped off, and the head/of a man's hanging open, and still he's not
dead./He is screaming for mercy,and his son stands and stares/and stares, and then suddenly -
quick - disappears,/

And Christ little Katherine Aiken is dead,/and Mrs McLaughlin is pierced through the head.

Horrified by the carnage and trying to save other lives, the police found a second bomb in the
back of a minivan at the post office and moved people towards the Beaufort Hotel, where a third
bomb - which killed the milkmen and James McClelland - was in another minivan. Mrs Miller, who
was having a cup of coffee at the hotel, ran outside and was able to identify her husband's
destroyed body by the buttons she had sewn on his coat that morning.

Oh, of course the bombers hadn't meant to commit such an affront to public opinion. Sean
MacStiofain, the then head Provo, alleged in his autobiography that his reaction was to say
"Holy Mother of God, who is responsible for this?" Exactly the sentiments of Gerry Adams over
Enniskillen, we are told.

Frankenstein creates the monster and then whinges about the monster's failure to do its job
sensitively. Martin McGuinness may also have had a bad moment or two. Claudy was devastated as
the security forces were storming the Bogside 'no go' area, and many in Claudy still believe
that McGuinness ordered the bombing as a show of strength, without having wanted the murder of
civilians. As Simmons concludes, the problem was: Meanwhile to Dungiven the killers have
gone,/and they're finding it hard to get through on the phone.

The callbox was out of order because of earlier bomb damage to local exchanges. This upset not
just Provo leaders. Ivan Cooper, an SDLP member of the Northern Ireland parliament, records that
within a couple of days, "a man lurked like a scared rabbit outside one of my constituency
offices. He told me the IRA was behind the bomb and I had every reason to believe him. He gave
no names and I asked no names. That is the way it was then. It was dangerous to know too much.
But several months later, I became aware of the identities and I have absolutely no doubt that
Father Jim Chesney was involved."

And this is where this hideous local tragedy becomes topical, for the Police Ombudsman, Nuala
O'Loan, is about to come out with a report into the police conduct of the investigation of this

Four years ago, the then Assistant Chief Constable, Sam Kinkaid, said that a search of 1972
papers showed that a priest in south Derry - later identified as Father Chesney - was a member
of the Provisional IRA who had provided an alibi for a person suspected of playing a central
role in the Claudy bombing.

There is strong evidence that Chesney confessed his involvement to another priest and that the
then Secretary of State, Willie Whitelaw, had a chat with Cardinal William Conway, and as a
result, Chesney was moved to a rural parish in Donegal, where he died of cancer in 1980.

The rumour is that O'Loan will be proving collusion between church, state and the police to
cover-up the involvement of Chesney. Mrs O'Loan is an absolutist who judges yesterday's policing
by the standards of today. This admission may make me seem a bad person, but I understand why it
is possible that - in a year when the number of Troubles-related deaths would escalate from 180
the previous year to 497 - Whitelaw and the Cardinal were terrified that a massacre of priests
could follow the unmasking of Father Chesney. They did a deal and the RUC, racing from one
massacre to another, could have been persuaded to let the matter drop. It mightn't have been
right, but their intentions were .

Meanwhile, Claudy was left to its grief. Almost 30 years later, residents erected a memorial to
the dead that was intended to illustrate individual grief. Last month, vandals knocked it from
its plinth. 

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards