14 Aug 2022

CLAUDY BOMBING: 50 years of inexplicable pain as hope for truth dwindles

The families have been repeatedly denied justice.

CLAUDY BOMBING: 50 years of inexplicable pain as hope for truth dwindles

A scene of devastation in Claudy after the three bombs went off 50 years ago.

The view from Claudy's sloping Main Street on a summer's morning is idyllic. Green hedges skirt the edges of sprawling fields in the Faughan Valley below.

Houses lie dotted across the land that leads to and surrounds Feeny and Dungiven. Distant cars scurry along country roads, apologetically subtle amidst the natural beauty.

The vista's gentility betrays the horror of what happened here fifty years ago.

Three bombs. Nine dead. No warning. No explanation. No admissions.

It's been 50 years since the bombs were detonated in Claudy killing nine innocent people and injuring many others

On the morning of July 31 1972 – a Monday - at the height of what would become known as one of the deadliest years of the Troubles, three car bombs exploded in the village.

Nine-year-old Kathryn Eakin was cleaning the windows of the family's nearby grocery shop when the first bomb – planted in a stolen Ford Cortina - exploded outside McElhinney's Bar at around 10.15am.

Kathryn died a week later in hospital from her injuries. Joseph McCloskey, a 39-year-old factory worker was killed instantly by the bomb while bringing his four-year-old son to buy a newspaper.

Pub owner Elizabeth McElhinney (59) also died instantly, killed in the blast as she served a customer at the bar outside which the bomb was planted.

15-year-old Patrick Connolly was struck by flying metal as he stood in a shop on Main Street, dying eight days later from his injuries.

During the ensuing panic, police became aware of a second vehicle – a stolen Mini Traveller – parked outside the post office on Main Street.

After a suspicious device was located in the rear of the car, police began to clear the area, with much of the crowd heading for Church Street.

“At approximately 10.30am, two further explosions occurred almost simultaneously,” read the 2010 Ombudsman's Report into the bombing.

As well as the device in the Mini Traveller on Main Street, a further bomb had been placed in a stolen green Morris Minor van outside the Beaufort Hotel on Church Street.

The final blast killed street cleaners James McClelland (65) and David Miller (60), as well as sixteen-year-old William Temple, who had been accompanying the local milkman on his round.

Insurance salesman Arthur Hone (38) died a fortnight after the bombing, while mother-of-eight and cafe owner Rose McLaughlin (52) died in hospital four days later.

A family member of those killed in the 1972 Claudy bombing, places their hand against a stain glass window in the village. Photo: Paul Faith/PA

For fifty years, the effect of that devastating half hour in the north Derry village has haunted the survivors and victims, with the false dawns of promise exacerbating that hurt.

No one ever claimed responsibility, nor has anyone ever been charged. A 1973 inquest recorded an 'open verdict' in respect of the nine deaths.

In 2002, the PSNI commenced a review of the original RUC investigation with a view to identifying new evidence, and with it came arrests - three men and a woman – in November 2005.

Two men aged 67 and 60 were arrested in Dungiven and a 50-year-old man in Portglenone, Co Antrim. A 58-year-old woman was detained in Dungannon, Co Tyrone. All were released without charge.

Among them was serving Sinn Féin MLA for East Derry, Francie Brolly, who at the time told The Irish Times the arrest had been a 'character assassination'.

Mr Brolly later began legal action against the PSNI over his arrest, but the matter was later 'stayed' and he did not proceed with the case.

Victims and relatives of those affected by the Claudy bombing pictured in 2010 when the Police Ombudsman's report into the atrocity was published. Photo: Julien Behal/PA

Then in 2010, the families packed into the village's Diamond Centre for the publication of the Police Ombudsman's report into the bombings and their investigation.

The report revealed a distinctive car travelling from Claudy had stopped in Feeny, where a passenger attempted to use an out-of-order phone box.

It was then driven at speed to Dungiven, where two men got out and attempted to use the phones in separate shops.

With those phones not working, the shop assistants were asked to tell police in Dungiven that there 'were three bombs in Claudy'.

By the time police in Claudy received this information, the first bomb had already exploded.

The owner of the car, referred to in the report as 'Man A' was arrested by police in early August 1972, but was released after his alibi was confirmed by a third party and Fr James Chesney.

Chesney, a Catholic priest, features prominently in the 2010 report, with a document dated August 1972 revealing that police had assessed his alibi as being 'prepared in advance' of the bombings.

James Chesney

Intelligence held by the RUC prior to the bombings had “idenfitied Father Chesney as the Quarter Master and Director of Operations of the South Derry Provisional IRA,” said the report.

One detective had wanted to have Chesney arrested and the parochial house searched, but found his request refused by a Special Branch officer, who said 'matters were in hand'.

Then-Secretary of State William Whitelaw relayed the intelligence to Cardinal William Conway in December 1972, who mentioned the possibility of transferring him to Donegal.

Chesney ultimately was transferred to Donegal, where despite travelling over the border numerous times, he was never further questioned or investigated in relation to Claudy. He died in 1980.

The 2010 report concluded that the police were 'wrong' to engage with the government and Catholic Church on Chesney rather than act on intelligence around his alleged involvement.

Eleven years later, in September 2021, the PSNI and Northern Ireland Office (NIO) agreed confidential settlements to legal action taken by three of the Claudy families.

Claudy's Main Street pictured today.

The case, centred on investigative failures into the attack, was brought by the families of William Temple, David Miller and James McClelland and was settled 'without an admission of liability'.

Further legal proceedings on behalf of the families against the Catholic Diocese of Derry remain unresolved and are still ongoing almost a year later.

50 years after the events of that July morning turned their lives upside down, the families' wait for the truth still continues.

As one by one those who could provide answers take the truth to their graves, the families can only hope a pang of conscience leads someone to speak out.

Staring across the Faughan Valley and beyond, there is still a hope that someone out there will come forward, reveal what they know, and hand the families the keys to closure.

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