Northern Ireland

McGuinness 'forgot deathbed talk' with Claudy suspect

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness has said he forgot a deathbed conversation he had with the priest suspected of being involved in the 1972 Claudy bombing.

Mr McGuinness told the BBC in 2002 he had never met Fr James Chesney, but on Wednesday he revealed they had met.

He said on Thursday there was no suspicion about Fr Chesney at that time and only recalled the meeting in recent years when further allegations emerged.

"It was an omission on my part and it was a mistake," he said.

Also on Thursday, Mr McGuinness said he was willing to meet the families of victims of the bombings.

The Police Ombudsman said last month that the police, the Catholic Church and the state conspired to cover up Fr Chesney's suspected role in the no-warning car bomb, one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles.

Mr McGuinness said he became aware of "justified" complaints that he did not make a public statement at the time of the Police Ombudsman report.

"I wasn't in the country when the Police Ombudsman's report was issued, but I had decided that the families were entitled to the truth," he said.

"This wasn't something forced out of me by a journalist, this was something I could have quite easily kept hidden for the rest of my life, but I chose not to."

In 2002, Mr McGuinness issued a statement to BBC Northern Ireland current affairs programme Spotlight, saying: "I have never met Father Chesney, nor do I have any knowledge of him other than from media reports."

The deputy first minister said on Thursday the meeting had not stood out, as there was no controversy about Fr Chesney at the time.

"A friend of mine who was aware I had met with Fr Chesney reminded me of that, and it was only then that I recalled the meeting had happened," he said.

Mr McGuinness echoed comments by the former Bishop of Derry, Edward Daly, who said he was sceptical about the allegations made about Fr Chesney.

"Fr Chesney's reputation has been hung, drawn and quartered by the media and by those with vested interests, including the RUC," said Mr McGuinness.

"In the meeting, there was absolutely no mention of anything to do with the IRA. It was only in 2002 when allegations were made, on foot of put into the public domain by the RUC, that we have this situation.

"People need to question who put these allegations into the public domain - the same people who wouldn't put the names of the British soldiers who murdered 14 people in Derry into the public domain."

Mark Eakin, whose eight-year-old sister Kathryn was among the nine people killed, said he could not understand how Mr McGuinness could forget his meeting with Fr Chesney.

"I know a lot of ministers on both sides of the community, and if I was sitting with one of them on their deathbed, I would remember it until the day I die," he said.

The Police Ombudsman's investigation found high-level talks led to Fr Chesney, a suspect in the attack, being moved to the Irish Republic.

No action was ever taken against Fr Chesney, who detectives believed was the IRA's 'director of operations' in south County Londonderry. He died of cancer in 1980 at the age of 46.

No paramilitary group has ever claimed responsibility for the Claudy bombings, and no-one has been convicted of them.