Ireland’s shameless cardinal

Claudy bombings cover-up shows sorry is the hardest word for the Catholic hierarchy — yet again.

Revelations that the Catholic Church and the British government covered up the involvement of Fr James Chesney in the 1972 Claudy bombings in Northern Ireland are shocking enough. (The police concluded at the time that Chesney was an IRA leader, while the then Irish primate, Cardinal Conway, agreed that he was "a very bad man".)

Worse is that the Catholic hierarchy then allowed Chesney to continue as a cleric, transferring him from Derry to Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland.

The current primate, Cardinal Sean Brady, and the Bishop of Derry, Seamus Hegarty, have issued a statement saying it is "shocking that a priest should be suspected of involvement in such violence".

But Brady, in particular, has appeared to be more concerned about protecting what remains of the Church's tattered reputation in Ireland. "The Catholic Church did not engage in a cover up," he said yesterday. "The Church was approached by the secretary of state, investigated and reported back. I don't see that as a cover-up."

Really? As the Irish Examiner put it:

Mary Hamilton, who ran a hotel in Claudy and was in the town that day, said: "I would like to see the Catholic Church coming forward and telling us why they felt Fr Chesney's life was more important than nine people in the village."

I saw Brady on Sky News, facing some admittedly tough questioning about the ombudsman's report. The interviewer, Colin Brazier, began by asking him just how many Catholic priests were also terrorists in the 1970s. But after a while Brazier began to look puzzled. All Brady needed to do was state unequivocally that it was utterly wrong for a suspected terrorist to carry on ministering to the faithful as a Catholic priest. This, it seemed, he could not bring himself to do.

Instead, the impression was of yet more weasel words from Brady, who faced calls to resign earlier this year over his -- admittedly minor -- role in a process that left a notorious paedophile priest free to attack other children.

Evasive, inarticulate, he came across as living proof that, as the Augustinian priest Father Iggy O'Donovan said only days ago, "in recent decades the ranks of the Irish episcopate has been manned with second-raters, rather than men of vision and imagination".

On what happened -- or rather, didn't happen -- to Fr Chesney, Brady bleats: "The Church was put in an impossible situation. From this distance, I cannot judge whether it was right or wrong."

If he genuinely can't make that call, he should go right now. The Catholic Church can never recover respect, still less its former moral authority, while led by such pathetic, cowardly men. To call them second-raters is a compliment they don't deserve.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.