Sinn Fein man arrested over 1972 bombing

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A prominent Sinn Fein politician has been arrested by police investigating an IRA bomb attack which claimed the lives of six adults and three children in Co Londonderry in 1972.

The Sinn Fein MP Martin McGuinness instantly protested the innocence of Francie Brolly, a Northern Ireland Assembly member, who was one of four people being interrogated yesterday about the lethal attack in the village of Claudy.

The incident, in which car bombs exploded, produced a huge public controversy three years ago when police said they believed a Catholic priest had been one of the IRA bombing team. It emerged that the role of Father James Chesney had been known to the authorities and the Church. But it appeared that a decision to cover up the affair was arranged between the then Northern Ireland Secretary, William Whitelaw, and Cardinal William Conway.

The minister, the cardinal and the priest have all since died, but the revelation caused police to reopen the case. Seamus Mullan, a freelance sports journalist and BBC contributor, was also arrested yesterday, along with a third man and a 58-year-old-woman.

Republicans have never admitted responsibility, mainly because the bombings exacted such an appalling civilian death toll by attacking a peaceful village which contained nothing that could be described as a "military target". Warnings about the car bombs were reportedly made, but received too late.

The arrests were welcomed by the parents of nine-year-old Kathryn Eakin, the youngest victim. Her mother, Merle Eakin, said: "It is early days yet and we have to see what comes of it. It is obviously a relief after all these years, but we will have to wait and see."

Mr Brolly was elected to the Belfast Assembly and unsuccessfully stood for a Westminster seat. A retired teacher from a staunch republican family, he has been active not just in politics but also in Irish music, culture and Gaelic games. He was interned without trial during the 1970s, and wrote one of the foremost republican prison anthems, "The H-block Song". He and his wife, Anne, are widely known as a singing duo.

She is also active in republican politics, having served as mayor of the local council. Two years ago she seconded a motion from a Unionist member of the council for a judicial inquiry into the bombing. On that occasion, she said: "I felt that what happened in Claudy was a grievous wrong. If we can get at the truth and bring succour to the families in Claudy, then I certainly wanted to support the motion."

Demanding Mr Brolly's release, Mr McGuinness said: "This is a blatant example of political policing and we will be taking it up with both governments."

The Democratic Unionist Assembly member Ian Paisley Jr raised the question of whether anyone found guilty of the bombing would be jailed, since controversial new legislation could provide for convictions without imprisonment.

Meanwhile, relatives of those killed in the 1998 Omagh bombing said they had received a promise from Tony Blair that those responsible would not benefit from an amnesty. Speaking after meeting the Prime Minister yesterday, Victor Barker, whose 12-year-old son, James, died in Omagh, said Mr Blair gave an "unequivocal" assurance.

One man is currently facing charges in connection with the Omagh attack. His trial is expected to take place next year.