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"We hope it will lead to greater harmony among all the parties," declared Louis Susman, US ambassador to Britain, speaking during a visit to Northern Ireland a week after the June 15 publication of the report of Lord Saville into the massacre in Derry of 13 civil rights marchers by British paratroopers on Bloody Sunday, January 30 1972.
The 5,000-page £200 million report, published 12 years after the establishment of the tribunal by Tony Blair, found that none of the dead or wounded had been offering any threat to soldiers or anyone else when they were shot. The paratroopers, concluded the tribunal, had acted reprehensibly and without justification.
Introducing the report in the House of Commons , British Premier David Cameron accepted the findings in their entirety, declared that the paras had disgraced the British army and apologised in unequivocal terms to the families of the victims. The families had campaigned for 32 years for a second inquiry: the first, under Lord Chief Justice Lord Widgery, published within 11 weeks of the atrocity, has since become a byword in Ireland and beyond for judicial mendacity. It found that the soldiers had opened fire only after coming under fire themselves and that the marchers had anyway invited death upon themselves by deliberately breaching a ban on demonstrations.
Ambassador Susman’s enthusiastic welcome for the Commons speech was echoed by Barak Obama in a telephone conversation with Cameron. A State Department spokesperson “noted the historic nature of the prime minister’s statement last week on the inquiry into the tragic events of Bloody Sunday, commending its contribution to Northern Ireland’s reconciliation efforts”.
Elation at Cameron’s perceived honesty reached its apogee with a rash of reports in British and Irish media last week that the way was now clear for Queen Elizabeth of England to make the first visit to the Irish Republic of a British monarch since the foundation of the State in 1922. One prominent representative commentator opined that, “Following the publication of the Saville Report and the British Prime Minister’s apology and acknowledgement that what happened on Bloody Sunday was wrong and unjustifiable, the time is now right for the Queen to visit the Republic of Ireland”.
Irish president Mary McAleese has made it known that she expects to welcome the Queen before the close of her term of office at the end of next year.
None of this would have been possible had Cameron not been able to denounce and disown the perpetrators of the atrocity and distance them from the British army and the British State and so free himself to apologise unreservedly to the families of their victims.
The families and their supporters will be forgiven for having surfed along on the wave of joy which greeted the vindication of their loved ones. This is what they’d craved for three decades. Wider political matters could wait. Widgery’s great lie had been laid to rest
But Saville’s mammoth report repays closer reading. When it came to the allocation of blame, he followed the well-worn pattern of convicting the lower orders while exculpating the higher command and dismissing entirely the possibility of political leaders having been complicit in the events.
The individual paras who fired the shots which killed or wounded are damned in the report for the roles they played. Additionally, Lt. Col. Derek Wilford, commander of the First Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, is made a target for obloquy. It was his disobedience, says Saville, which put the paras into position to carry out the killing. Had he followed orders, the massacre would never have happened. Thus, one flaky battalion commander and a small squad of kill-crazy foot-soldiers did it all.
The effect was to insulate the rest of the Parachute Regiment, not to mention the British army as a whole, from blame. The report was brilliant for the Bloody Sunday families. It wasn’t a bad result for the British either.
Cameron might have found it more difficult to disown those involved had Saville included in his list of culprits, say, Major General Robert Ford, Commander of Land Forces, Northern Ireland, at the time, or Captain Michael Jackson, second-in-command to Wilford on the day.
Ford, second in seniority in the North in 1972, commissioned the Bloody Sunday battle plan, Operation Forecast, and ordered the paras to Derry to carry it out. In the weeks before Bloody Sunday he had made plain his frustration at the failure of Derry-based regiments to bring the Bogside “no-go area” to heel. In a document published by the Inquiry dated January 7 1972, Ford declared himself “disturbed” by the attitude of army and police chiefs in Derry, and added: “I am coming to the conclusion that the minimum force necessary to achieve a restoration of law and order is to shoot selected ringleaders amongst the DYH (Derry Young Hooligans).”
Ford took the decision to deploy the paras six days before Bloody Sunday, overruling a message the same day from Derry commander Brigadier Pat MacLellan indicating that he and local police chief Frank Lagan believed that any direct confrontation with the civil rights marchers should be avoided. Ford held to the plan in face of strongly-expressed opposition from other senior Derry-based officers, too. On the day, although with no operational role, he travelled to Derry and took up position at the edge of the Bogside, shouting “Go on the paras!” as they ran past him through a barbed-wire barricade towards the Rossville Street killing ground.
Saville suggests that Wilford allowed his soldiers in the Bogside to exceed MacLellan’s orders “not to fight a running battle”. But nowhere in the report is it considered whether Wilford and the paras might have had reason to believe or suspect that MacLellan’s orders need not be regarded in all the circumstances as binding. The possibility that Ford’s decisions in advance and comportment on the day played a part in the way matters developed is brusquely dismissed: Ford “neither knew nor had reason to know at any stage that his decision would or was likely to result in soldiers firing unjustifiably on that day,” Saville declares in chapter four of his Report’s first volume.
In the same chapter, Saville acquits British political and military leaders of blame: “It was also submitted that in dealing with the security situation in Northern Ireland generally, the authorities (the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland Governments and the Army) tolerated if not encouraged the use of unjustified lethal force; and that this was the cause or a contributory cause of what happened on Bloody Sunday. We found no evidence of such toleration or encouragement.”
This is remarkable. Numerous incidents over the previous year might have suggested toleration, at the least, of unjustified force. The most egregious had happened six months before Bloody Sunday when the First Paras were involved in killing 11 unarmed civilians over three days in Ballymurphy in west Belfast. Newspapers of the period, particularly Nationalist newspapers, were carrying regular complaints, many of them plausible, of unjustified and sometimes lethal violence by soldiers against civilians. The Parachute Regiment figured prominently in these claims. Toleration of unjustified force might have been inferred from, for example, the fact that no inquiry had been held into the Ballymurphy massacre nor any para disciplined or statement issued expressing regret.
Saville dismissal of the suggestion of a “culture of tolerance” would be unremarkable if by “evidence” he meant direct testimony to his Inquiry. He had at an early stage declined to examine prior events in the North on the reasonable ground that to subject the Ballymurphy incident, for example, to the same level of scrutiny as Bloody Sunday would have made the Tribunal’s task impossible. But this makes the statement that, “We found no evidence…” puzzling: the Tribunal had decided not to gather such evidence.
Many who read through the body of the report will be puzzled, too, by Saville’s acceptance of the explanation eventually offered by Captain Jackson of his role in compiling the “shot-list” which formed the basis of the initial cover-up of the killings.
Jackson rose high in the ranks after Bloody Sunday. He was Nato commander in the Balkans and subsequently Chief of the General Staff – Britain’s number one soldier.
Jackson had been present in the Bogside during the Bloody Sunday shooting. Remarkably, he didn’t see anyone shooting or being shot. He had provided the Tribunal with a statement detailing his movements before taking the witness stand in London in April 2003. Nowhere in this statement or in his April evidence did he refer to compiling the shot-list or other documents giving a version of what had happened. His role emerged the following month during evidence from Major Ted Loden who described how, late in the afternoon of Bloody Sunday, he had taken statements from the shooters and plotted map references showing the trajectory of their shots. However, when a number of documents including the original of the shot-list were then produced, the list turned out to be not in Loden’s handwriting but in the handwriting of the now Chief of Staff of the British Army. How could this have come about, Loden was asked. “Well, I cannot answer that question,” came the reply.
None of the shots described in the list conformed to any of the shots which evidence indicated had actually been fired. Some trajectories took bullets through building to hit their targets. All the targets were identified as gunmen or nail or petrol bombers.
The other documents in the Chief of Staff’s hand were personal accounts of the day’s events by Wilford, the three para company commanders present and the battalion intelligence officer.
Recalled to the stand in October 2003, Jackson agreed that he must have written the documents. He had recovered a “vague memory” of them, he said, after the shot-list and the accounts of his colleagues had been discovered by the Inquiry. Earlier, it had entirely slipped his mind that he had produced by his own hand within hours of the massacre a detailed version of Bloody Sunday in which no British soldier did anything wrong and the victims had been to blame for their own injuries or deaths.
In their statements to the Inquiry, none of the soldiers whose shots were included on the list recalled being interviewed by either Loden or Jackson about their firing. None of the officers whose personal accounts had been written out by Jackson had any memory of the circumstances in which this had happened or of it happening at all.
Under questioning, Jackson found himself badly hampered by poor memory. On more than 20 occasions, he used phrases along the lines, "I cannot remember," "I do not recall," "I have only a very vague memory.”
Saville resolves one contradiction by accepting both Loden’s original claim that he had written out the shot-list and Jackson’s subsequent explanation that he must have copied Loden’s script verbatim, although he could offer no explanation why he might have done this or recall who had asked or ordered him to do so. Loden’s own list has never been found.
In Volume 8 of the Report, Saville rejects suggestions from the families’ lawyers that “the list played some part in a cover-up to conceal the emerging truth that some innocent civilians had been shot and killed by soldiers of 1 PARA, although it is not explained exactly how this conspiracy is said to have worked.”
Having suggested that it was not clear how a cover-up based on the documents might have worked, Saville goes on to say that, “the list did play a role in the Army’s explanations of what occurred on the day.” He cites an interview on BBC Radio at one am on the day after Bloody Sunday in which the army’s head of information policy in the North, Maurice Tugwell, used the list as his basis for explaining the “shooting engagements”. Elsewhere, he finds that “information from the list was used by Lord Balniel, the Minister of State for Defence, in the House of Commons on 1st February 1972, when he defended the actions of the soldiers.”
It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Saville that this was the conspiracy in action.
Had Saville seen it differently, had he damned Jackson for orchestrating the cover-up of mass murder, Cameron could not have projected the guilty men of Bloody Sunday as rogue elements whose reprehensible behaviour reflected not at all on the British army as a whole.
The Bloody Sunday report let the Brits off the hook big-time and facilitated the coming together of the Green Tories of Irish Nationalism and the True Blues of monarchist Britain. When Betty the Brit makes her way along O’Connell Street next year, she’ll have the subtlety of Saville to thank.
EAMONN McCANN can be reached at Eamonderry@aol.com