Bloody Sunday, the Ongoing Cover-Up

June 15 marks the first anniversary of the publication of the report by Lord Saville into the killing in 1972 of 13 civil rights marchers in Derry by members of the Parachute Regiment. The report acknowledged the innocence of all of the dead and of the 13 wounded. In a speech introducing the report in the House of Commons, David Cameron, just a month in office, accepted that the killings had been “unjustified and unjustifiable” and apologised to the families of the victims.

The unequivocal terms of the apology were greeted with euphoria in Derry. The report, Cameron’s speech and reaction to the speech have since been seen as a key stage in a process of “reconciliation” and “healing” in Ireland. But this may not be the whole story, according to Eamonn McCann, chairman of the Bloody Sunday Trust, which coordinated the campaign for the establishment of Saville’s inquiry.

The Saville Report’s recognition that all of the 13 Bloody Sunday dead and 13 wounded had been innocent sparked an eruption of joy in Derry. The sea of shining faces gathered in Guildhall Square for the release of the report on June 15, 2010 could have lit up a continent. This was the acknowledgement the Bloody Sunday families had craved through the long years of their trek towards the truth, and it was sufficient unto the day.

A year later, it should be possible also to acknowledge that the report was far from flawless. Saville convicts the lower ranks of the Parachute Regiment while exculpating the higher military command and dismissing any suggestion of political leaders having been complicit in the events.

The paras who fired the shots which killed or wounded are damned in the report. Additionally, Lt. Col. Derek Wilford, commander of the First Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, is singled out for criticism. It was his disobedience, says Saville, which put the shooters into position to carry out the killings: specifically, it was Wilford’s failure to follow the plan drawn up by more senior officers, and not the plan itself, which led to the massacre. The report’s conclusion is that one undisciplined middle-rank officer and a small squad of kill-crazy foot-soldiers did it all.

In this respect, the report, brilliant for the families, is not a bad result for the British military and political elite either.

Saville’s endorsement of the role of the most senior figures involved was important for Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech in the House of Commons on the day of publication in which he conceded that the killings and woundings had been “unjustified and unjustifiable”. Cameron would have found it difficult to use such forthright language had Saville included in his list of culprits Major General Robert Ford, Commander of Land Forces, Northern Ireland, at the time, or General Sir Michael Jackson, second-in-command to Wilford on the day, later army Chief of Staff, Britain’s number one soldier.

Saville’s case against Wilford is that he breached orders by sending his men into the Bogside to arrest rioters despite the fact that the youths concerned were mingled into a much larger number of peaceful civil rights marchers; by sending in two companies of paras when the operational plan had authorised only one; by sending one of the companies in armoured personnel carriers rather than, as ordered, on foot; and by allowing “a running battle down Rossville Street” to develop, when orders had been specific that the paras were not to go deeply into the area. According to Saville, these derelictions of duty, taken together with the readiness to kill of a number of those under Wilford’s command, provide as full an account of the reason for Bloody Sunday as it is possible to assemble.

If these are the only proximate causes of the killings, Bloody Sunday holds few lessons, none of them profound, for the conduct of State forces involved in internal conflicts, whether in Britain or elsewhere: see to it that orders are obeyed, that rioting elements are separated from others before sending in arrest squads and so on.

It is appropriate to consider whether there might be more to Bloody Sunday than Saville allows and deeper lessons to be learnt.

It was Ford, second in seniority in the North only to the General Officer Commanding, who commissioned the Bloody Sunday battle plan, Operation Forecast, and organised with the army’s Belfast commander, Brigadier Frank Kitson, that1 Para would be “loaned” to Derry for the day to take the lead in implementing the plan.

In the weeks before Bloody Sunday Ford 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, he declared himself “disturbed” by what he regarded as the soft attitude of army and police chiefs in Derry to the Bogside, 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).”

Six days before Bloody Sunday, Ford overruled objections to the proposed use of the paras by Derry commander Brigadier Pat MacLellan and local police chief Frank Lagan. He remained firm as other senior Derry-based officers expressed similar alarm at the likely result of bringing in the paras to “scoop up” youths involved in any riot which might follow the civil rights march. One officer felt so strongly that he phoned a military contact in London to try to get a message to the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Michael Carver, asking him to intervene.

On the day, although with no operational role, Ford travelled to Derry and took up position at the edge of the Bogside, shouting “Go on the paras!” as they charged through a barbed-wire barricade towards what was to become the Rossville Street killing ground. Ford was, of course, the most senior officer present.

The possibility that Ford’s decisions in advance and comportment on the day might have played a part in the way matters developed is dismissed by Saville: 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.”

In the same chapter, Saville insulates political and military leaders generally from 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.”

Numerous incidents over the previous year might have suggested toleration if not encouragement of unjustified force. The most egregious had happened six months before Bloody Sunday when the Paras were involved in killing 11unarmed civilians over three days in Ballymurphy in west Belfast.

Newspapers of the period, particularly Nationalist newspapers, were carrying regular complaints and editorial condemnations of unjustified violence by soldiers against civilians. Toleration of this behaviour might have been inferred from, for example, the fact that no inquiry had been held into the Ballymurphy massacre nor any soldier disciplined or any statement issued by the authorities expressing sorrow or regret.

Saville’s conclusion that there was no evidence of a “culture of tolerance” would be unremarkable if by “evidence” he meant testimony to the Inquiry. But he had declined at an early stage to examine prior events in the North on the ground – in itself not unreasonable – 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. This makes the statement that “We found no evidence…” puzzling: the Tribunal had decided not to seek such evidence.

Ford should have had vivid memory of the paras’ involvement in the Ballymurphy killings. He had arrived in the North to take up his post as army no. two in the first week of August 1971 – a few days before the introduction of internment without trial sparked the protests that led to the Ballymurphy events. The killings were his baptism of fire which it is difficult to believe he could have forgotten six months later. But Saville finds that he neither knew nor had reason to know that the soldiers of the same regiment whom he sent into the Bogside to deal with the aftermath of an anti-internment march might open fire without justification

It is puzzling, too, that Saville accepted Jackson’s explanation of the role he had played in compiling a “shot-list” which was to form the basis of the account of Bloody Sunday offered in the aftermath by British military and political leaders.

Jackson testified in London in April 2003 that, although he had been in the Bogside and in the vicinity of the shooting, he had seen little of the relevant events. He made no mention of compiling a list of the shots fired or of writing any other description of the day.

A different version began to emerge the following month during evidence from Major Ted Loden. He described how, late in the afternoon of Bloody Sunday, he had taken statements from the shooters and plotted map references showing in each case the location of the shooter and of his target and had noted the soldier’s account of why he had fired – his target had appeared to be armed with a gun or a nail or petrol bomb or whatever. Loden explained that he had interviewed the soldiers as he sat in the back of an armoured vehicle at Clarence Avenue a few hundred yards from Rossville Street, with the map spread out on his lap and by the light of a battery-powered lamp. He listed 14 “engagements”.

However, when a number of documents including the original of “the Loden shot-list” were produced, they turned out to be not in Loden’s handwriting but in the handwriting of the now Chief of Staff, Michael Jackson. How could this have come about?, Loden was asked. “Well, I cannot answer that question,” he replied.

None of the shots described in the list conformed to any of the shots which evidence told had actually been fired. Some of the trajectories described took bullets through buildings to find their targets.

The other documents in Jackson’s hand were personal accounts of the day’s events by Wilford, three para company commanders and the battalion intelligence officer. None of these mentioned in evidence the debriefing sessions which this must have entailed – just as Jackson had made no mention of the exercise in his April evidence.

Recalled to the stand in October, Jackson explained that he had forgotten about the documents when first giving evidence but had recovered a “vague memory” after learning that they had been produced to the Inquiry and put to Loden.

Under questioning, Jackson seemed hampered by poor memory, on more than 20 occasions using 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 the circumstances in which had happened. Loden’s own list has never been found.

Saville rejects suggestions 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. It is not explained exactly how this conspiracy is said to have worked.”

Having declared that it was not clear how a cover-up based on the documents might have worked, Saville continues 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, Saville 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.”

(The shot-list was also distributed to British diplomatic missions around the world as a guide for answering questions on the killings.)

Saville avoided a conclusion that here we had not just evidence of a conspiracy to cover up the truth of the killings but clear sight of the conspiracy in action, with Michael Jackson at the heart of it.

Had this been among Saville’s conclusions, Jackson would have been found to have concocted a series of lies to cover up unjustified and unjustifiable killings. In that circumstance, Cameron would not have been able to make the Commons speech which was to be hailed as a major contribution to reconciliation and healing in Ireland. For the speech to be made, the truth had to be twisted.

The response of the families to Saville’s resounding vindication of their murdered loved ones was thrillingly and properly euphoric. Whether other findings of the Tribunal stand the test of time as well is less certain.

Eamonn McCann can be reached at

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Eamonn McCann is an Irish journalist and political activist. He can be reached at