The families of the 13 innocent people shot dead by the Parachute Regiment when they took part in a civil rights march against internment without trial in Londonderry in 1972 will learn in the coming week if soldiers, who are alleged to have carried out the killings, will be prosecuted.
There is no doubt about what happened on Bloody Sunday 47 years ago since Lord Saville’s report, 5,000 words long and the fruit of 12 years’ work, was published in 2010. It concluded that none of the casualties shot by the soldiers “were posing any threat of causing death or serious injury”. It said that all soldiers bar one responsible for the casualties “insisted that they had shot at gunmen or bombers, which they had not”. Saville added that “many of these soldiers have knowingly put forward false accounts in order to justify their firing”.
Saville said the report was “absolutely clear” and there were “no ambiguities” about events in the city on that day. David Cameron later told the House of Commons that “what happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.”
But eight years after Cameron had apologised, the Commons heard another story from the Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, who said this week that the deaths caused by the British security services during the Troubles were “not crimes” but people acting “under orders and under instruction and fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way”.
This was so very different from Saville and Cameron that it was followed by a frantic row-back on the part of Bradley, followed by some some touchy-feely stuff about acknowledging the pain of the families of the dead who might be upset by her words.
Bradley’s original statement and confused apologies were greeted with derision by the media, which recalled her past gaffes, comparing her ineptitude to that of the transport secretary Chris Grayling whose pratfalls and failures – and unsackability because of Brexit – are notorious.
But Bradley’s incompetence and ignorance – her kinder critics say that “she is out of her depth” – are a diversion from a more serious failing on her part, one which has the potential to do real damage to the stability of Northern Ireland. This is simply that what she said and later apologised for reflects all too accurately the real thinking of much of the government, most Conservative MPs and the great majority of their party supporters.
Prominent Brexiteers have never liked the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), while others consider it a Labour project that they would be happy to see wither on the bough. Michael Gove compared the GFA to the appeasement of the Nazis. The former Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson happily retweeted an article saying that the GFA had run its course and he supports a hard border with the Irish Republic. The “Get Back Control” slogan of the pro-Brexit campaign was aimed at the EU, but it can be rapidly adjusted for use against the GFA, which undoubtedly does dilute the formal authority of the British government in Northern Ireland though expanding its real influence.
Bradley’s statement in the Commons could be dismissed as the normal Conservative knee-jerk support for the British Army. But the problem here is that its tone is in keeping with Conservative actions since they won the general election in 2010. Since then they have ignored essential parts of the GFA, such as the central role of the nationalist population in the north and, until recently, of the Irish government. Cameron may have apologised for Bloody Sunday but he sent a right winger like Paterson to Belfast as secretary of state.
Bit by bit the preconditions for peace have been chipped away. A crucial element was the declaration by the British government under John Major in 1993 that it was neutral between unionists and nationalists. This enabled it to mediate successfully between the two communities. It also enabled it to act in concert with the Irish government if the two communities could not agree.
This neutrality was carelessly abandoned long before Theresa May finally knocked it on the head when she became dependent on the DUP for her parliamentary majority in 2017. DUP MPs are now treated as if they were the sole representatives of Northern Ireland, though its voters chose decisively by 56 to 44 per cent to stay in the EU. Moreover, demographers say that Catholics and nationalists now each make up half the population of the north and will be in the majority in two years’ time.
Contrary to criticism, Bradley’s repeated gaffes, automatic support for the British Army and open ignorance of the Northern Irish political terrain are nothing out of the ordinary for politicians holding her job. Perhaps it is unfair to blame this on the Conservatives alone: the British political class has a long tradition of ignoring Ireland until it blows up in their faces.
The fact that Bradley’s ill-considered remarks were made only days before there is to be a decision by the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service about the prosecution of soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday is also par for the course.
A central reason why the Troubles went on for so long was that successive British governments from 1968-69 failed to realise the extent to which internment without trial, Bloody Sunday, the hunger strikes, the Birmingham Six and similar injustices delegitimised the British state in the eyes of the nationalist community. A myth was maintained that the IRA has only two or three per cent support in the nationalist community and that it was always on the verge of total defeat. But small guerrilla groups depend more on tolerance or support than they do on military capacity and this popular acceptance was underestimated by the British and Irish governments. Both were astonished when Sinn Fein started winning elections under their own name in the wake of the hunger strikes.
These grievances in Northern Ireland are often presented as “legacy” issues which are only kept alive by the historically obsessed Irish who ought to let the dead bury their dead and get on with their lives.
But this is exactly what Brexit – along with a prolonged failure by the British government to keep the GFA in good working order – is preventing people in Northern Ireland from doing. It is absurd for people in Britain to criticise anybody in Northern Ireland for undue interest in the past when Brexit is doing just that by resurrecting a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, the elimination of which was central to the peace agreement. If Britain goes backward into the past, there is no reason why the Irish should not do the same thing.