Bloody Sunday hypocrisy

Blair’s announcement of a new judicial enquiry has already provoked tensions within the British ruling class

Twenty-six years after British troops shot dead 14 people in Derry’s Bogside, the government claims to have discovered “compelling evidence” which necessitates a new enquiry.

On January 30 1972 thousands of nationalist residents attempted to march to the city centre, demanding the end of internment and the release of republican prisoners held without trial in British concentration camps. The Stormont government, with the backing of London, had declared the procession illegal and troops prevented the peaceful marchers from continuing.

The fact that scores of youths hurled missiles at the occupying soldiers came as no surprise. But on this occasion the state had prepared its reaction. It had planned to provoke just such an incident so as to use it as a cover for smashing Free Derry - the Bogside no-go area with its rebellious inhabitants. They were to be taught a lesson about the nature of British democracy.

Troops from the 1st Parachute Regiment, especially brought in from Belfast, entered the Bogside in armoured vehicles. They shot at the unarmed marchers who tried to escape the onslaught. The firing continued for a prolonged period - from the ground as well as from army snipers at their vantage points high on the city walls. Deaths and injuries occurred in several different areas of the Bogside. Some people were shot while trying to help those already wounded and at least two others were killed while they had their hands in the air.

The state propaganda machine was ready with its official line. Soldiers had fired only in self-defence, it was claimed. They had come under fire from IRA gunmen mingling with the demonstrators. At first army statements alleged that all those killed had been firing, but subsequently it was admitted that this was not the case. Some of them might have been caught in the crossfire, according to the amended version of events.

The youngest victim was 16-year old Gerald Donaghy. Residents tried to rush him to hospital in a car, but they were stopped by troops who removed the fatally injured youth, denying him medical assistance. Having left him to die, they planted two nail bombs in his pocket and flaunted his photograph before the media as ‘evidence’ of the lethal weapons allegedly used to attack the soldiers. No other weapons of any description were found, despite the fact that the army claimed to have shot dead several “gunmen”.

A whitewash tribunal was set up under Lord Widgery. After 11 weeks he produced a report of just 38 pages, which exonerated the army. Not a single civilian could be found to back up claims that the army had opened fire immediately after being shot at, but Widgery pretended to believe the soldiers. He said that there was “reasonable evidence” that at least three of the dead men had been using firearms and that others had been behind barricades alongside gunmen.

As a concession to the overwhelming barrage of evidence from Bogside residents that the army had deliberately shot all the 14 dead in the full knowledge that they were unarmed, the judge conceded that some of the army’s actions “bordered on the reckless”.

There is nothing “new” about any of this, as the state now claims. What is new is the changed political situation: the ending of the IRA’s military resistance to the British occupation of the Six Counties and the delicate state of the current stage of the ‘peace’ process. In a carefully choreographed move, Blair’s announcement of a fresh inquiry was timed to coincide with the Irish government’s publication of a 178-page report detailing all the army falsehoods and the compelling civilian evidence that Widgery chose to ignore. In this way the state cynically implies that it had previously been unaware of the true facts, which have at last been brought to light in Ireland.

The media have undergone a remarkable transformation in their coverage of the annual marches held in London and the Six Counties to commemorate Bloody Sunday. After more than two decades of either studiously ignoring them or painting them as a cover for terrorism, the BBC actually publicised this year’s London march in advance. The sole purpose of the event, according to radio news bulletins, was to demand an enquiry. In previous years the marches have been characterised by militant calls to support the IRA, to drive out the British imperialists as the only way to ensure that the events of 1972 are never repeated. This year however, the marchers, including elements of the revolutionary left, took up the cue: “No more Bloody Sundays - public enquiry now!” was the most frequent chant. Within days the government could be presented as having acknowledged a legitimate request.

Another change has been seen in the attitude of army establishment figures. Last weekend BBC television showed a documentary, Remember Bloody Sunday, first screened in 1992. At that time the commanding officer in Derry, Lt Col Derek Wilford, was asked if he considered the victims to be innocent. “Oh no,” he replied, “I can’t believe that. That would be to believe that my soldiers were wrong ... There is no innocence in a riot.”

Six years later he is singing a different tune: “One cannot help thinking we were taken there to teach them a lesson, to go in knocking a few heads and show them they cannot have a no-go area.” Already laying the groundwork to pass the buck back to the government, he added: “[Such an action] has to come from higher than the brigade commander. The germ of it must have started in London.”

If the result of the Widgery report had been a foregone conclusion, so too will be the findings of the new enquiry set up under judge Mark Saville. He will declare the ‘innocence’ of all the victims, criticise the ‘mistaken’ actions of the armed forces and perhaps even apportion some blame (the more serious the ‘overreaction’, the lower will be the rank of its perpetrator).

This will entail risks for Blair. If blame, or even neglect, is established in bourgeois law, that will leave individuals or the army itself open to civil proceedings. Indeed the government has so far refused to rule out “blanket immunity” from prosecution. For that reason army officers like Wilford are feeling distinctly edgy. This was reflected in the reluctance of George Robertson, the secretary of state for defence, to go along with Blair’s move. He admitted he had initially opposed a new enquiry.

However, in order to keep the ‘peace’ process on track the government now needs to take ‘pro-republican’ initiatives. After last month’s unionist-oriented ‘propositions on heads of agreement’ Blair has breathed new life into the Anglo-Irish ‘framework document’, a move welcomed by Sinn Fein. That has restored the balance at the all-party talks, introducing a stronger all-Ireland element into the proposals for a settlement, while still leaving in place the Ulster Unionist Party’s ‘council of the isles’ as a guarantee of continued British hegemony over Ireland.

Viewed in the context of the talks, a new Bloody Sunday enquiry does not involve costly concessions. It is a gesture towards the nationalist population aimed at winning over republicans through the ‘good intentions’ of the government. And, as The Independent pointed out, “The enquiry should destroy the value of Bloody Sunday as propaganda for the IRA”. The 1972 slaughter did indeed give the IRA its biggest ever recruitment boost.

However, the changed policy could have serious repercussions within the British establishment. The upper ranks of the armed forces will not take kindly to having their true record exposed and sections of the Tory Party are outraged by what they view as criticism of an operation undertaken to re-establish ‘law and order’ in Derry. For these elements the questioning of a ‘successful’ military action is nothing short of an assault on British values (and the existing UK constitution). The Hague leadership itself is unenthusiastic.

The Daily Mail has for its part launched a campaign to defend the army’s record, along with its condemnation of “IRA apologia” in the shape of recent films based on events relating to Ireland - Some mother’s son, In the name of the father and now Resurrection man.

This latest film recounts the story of the ‘Shankhill butchers’ who kidnapped catholics at random and tortured them to death in Belfast. While the Daily Mail was complaining that such ‘one-sided’ representations give a distorted picture of reality, the Loyalist Volunteer Force threatened to launch another “unholy war against the nationalist community”.

Blair’s strategy carries the risk of provoking damaging splits within the British ruling class. At present most sections continue to back him, but events - in Britain as well as in the Ireland - could yet conspire to create deep schisms capable of throwing up a crisis, not unlike the Tory-backed Carson rebellion before World War II.

Jim Blackstock