Learn the lessons

Paul Greengrass - Bloody Sunday - ITV, 10pm, January 20

Paul Greengrass's 'docu-drama' Bloody Sunday portrays vividly, and with a remarkable degree of detail, the murderous attack which was made by the United Kingdom state on an insurrectionary population in Derry, Northern Ireland on January 30 1972. That it has taken 30 years for such a work to gain a mainstream television and cinema showing is testimony to the effectiveness of the hidden censorial machine at the disposal of the UK ruling class. Even now, the film would not have penetrated beyond the fringes but for the present-day peace process and, in particular, the currency of the Blair government's Saville inquiry. The latter is presented as a judicial re-examination of the Bloody Sunday events. In reality it is a 'healing process' which the ruling class believes essential to successful pacification. This film too will undoubtedly be seen by the champions of the peace process as serving the same purpose. The NI statelet has been successfully reformed. It is hardly a coincidence that we have another drama based on the events of Bloody Sunday on Channel Four on January 28 - Jimmy McGovern's Sunday. The UK state is busily repackaging itself as an anti-racist, post-colonial power - Orange/loyalist sectarianism does not fit the bill. The opening sequence cuts between the simultaneous press conferences given by Ivan Cooper, Social Democratic and Labour Party member of parliament for mid-Derry and leader of the Derry Civil Rights Association, played by James Nesbitt, and by major-general Ford, British army commander of land forces, played by Tim Pigott-Smith. Cooper tells us that the civil rights movement will march and march and march again until the discrimination against catholics, which has existed in the north ever since the partition of Ireland, has been ended. "The British government have promised reforms," he continues, "but all they have delivered is excuses, curfews and, now, mass internment without trials." Ford counters that all marches and demonstrations are banned indefinitely, "due to the adverse security situation". He adds that anyone involved in such actions is liable to arrest and that the Civil Rights Association must bear responsibility for any violence. The scene shifts to the streets. The civil rights leaders organise the march with chaotic urgency. It is clear that it will be enormous. Equally clear is that the mobilisation by the British army will also be massive and that the march route, to the seat of Derry council, the Guildhall, will be blocked. Overcoming initial opposition from Bernadette Devlin and other committee members, Cooper secures a decision to reroute. He uses a contact with a senior officer of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Laggan, to convey this to the army command and to ask for a reciprocal nonintervention. The request is rejected by Ford, who tells local army command that he has just come from a briefing at Downing Street and that the prime minister "has had enough of this Londonderry rebellion". The British army plan is outlined. The march will be stopped by the Royal Greenjackets at barrier 14. The aim will be to secure a separation from the march of the "Derry young hooligans", some 200-300 of whom will then be arrested "with maximum aggression" by the commandos of the Parachute Regiment. "If the shooting starts, we will shoot back. We need to teach these people a lesson," the Paras commander, colonel Wilford, tells his men. As the march is mobilised in the streets of the Bogside, surrounded by the barbed wire-topped security walls, the nature of the insurrectionary movement becomes clear. It is based overwhelmingly on the 'catholic' working class. Men, women and children all join the march. The local commanders of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, men drawn from the same population, observe from a car. Cooper affirms with them that they will not use the march as cover to attack the British forces. "You will win nothing with marches," they tell him. When, close to barrier 14, the march veers from the announced route, a large group of young militants protest loudly. They confront the troops at the barrier, with shouts of "Brits out" and stone-throwing. Cooper is shown arguing with them to rejoin the march, but has to give up the attempt. He rejoins the head of the march as it proceeds to the new location of its closing rally. The separation has been achieved. The shooting soon starts. First to open fire are a small number of Paratroopers stationed atop the walls. "We are under fire," one of them shouts, initiating stage two of the plan. Wilford then orders his men to move into the crowd to carry out the third stage, the 'lesson teaching'. The massacre unfolds, carried out with the planned "maximum aggression". The British plan is fulfilled, stage by stage, with just one exception: the policy of arrests is not carried out, the film leads us to conclude. A soldier with a conscience is shown asking, "Where are our targets?" Others are in no doubt. Round after round is fired, with conventional and high velocity rifles, at the panicking group of youngsters. Anyone else who gets in the way becomes a target. A man calling for an end to the shooting while assistance is brought to a casualty is shot. Another man crawling on the floor on his belly is despatched. Two young men driving a grievously injured friend to hospital are forced out of the car at a British roadblock. The victim, a central character in the film, but identified only as "Gerry" is left to die in the car. Later, after the British command has been shown acknowledging that none of the dead bodies have been found to have any weapon upon them, anonymous hands are shown, stuffing Gerry's pockets with nail bombs. The scene shifts to the aftermath. Paratroopers discuss their kills. The uneasy one protests, "We have shot civvies." Another urges, "We must get our story right - we shot at gunmen." The worried man concurs when questioned at the army debriefing. Ford debriefs the press: "We only fired at persons who fired at us. Londonderry is quiet tonight. We have taken one step in the right direction, in re-establishing law and order." He departs the scene, assuring the Paras of his total support. But the "quiet" gives cover as Derry's young men enlist in the IRA, as confirmed by Cooper at the CRA's press debriefing: "This has been our Sharpeville, our Amritsar massacre. My message to the British government is this. Yes, you have destroyed the civil rights movement today and you have given the IRA the biggest boost it has ever had." Cooper is an unusual figure in the history of the Irish war - a young 'protestant' worker in a shirt factory, who detests discrimination against catholics and is inspired by the spirit of 1968 and especially by the American black civil rights movement. His apparent aspirations to become the Irish Martin Luther King die on Bloody Sunday. His reformist politics are defeated on that day and, when they are reborn two decades later, it is not he who is at the helm, but the men he argued with in the Provo's staff car. This excellent film ends appropriately, with a textual footnote reminding us that the British army commanders in charge at Bloody Sunday were all decorated by the queen. They are still being protected by the state they served so well. The Saville inquiry has suffered defeat after defeat by British court rulings, preventing it from effectively calling the soldiers to testify. The inquiry will have to reach a conclusion eventually though. A hint was dropped in the film. Once Edward Heath, the Tory prime minister at the time, dies, we may very well see him blamed for the massacre. Heath is reviled by the capitalist class as one of their dismal failures. No doubt many on the left will dance with delight if such a verdict is reached. They will be missing the point. The crucial lesson of January 30 1972 is that the institutions of the bourgeois state - military, judicial, bureaucratic and ideological - can and will act unconstitutionally or autonomously when it and the social system it defends are grievously threatened. It is the task of communists to explain this fact of life and to win the working class to a programme of smashing those state institutions and of taking political power itself. The might, determination and bitter sacrifice displayed by the minority 'catholic/nationalist/republican' working class in the north of Ireland is an inspiration to us. Derek Hunter