Truth still hidden

Anne Mc Shane examines the failings of the Saville inquiry into the Bloody Sunday killings

The findings of the Saville inquiry into the Bloody Sunday killings of 14 unarmed civilians caused barely a ripple across the British establishment last week - despite the blame for the 1972 massacre being placed squarely on soldiers of the British occupying army in Ireland.

The long awaited publication of the Saville report[1] - after 12 years of evidence, ‘investigation’ and legal analysis, costing just under £200 million in total - found that the shooting of civil rights demonstrators by the Parachute Regiment in Derry was, in the words of prime minister David Cameron, “unjustified and unjustifiable”.

The report was delivered to the government in March, but not published until June 15. This was apparently due to security issues and concerns that the identity of military witnesses could be ‘compromised’ if the document was not carefully checked before being released. Officials from the home office and defence ministry, plus solicitors from the treasury, were called in to inspect it first. It is no coincidence that treasury solicitors represented the soldiers at the inquiry - and the ministry of defence was of course their employer. In the meantime mainstream politicians, civil service mandarins and the military top brass were fine-tuning their responses.

David Cameron delivered his prime ministerial and very carefully worded apology the same day as the report was published. A nauseating and hypocritical response from a man who in a separate speech in the same week made clear his full support for her majesty’s armed forces in all their repressive global misadventures. He like Tony Blair before him - who apologised in 1997 for the British government’s role in the 1845-52 Irish potato famine - used weasel words to express the regret and humility of British imperialism. Apologies out of the way, we are told that it is now time to move on. All part of the Good Friday process.

But the report contained nothing to cause the state undue concern - not least because it was released so long after the events, whose main details have long been public knowledge. Contrary to the expectations of some, there were no shocking findings. The establishment has not been rocked as a result. While we did see the formal admission for the first time that the victims had been unarmed, this was hardly news. Some things just had to be acknowledged - a mere 38 years too late. That the killings were “unjustifiable” had never been in any doubt - except for the entire UK state, at the time intent on a blatant cover-up, and its sycophantic apologists in most of the British media. In reality the testimony of those present, with the exception of the paratroopers themselves, was absolutely conclusive.

On January 30 1972 Derry was swarming with media. They had flocked there to report on a mass civil rights protest, called specifically to oppose internment without trial and the ill-treatment of political prisoners in Long Kesh concentration camp. Ten thousand people turned out to march, with no expectation of what was to come. As the state forces moved in, the news footage captured clearly the shocked and panicked faces of demonstrators as the paras opened fire on them. Young men and women running in fright from the scene. Many of the victims shot in the back. The cameras showed soldiers continuing to shoot at rescuers waving white handkerchiefs, as they attempted to reach the wounded and dying. The fact that ambulances were prevented from reaching the scene is also well documented. Bloody Sunday represented the unleashing of state violence against the mass movement. The fact that it took 12 years for Saville to confirm as much is much more of an insult than it is vindication.

The original Widgery report, hastily put together in 1972, was obviously a blatant whitewash. It is also clear that the soldiers who gave evidence to Widgery had been carefully coached and prepared by senior army officers before doing so. Their accounts were manufactured and coordinated in order to alibi the killers and blame the victims. The aim was to justify an increased armed presence in Northern Ireland and the stepping up of repressive measures. Peaceful demonstrators were dubbed dangerous armed gunmen who posed a threat that demanded a rapid defensive response. Absolutely sickening.

And while Saville’s official exoneration of the victims may give comfort to their relatives, the report is hardly a satisfactory analysis of what went on. Its conclusions tell us that the blame for the killings lay exclusively with the ordinary paratroopers and their commander, Derek Wilford. There was a loss of control and gross disobedience of orders by Wilford - long since retired and disappeared from view. But even a cursory examination of the facts shows that these conclusions are an attempt to simply scapegoat those on the ground, while protecting the upper echelons.

Leading military officials, who masterminded and oversaw the deployment of the paras and the subsequent cover-up, are let off the hook by Saville. One such was major general Robert Ford, commander of the land forces. It was he who actually commissioned the Bloody Sunday ‘battle plan’ and ordered the paras to carry it out. The plan, codenamed Operation Forecast, was designed to deal with those most prominent in the civil rights protests. He himself had stated on January 7 1972 that the only way to achieve ‘law and order’ was to shoot selected Derry “young hooligans”. This document was before the inquiry, but Saville still managed to exonerate Ford from any responsibility. On Bloody Sunday itself (as the report describes) he stood at the edge of the Bogside and shouted, “Go on, the paras”, as they rushed passed him towards Rossville Street, where they inflicted their carnage.

Another leading military commander, Sir Michael Jackson, who later went on to become British army chief of staff from 2003 to 2006, assisted in compiling a ‘shot list’, which was the basis of the cover-up. This list purported to show that the soldiers had fired at “gunmen” within the Rossville Street area - something that was exposed as a complete fabrication. A colleague of Jackson’s, major Ted Loden, told the inquiry that he had taken statements and plotted the trajectories of the bullets in the aftermath of the shootings. But a number of the documents that he purportedly prepared, including interviews with military commanders and the intelligence officer, were actually in Jackson’s handwriting. Loden could not provide an explanation for this and Jackson said he could not remember what happened. Maybe he had simply transcribed it? He said he was sorry, but he just could not assist the inquiry - his memory had simply failed him. Saville, faced with such obvious duplicity, still refused to implicate Jackson, and the army establishment he represented, in any wrongdoing.

The backdrop of army killings and brutality that preceded January 30 was also excluded from the inquiry. Just six months before Bloody Sunday, 11 unarmed civilians had been shot over several days by soldiers in Ballymurphy. There were regular reports of attacks and intimidation of Catholics. The British army, which had initially been greeted by the population as protectors against the sectarian forces of the Northern Ireland statelet, the so-called ‘B Specials’ and the Royal Ulster Constabulary - were now also seen as the enemy. Internment without trial was in operation and many civil rights protestors were subjected to torture under interrogation. It was a situation not unlike that faced by protestors in Iran today - and all of this within the United Kingdom.

Bloody Sunday was certainly not an isolated event. But it was a watershed. It changed the civil rights movement into a national struggle. The real face of British imperialism had been revealed and there was no going back. The whole of Northern Ireland exploded into flames and the republican movement was reborn.

Bernadette McAliskey was on the platform at the Bloody Sunday demonstration. In a recent article she describes how, as she witnessed the events, her disbelief gave way to fear and anger. Finally she was angry only with herself for her naivety, as the realisation dawned that the British state is perfectly capable of using terror as a political weapon. This was the nature of the imperialist presence in Ireland.

McAliskey describes how, as Bernadette Devlin MP, she was prevented from giving her eye-witness account in parliament, while home secretary Reginald Maudling was allowed to lie and blame the protestors for their own deaths. She says: “In what was considered a gross overreaction and disgracefully violent behavior, I crossed the floor of the house and hit him.”[2] To this very day when I think of this young woman defiantly taking to the floor of the Commons to physically confront the lying hypocrite, Maudling, I feel total admiration for her passion and bravery.

Today, of course, we have a very different reality. We have the inheritors of that anti-imperialist struggle in direct compromise negotiations with the same state. The inquiry itself was a concession to Sinn Féin and the Irish government as part of the negotiations that led to the 1998 Good Friday settlement. But there was never any chance that its terms of reference would be anything but the most narrowly restrictive. While the British government accepted 12 years ago that the inquiry’s conclusions would finally have to admit the killings had been “unjustified”, the bigger story would not be told. The involvement of senior politicians and military figures in directing operations would not be investigated. Neither would the surrounding circumstances, background and reasons behind the demonstrations and deployment of the army. It was obviously part of a policy to violently and brutally suppress the people’s movement. Why else would the British state put the army - and the paratroopers at that - onto the streets if that was not its intention?

The whole costly exercise has served to excuse the British state from any wrongdoing and to conceal the real meaning and impact of Bloody Sunday. However, calls for the prosecution of individual paras are unrealistic and also avoid the essential point. These soldiers were acting as part of a state determined to suppress a mass movement. They were under orders. It is the state that should be in the dock, not the individuals on the ground.


  1. www.bloody-sunday-inquiry.org
  2. www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jun/15/bloody-sunday-british-government-soldiers