Bloody hell

Those Are Real Bullets, Aren't They?

Peter Pringle and Philip Jacobson <em>4th Estate, 310pp, £12.

Bloody Sunday was a textbook catastrophe of British colonial policing. The paratroopers who rampaged through the Bogside in Derry on 30 January 1972 served no political function in a state still committed to the rule of law and principles of civil order. The consequences of that half-hour were predictable. Back in the 1930s, a British general had written a guide for military strategy that could have been an epitaph for Bloody Sunday 40 years earlier. "Excessive severity", wrote Major General Sir Charles Gwynn in his book Imperial Policing, "may add to the number of rebels and leave a lasting feeling of resentment and bitterness. On the other hand, the power and resolution of the government forces must be displayed."

It is clear from the gripping reconstruction of Bloody Sunday by Peter Pringle and Philip Jacobson that the British top brass in Northern Ireland had intended that their response to the illegal anti- internment march would be a clear and intimidating signal of the power and resolution of the security forces. They were under political pressure to put a stop to the incessant rioting in Derry - not least from the Protestant shopkeepers in the city's commercial district, where the regular rioters were encroaching from the two Catholic ghettos. They regarded the paras as the men for the job.

On the day, General Robert Ford, the Commander of Land Forces for Northern Ireland, stood at the barricade as the paratroopers were unleashed shouting: "Go on the paras, go and get them, go on, go and get them." The plan of operations was for the march to be contained until the rioters had become detached from the main body of the demonstration. The paras would go in hard and arrest as many rioters as possible. In the event, in the words of John Johnston, a 59-year-old who was wounded on the day and who died several months later, "they were just shooting at anything, like herrings in a barrel". The coroner who presided over the inquest on the deaths a year later came to a similar conclusion: "It strikes me that the army ran amok that day and shot without thinking what they were doing."

The British officers were convinced that the IRA would use the march as a cover to open fire on the troops. The main defence of the paras for their actions was that they had come under sustained attack and fired shots at people threatening them with guns or bombs. Pringle and Jacobson describe the presence of gunmen in the vicinity, but suggest that they fired ineffective rounds after the paras had begun their assault. Much of their material is a reworking of their original investigation for the Sunday Times in the immediate aftermath of the shootings; they also incorporate classi- fied documents released in the past few years. The main strength of their book is the meticulous reconstruction of each death in a vivid narrative.

Although Pringle and Jacobson make use of evidence presented to the tribunal of inquiry chaired by Lord Widgery, their book is indirectly a critique of Widgery's findings. For Dermot P J Walsh, a distinguished Irish legal scholar, the Widgery tribunal was a profoundly compromised exercise that corrupted the subsequent rule of law in Northern Ireland. Crucially, Widgery never interrogated the multi-layered discrepancies in the testimony of the paratroopers. There were already fundamental differences in their accounts given in interviews with military police in the hours after Bloody Sunday, and then these accounts themselves were changed for their testimony to the tribunal. The effect of the changes, Walsh writes, was to make what would have been a reckless killing "a more justifiable one". Widgery wrote that the paratroopers' evidence was impressive because their stories had withstood rigorous cross-examination. But since there was no opportunity at the time to compare the paratroopers' immediate statements to the military police with the statements they prepared for Widgery's inquiry, this judgement now looks absurd. On the night after Bloody Sunday, Edward Heath's final piece of advice to Lord Widgery was to remember that the British government was not only fighting a military war in Northern Ireland, but also a propaganda war. Perhaps this is the nub of the failure of Widgery.

What is the use of the Saville inquiry now hearing evidence in Derry? Tony Blair hopes that it will deliver some kind of redemptive truth. But already the waters have been muddied by the presentation of an informer's report that Martin McGuinness fired the first shots from a sub-machine gun. And even if Saville does produce a convincingly truthful account of what happened, will that salve the pain, resentment and now fossilised grief of Bloody Sunday?

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why I am voting for Ken Livingstone