Bloody Sunday: Truths, Lies and the Saville Inquiry

Bloody Sunday: Truths, Lies and the Saville Inquiry
Douglas Murray
Biteback Publishing, 320pp, £20

Douglas Murray's book about the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday opens with an account of the shooting of Barney McGuigan in Derry on the afternoon of Sunday 30 January 1972. Cowering behind a block of flats with others who had been on the civil rights march when the paratroopers began firing, McGuigan heard the cries of Patrick Doherty who had been shot while trying to crawl to safety and now lay out of sight, pleading for someone to help him because he did not want to die alone.

Everybody pressed up against the wall of the flats was too scared to move. Doherty's cries stopped but then started up again: after several minutes of this, McGuigan said he could not bear to listen any more and, ignoring the attempts of his companions to stop him, walked slowly sideways into the open towards where he thought Doherty lay. When he had gone three or four yards, he was hit by a bullet that, in the words of a woman watching, "blew his head up like a tomato exploding". Others in the vicinity - and a British army officer in an observation post on the city walls - had seen the paratrooper who fired the shot get down on one knee across the street and aim his rifle at McGuigan.

We can assume that Murray begins his book with this incident not only because it is horrific and emblematic of the ruthlessness of the day but also because it enables him to make a wider point about the aftermath of one of the most notorious incidents of the Troubles. Barney McGuigan's 16-year-old son, Charles, had been forbidden by his father to take part in the march but he had gone to watch it with friends. Shaken by what he had seen, he unknowingly walked past the covered body of his father, telling an acquaintance that he was hurrying home because his parents would be worried about him.

In the conclusion to his book, Murray quotes Charles's testimony to Lord Saville, in which he recalls how, shortly after Bloody Sunday, his mother made him kneel on the kitchen floor in front of a picture of the Sacred Heart and "swear to her that I would never do anything about my father's death that would bring shame on the name of the family". This meant joining the IRA. "I have honoured that promise to this day," he said.

Hugh Barbour, who was also 16 when he saw Barney McGuigan being shot, told the inquiry that the spectacle had prevented him from turning to violence. "I knew I could never justify doing this to another human being."

Bloody Sunday has long been identified as a pivotal moment in the fortunes of the IRA, producing hundreds of recruits as well as increased legitimacy and prestige, but Murray wishes Charles McGuigan and Barbour to stand for all those who "decided that in response to murder they did not have to become murderers themselves".

Some readers will be surprised, given Murray's reputation as a conservative commentator, by his acknowledgment that the demonstrators on Bloody Sunday were marching for justice. His compelling account of key moments from the enormous amount of evidence gathered by the Saville inquiry is no revision of Saville's conclusion that there was no excuse for Bloody Sunday. His accounts of the evidence of the anonymous paratroopers who took the witness stand are forensically dismissive of their lies. Soldier F, who shot Doherty and McGuigan, tried to plead ignorance - "I remember firing my weapon but I do not know when, where and why I fired it" - despite the accumulation of incontrovertible evidence of what he had done.

Murray is equally scathing about the evasions of Martin McGuinness as to what he did on the day and whether he was armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun, which he may or may not have fired. One of his best chapters is on the number of IRA gunmen who were present on the day and the reluctance of the many who had seen men carrying or firing guns to reveal this out of a sense that doing so would be an act of disloyalty to the innocents who died. But at no point does he suggest that the shots fired justified the behaviour of the paratroopers.

Murray notes that Irish society has "a strange relationship with violence", remembering mur­-derers as heroes while forgetting not just their victims but all those who chose not to kill even if they believed in nationalism. His view is seemingly echoed by Lord Saville's conclusion that there was nothing surprising or sinister about the number of IRA men in the Bogside on Bloody Sunday. Yet there are reasons why political violence has been seen as legitimate in Ireland that must be explained.

Indeed, it seems equally strange that the soldiers responsible for Bloody Sunday were never sanctioned; Murray is surprised that General Robert Ford, who decided to deploy the paratroopers, escaped censure in Lord Saville's report. Soldier F was never disciplined or criticised and spent 15 more years in the army. This too, must be explained.

Maurice Walsh's latest book, "The News from Ireland: Foreign Correspondents and the Irish Revolution", is published in paperback by IB Tauris (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar