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The stains of Bloody Sunday

In January 1972 on the streets of Londonderry British paratroopers shot 14 unarmed civilians dead. Now a reckoning is finally upon them. 

Forty seven years after British soldiers shot 28 unarmed civilians on the streets of Londonderry, killing 14 of them, the rank and festering wound of Bloody Sunday is set to erupt once more.

Late this month Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service will announce whether 17 former paratroopers involved in those shootings should be charged with offences including murder, attempted murder and perjury. If it decides against prosecution the province’s nationalist community will be enraged. Nine years after the Saville Inquiry blamed the deaths on the soldiers’ reckless indiscipline, the victims’ relatives will protest that they have been denied the justice they have sought for nearly half a century. They will complain of yet another establishment whitewash in this long and sorry saga.

“There will be a very strong reaction, particularly in Derry, and more especially among the relatives, and they will set the tone. They will be very angry indeed,” said Eamonn McCann, a journalist and leader of the protracted campaign for justice.

But a decision to prosecute will also trigger outrage, with Conservative and unionist MPs, military veterans and Britain’s right-wing tabloids inevitably crying foul. They will protest that old men are being hounded over events that occurred long ago when they were young British soldiers doing their duty in perilous conditions. They will contend that “our boys” are being “betrayed” and “hung out to dry” to appease Irish republicanism. They will argue that the IRA’s atrocities have been ignored, that convicted IRA terrorists were released under the Good Friday Agreement, and that suspected IRA terrorists known as “on-the-runs” have been assured by the government that they will not be prosecuted.

“It’s a witch hunt,” says Brett MacKenzie, a spokesman for a group called Justice For Northern Ireland Veterans. “We feel we’re just sacrificial lambs. It’s easy to put up show trials of our guys to keep the Provisionals happy.”

Such a reaction would be curious, to put it mildly. Unless the Saville Inquiry was wildly wrong, the tabloids and those other self-styled champions of law and order, patriotism and the military should take precisely the opposite line. They should actively support the soldiers’ prosecution, because the inquiry left no doubt that those hot-headed, trigger-happy paratroopers were a disgrace to their uniform. Their conduct on that shameful day, and their subsequent lies, did immense damage to the British army, the British state and the cause of peace in Northern Ireland. It radicalised the nationalist community: “The IRA could not cope with the flood of recruits as young men and women queued to join,” the historian Brian Feeney wrote in A Short History of the Troubles. It fuelled the conflict and forced the government to impose direct rule on the province for the next 26 years.

In the words of the Saville report: “Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland.”

In the soldiers’ defence, the tension in Londonderry on 30 January 1972 was electric, the atmosphere febrile, the danger all too real. Five months previously, in response to growing disorder in Northern Ireland, the British government had introduced internment without trial. The army arrested hundreds of republican terrorist suspects – many of them innocent. Nationalists were incensed by what they regarded as a communal punishment and humiliation. Riots erupted. Violence escalated. In the last four months of 1971, at least 110 people were killed, around 30 of them soldiers.

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association organised a demonstration against internment in Londonderry. Marches had been banned, but the authorities none the less decided to allow thousands to march through the republican-controlled “no-go” areas of Bogside and Creggan, but not to approach the Guildhall in the city centre. They brought in the 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment (1 Para) to help the police bar their way and arrest any rioters.

The Paras had reason to be apprehensive: the IRA had launched numerous attacks on security forces in Londonderry, killing at least six soldiers. But they themselves had what Saville called “a reputation for using excessive physical violence”.

Sporadic rioting did break out. Stones were thrown at soldiers manning a barrier. At approximately 4pm a company of Paras gave chase. Over the next ten minutes they fired more than 100 rounds. Thirteen civilians were killed, seven of them teenagers, and another died of his injuries four months later. Fourteen others were wounded.

The army said it was reacting to gunfire and nail bombs, implying that those they shot were terrorists. As mobs burned down the British embassy in Dublin, Reginald Maudling, the home secretary, told parliament that the soldiers had fired in self-defence. After a perfunctory inquiry Lord Widgery, the Lord Chief Justice, concluded that while the soldiers’ conduct “bordered on the reckless”, they had been fired on first. Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford, Commander of 1 Para, was awarded an OBE.

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The nationalists of Londonderry dismissed Widgery as a whitewash because they knew what they had seen. “This was not an ambush on a lonely road,” says Eamonn McCann. “It wasn’t someone throwing a bomb into a pub and then disappearing. Bloody Sunday happened in broad daylight. It was witnessed by hundreds of people. Every shooting was witnessed, some by scores of people at close quarters.”

The following year the city coroner, a retired British army major named Hubert O’Neill, accused the army of “sheer, unadulterated murder”, saying its soldiers “ran amok that day and shot without thinking what they were doing”. But over the next two decades all calls for apologies, fresh investigations and prosecutions were rejected. The nationalists’ sense of burning injustice suppurated, spread and passed to subsequent generations. Bloody Sunday became a symbol of British oppression.

Finally, in 1998, Tony Blair asked Lord Saville of Newdigate to conduct an entirely new inquiry as part of the peace process that led to the Good Friday Agreement.

That inquiry was exhaustive. It lasted 12 years and cost £200m. The English law lord and two judges from Canada and New Zealand presided over 434 days of public hearings. They received evidence from more than 900 witnesses, including soldiers of 1 Para who were granted anonymity. The final report ran to 5,000 pages, and to those brought up to believe in the essential decency of the British army it made shocking reading.

It said Wilford wanted to “go aggressively after the rioters” and disobeyed orders by unleashing the incursion. Warning shots fired by a colleague may have led the soldiers to believe they were under attack, but they reacted “by losing their self-control and firing themselves, forgetting or ignoring their instructions and training”.

The dead and wounded were – with one possible exception – unarmed civilians who did not belong to the IRA, posed no threat to the soldiers and fell victim to “a serious and widespread loss of fire discipline” by the Paras. One victim was shot as he lay injured on the ground, another wounded as he helped his dying son, a third as he sought to crawl to safety. A fourth was shot while he moved away from cover waving a piece of cloth. Several were shot as they ran away.

In almost every case the report identified the soldiers who probably or definitely fired the shots, though it did not name them. It rejected their claims that they had fired at gunmen or bombers, saying most had “knowingly put forward false accounts in order to seek to justify their firing”.

It conceded that some soldiers may have fired “in panic or fear”, but most did so without knowing or caring whether their targets posed a threat, or in the “indefensible belief that all the civilians they fired at were probably members of the Provisional or Official IRA or were supporters of one or other of those paramilitary organisations, and so deserved to be shot”.

The report concluded: “What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the army and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed.”

On the day the Saville report was published in June 2010 David Cameron, the prime minister, apologised on behalf of the nation. He called its conclusions “shocking” and the carnage “unjustified and unjustifiable”. He added: “You do not defend the British army by defending the indefensible.”

Cameron said the judicial system would have to decide whether the soldiers should be tried, but he hoped there would be no prosecutions. Some of the victims’ relatives agreed. Most did not.

After reviewing the report the Police Service of Northern Ireland opened a criminal investigation in 2012 and submitted a file to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) in 2016. As the PPS’s decision will be based largely on evidence from the Saville Inquiry, it is hard to see how it could not prosecute.

The case against the soldiers – if not their commanding officers – is compelling. As representatives of the state they cannot be – or be seen to be – above the law, and should be held to a higher standard than paramilitaries. The relatives of Bloody Sunday’s victims have a right to justice – not just to compensation through lawsuits (the Ministry of Defence to date has settled with 17 plaintiffs, paying sums ranging from £50,000 to £625,000). “What does democracy mean if agents of the state can kill citizens and there are no repercussions?” McCann asks.

It is true that the events occurred long ago and the soldiers are now in their sixties and seventies, but the failure to resolve this issue earlier was entirely the fault of successive British governments. It is true that hundreds of Republican and loyalist terrorists were released from prison following the Good Friday Agreement, but they had at least been tried and convicted. The “on-the-runs” can still be prosecuted if new evidence emerges against them.

As things stand, the soldiers would not benefit from the Good Friday Agreement’s early release scheme if convicted, as it only applies to offences committed after the imposition of direct rule in March 1972. But that anomaly could be easily corrected, and judges would also have the discretion to impose very light sentences.

McCann believes many Bloody Sunday relatives, themselves now elderly, would let matters rest if the soldiers were convicted but escaped long sentences. “I suspect quite a number­ would say: ‘Fair enough. OK. We’re not going to fight that.’”

Kate Nash concurs. Her brother William was killed on Bloody Sunday. He was 19. Her father, Alexander, was shot and seriously injured while going to William’s aid. “We’re not asking for them to be hung,” she says of the soldiers. “We’re asking for them to be tried and prosecuted for what they did. Whatever punishment the judge deems necessary is up to the judge.” l

Martin Fletcher was Northern Ireland correspondent of the Times from 1997 to 1999

Martin Fletcher is a New Statesman contributing writer and a former foreign editor of the Times

This article appears in the 15 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The revolution that fuelled radical Islam