Why the truth still matters
Why the truth still matters
In an extract from a new book, ‘The Bloody Sunday Inquiry, The Families Speak Out’, Eamonn McCann tells the story of the campaign for justice by the victims’ families over the massacre -- 32 years ago this Monday.


The smoke hadn’t cleared from the Bogside when Captain Mike Jackson, second-in-command of the First Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, standing in the lee of the Rossville Street flats, began pondering the notes that the Bloody Sunday families believe were to become the basis for a cover-up of murder.

Huddled in the houses and flats into which they had fled, looking fearfully out on the scene, neighbours of the dead were already resolving that, however long it might take, there’d be a reckoning.

In the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster more than 31 years later, in October 2003, General Sir Michael Jackson, as he now was, Chief of the General Staff, Britain’s number one soldier, was explaining to Michael Mansfield, barrister for the families of some of the victims, that he could remember next to nothing about compiling the Bloody Sunday “shot list” and could not explain why none of the shots described in his list appeared to conform to any of the shots actually fired.

This is the Bloody Sunday families’ account of how they succeeded in forcing Jackson and his soldiers and superiors to explain, if they could, in public and under oath, how and why they had killed or wounded 28 unarmed civil rights marchers in Derry on 30 January 1972.

The campaign which emerged in the early 1990s and which was to lead to the establishment of the Saville inquiry intrigued some and angered others. Why Bloody Sunday? There have been bigger death tolls in single incidents in the Troubles. Fifteen Catholics died in the Loyalist bombing of McGurk’s Bar in the New Lodge area of Belfast in the month before Bloody Sunday.

Eighteen paras died in an IRA ambush at Warrenpoint, County Down, in 1979. And, numbers apart, was not the IRA killing of 11 Protestants as they stood in reverent silence around the Enniskillen war memorial on Remembrance Sunday in November 1989, for example, as wicked and cruel as the Bogside massacre?

A number of things made Derry different. Part of the motivation for the massacre may have been to shore up Unionist rule. Northern Ireland prime minister Brian Faulkner was under mounting pressure from supporters of Dr Ian Paisley and from within his own Ulster Unionist Party to secure a much tougher law and order strategy from the British, swiftly to put an end to illegal marches against internment and to smash the Bogside no go area, from which state forces had been excluded since the internment raids of the previous August.

But all key decisions relating to Bloody Sunday were taken by British political and military chiefs.

Unionist input was minimal. Blame for the Bloody Sunday killings could not be ascribed to the communal hostilities of Northern Ireland. This was a very British atrocity, and the biggest single killing by state forces in the course of the Troubles. The resultant affront was compounded by the fact that the British state at the highest level, in the person of the lord chief justice, Lord Widgery, had then proclaimed that the killings were neither wrong nor illegal.

In every other atrocity with which Bloody Sunday has regularly been compared or likened, the victims are acknowledged, more or less universally, as having been wrongly done to death and the perpetrators damned as wrongdoers.

But the Bloody Sunday families were told, in effect, that while they might personally, reasonably, lament the loss of a loved one, they had no wider ground for grievance or legitimate expectation of the killers being punished.

The state stood by its own. All the dead were thus diminished. Liam Wray, brother of Jim, 22, shot in the back at point blank range as he lay wounded in Glenfada Park, commented, “It said that my brother was less than fully human.”


The fact that this second injustice had been inflicted by the official custodian of constitutional truth drove the insult deep. Bloody Sunday, moreover, to an extent that isn’t true of any other atrocity, proved a pivotal plotpoint in the narrative of the North’s Troubles. Generally, communal heartache in the wake of mass killings has tended to dissipate over time, the lives of individuals left behind likely shattered forever, but public life not discernibly changed.

In contrast, a consensus among commentators and historians holds not only that the paras’ action in Derry had an immediate political motivation--to shore up the Faulkner government by reasserting the rule of British law--but also that the plan spectacularly backfired. Far from bringing the Bogside back within the Queen’s Writ, the killings catapulted the area, and other Catholic-Nationalist districts across the North, outside all notions of constitutionality.

The Northern parliament, which had operated at Stormont since partition in 1921, was abolished by order of the Westminster government eight weeks after Bloody Sunday, three weeks before publication of Widgery’s report.

No other major change in the last 35 years can be seen as having stemmed so directly from a single incident. This fact, that Bloody Sunday had a clear and lasting political significance to match its magnitude as a human event, helped give the families’ campaign for the truth an added capacity many years later to reverberate in the wider political world.

Bloody Sunday differed from other atrocities, too, in that it was perpetrated in full public view. Most killings in the North, as always in conflicts of the kind, happen with thunderclap suddenness, on lonely roads or in the dead of night, typically by stealthy ambush or furtive bomb.

Bloody Sunday unfolded over a period of perhaps ten minutes in a built-up area in broad daylight and in circumstances in which thousands of the victims’ friends and neighbours were crowded into the immediate vicinity. Every killing and wounding was witnessed, some at very close quarters.

Within hours, even as Jackson was transmitting his fraudulent account to Whitehall, which was to be disseminated by British Information Services (BIS) to deceive the world, people in Derry were piecing their memories of the day together and assembling their unshakable truth.

Estimates of the numbers on the Bloody Sunday march varied wildly at the time, from the BIS’s 3,000 to Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association’s 25,000. Perhaps 12-15,000 would be near enough. Of these, four fifths, at a minimum, will have been from Derry. A sizeable percentage of the town’s population, then, including a high proportion of the 30,000 residents of the immediate Bogside-Brandywell-Creggan area, had been involved personally in the event which was to climax in the killings.

There were few local people who didn’t know some member of the families of the dead. Bloody Sunday had the character not merely of a politically inspired state atrocity but of one that inflicted shared, communal injury and a mass sense of bereavement.

The community thus marked could not consign the experience unassuaged to the past. This aspect of Bloody Sunday was crucial in ensuring that Saville would have to hear hundreds rather than scores of Derry witnesses, and therefore a commensurate muster from the military, extending the length of the inquiry and setting the taxi meters of the legal teams a whirring for years. It was the brazenness of the atrocity, more than any other single factor, which dictated the cost of the inquiry.


The communal aspect of the injury didn’t prompt the Bogside to turn its face entirely away from the world and nurse its grievance to itself.

Minutes after the shooting, Bernadette McAliskey (then Devlin) declared, “This is our Sharpeville.” The identification with the South African township where 69 demonstrators had been gunned down by police in 1960 was more than a facile flourish.

In a speech a few months earlier in Derry, she had made lengthy comparison between Long Kesh in Antrim -- which held the internees whose release was to be the sole demand of the 30 January march -- and Hola Camp in Kenya, where thousands of Kikuyu had been brutalised during the 1952-60 “Emergency”.

Oppression in Northern Ireland was of an altogether lower order of intensity than in colonial Kenya or apartheid South Africa. But in the terror and rage of Rossville Street on the day, the parallels were pertinent.

The tendency of those who came through Bloody Sunday to see the experience reflected in conflicts elsewhere, past and present, was to be a continuing feature of remembrance of the massacre in years ahead.

Conservative voices in Britain and Ireland regularly argued during the course of Saville’s inquiry that the elaborate enterprise was likely to prove futile because “people have already made their minds up”. They had a point, although not the point they thought they had.

Campaigners in Derry hadn’t demanded a new inquiry because they wanted to be told the truth, but because they wanted the truth to be told. They didn’t need a report from Lord Saville to find out what happened, but to find out whether the state would acknowledge what happened.

The fact that lies have been substituted for a known truth doesn’t make the search for acknowledgement of this truth futile, but on the contrary lends it an insistent urgency.



“When the inquiry was announced, a lot of us had great hope that through the passage of time these men would all be family men and have grandchildren and that remorse would have dug into a few of them.

“But it wasn’t to be. Some of them wore their paratrooper ties or had their emblems on. One of them, who was a shooter and an animal, wore a white T-shirt so we could see his paratrooper tattoos around his arms-- “brotherhood” and all written all over them. He blatantly was showing these, boasting if you like.

“That came out very strong to me from the soldiers. The man that shot Johnnie was brave enough to shoot a 59 year old, and his mate shot a 15 year old, but he wasn’t brave enough to sit in the security of the Methodist Hall in sight and of me and the rest of the families.”


“It’s about achieving what we set out to achieve and we are not there yet. If we do walk away with satisfaction, I will throw the words back on Sergeant O’s face and say, ‘It was a job well done.’ I remember that expression when he was asked about the killings on television. He said it was a job well done.”


“To say that the soldiers were lying is a statement of fact. In the flats car park where I was shot, we are dealing with an open space and a distance of a maximum of 20 yards in broad daylight.

“They didn’t see a man lying on the ground, or a group of people gathered around him, nor two men running out. And they all swore they didn’t see me. I must have been totally invisible or they must have been totally blind. Christopher Clarke summed it up well.

“If none of the soldiers giving evidence shot us, some other soldier must have, because there is no doubt we were shot by soldiers. But not only did none of them admit to shooting us, none of them bore witness against any of the others.”


“The soldier who shot me hadn’t even the guts to turn around and look at me. At lunchtime, he had to walk past us. He couldn’t even look at me. Some of the soldiers’ statements were unbelievable. One soldier said he wouldn’t drive the car Gerald Donaghey was in because he seen nail bombs but the boy that did drive the car said he saw no nail bombs.

“Like the man says, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the lies. Like the soldier who said he fired 23 shots, 19 at the one window, you could even see barristers that represented other soldiers looking at him. But he has kept up that story for the last 30 years.

“How did he fire 19 shots at a window and the window didn’t break? The soldier who shot me said he shot a bloke with blonde hair, 5’6’’, which couldn’t be me. And then no one admitted to firing at Johnny Johnston, but he was shot too. No wonder they couldn’t look at you, and us sitting there.”


“One good thing was that it dragged in Edward Heath. That was rubbing their nose in it. That was satisfying. I was happy about that. And the higher echelons of the British army having to sit and be cross examined, I enjoyed that too.

“It didn’t matter what they said. It was the fact that they were being put through the mill. That sort of thing had been unheard of before, but here it was. I enjoyed sitting and listening to our barristers giving them a grilling. They were lying, but it didn’t matter. They all lied. Heath is just a liar, full stop.

“The fact that he had to lie shows that Bloody Sunday went to the top. He knew it and the rest of them knew it and they had to try to lie their way out of it. It was the soldier done it on the street, but he was only the tool, the man carrying out the order.”


“Before the inquiry I might have accepted things I saw on TV, but not now. When Bloody Sunday happened the British were saying, ‘They were terrorists, they were holding guns, they fired first, we went in after them and took them out.’

“But that is not the way it was. There was a thing in Iraq when the Americans went in and shot 13 people. They tried to say they were gunmen. You can see the parallels.

“It will never go away. Sometimes sitting in the Guildhall, the evidence was so strong and so sad and so cruel and so damning that I couldn’t go back for a couple of days.

“But there were families there that never left, morning, noon and night. I couldn’t do that. You couldn’t even though you wanted to.

“I’m glad I wasn’t in London when the soldier admitted to killing Barney McGuigan because Barney’s body was thrown into the ambulance on top of me. I don’t know how I would have handled that.”


“I’m relieved that my mother and father didn’t have to go through it. If they had had to sit in the Guildhall, with the photos coming up on the screen, and Hugh lying there, they would have died anyway.

“When they put that photograph up on the screen the first time, him covered in blood ... I was looking down on him from the flats when that happened.

“Hugh lying there dying and me standing there looking at him. I think about it all the time. And then it changes the way you think about other things.

“You would see them on the news, Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, and you would think about them. And you’d say, ‘That’s what happened to us. There, look. That’s exactly what happened to us. It’s happening to them people now’.”


“The Brits shot innocent protestors in the street on a peaceful march in India. Not one of the civilians was armed when they marched up towards this army place.

“I forget the name of the army boy who was in charge at that place. He lined his soldiers up and told them to open fire. He killed over 400. It was the same policy in Iran, where the Shah’s army was being advised by Brits.

“When the protesters came down the street, they opened fire, killing so many. But it blew up on them. If you go back to the 17th century, workers in England were on strike and marched into a town where the Brits were all around at the windows waiting for them.

“They said that one person opened fire on them so the army fired back, killing so many again. That’s the way I look at Bloody Sunday. This old story about the IRA is all rubbish.

“They saw the marches getting bigger so what they did was try to scare them off the streets. They are the most devious crowd in the world to work with when it comes to politics.

“Bloody Sunday to me was not an attempt to bring out the IRA, it was a policy to put people off the streets. But people still came out. It was the same in India. The people still marched. March on.

“You have to battle on to highlight throughout the world that the Brits have lied again.

“We’ve been doing it for over 30 years, marching every anniversary for the truth. We can keep on until the truth comes.”

Urgent Appeal

Despite increasing support for Irish freedom and unity, we need your help to overcome British and unionist intransigence. We can end the denial of our rights in relation to Brexit, the Irish language, a border poll and legacy issues, with your support.

Please support IRN now to help us continue reporting and campaigning for our national rights. Even one pound a month can make a big difference for us.

Your contribution can be made with a credit or debit card by clicking below. A continuing monthly donation of £2 or more will give you full access to this site. Thank you. Go raibh míle maith agat.

© 2006 Irish Republican News