A 38-year wait for the truth

By Eamonn McCann (for the Irish Times)

The smoke hadn’t cleared from the Bogside when Capt Mike Jackson, second-in-command of the first battalion of the Parachute Regiment, standing in the lee of the Rossville Street flats, began making the notes which were to become the basis of the official British version of the Bloody Sunday killings.

The smoke hadn’t cleared from the Bogside when Capt Mike Jackson, second-in-command of the first battalion of the Parachute Regiment, standing in the lee of the Rossville Street flats, began making the notes which were to become the basis of the official British version of the Bloody Sunday killings.

In the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, more than 30 years later, in October 2003, Gen Sir Michael Jackson, as he now was, chief of the general staff, Britain’s number one soldier, told barrister Michael Mansfield that he could remember next to nothing about compiling the Bloody Sunday “shot list”, nor explain why none of the shots it described appeared to conform to any of the shots which the evidence indicated had actually been fired.

In the House of Commons two days after the event, on February 1st 1972, prime minister Edward Heath announced the appointment of Lord Chief Justice Widgery to conduct the original Bloody Sunday inquiry. On the same day, British Information Services distributed to wire services and broadcasting outlets across the world a document headed “Northern Ireland: Londonderry”, detailing 14 shooting incidents which it suggested had made up the “fighting”. These were the incidents recorded by Jackson. The account was to be endorsed 11 weeks later in Widgery’s report.

Next week victims’ families hope to see the Jackson/Widgery version of events repudiated and the truth they have held to through the intervening years installed in its place. Their campaign, which culminated with the appointment in January 1998 of the second tribunal under Lord Saville, aroused the admiration of many and sparked resentment in quite a few.

Why Bloody Sunday? There were bigger death tolls in single incidents in the Troubles. Fifteen Catholics died in the loyalist bombing of McGurk’s Bar in the New Lodge in Belfast a month earlier. Eighteen paratroopers died in an IRA ambush at Warrenpoint in 1979. And, numbers apart, was not the Provisionals’ slaughter of 11 Protestants as they stood in reverent silence around the Enniskillen war memorial on Remembrance Sunday in November 1989 as wicked and unjustifiable as the Bogside massacre?

A number of things made the events in Derry different. This wasn’t an atrocity perpetrated on one community by people purporting to represent the other. It could not be fitted into the preferred narrative of official British thinking. The killers had been uniformed to represent the state. The affront was compounded by the fact that the state at the highest level had then proclaimed that the killings were neither wrong nor illegal.

In every other comparable atrocity, the victims were acknowledged 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 brought to account.

All the dead were thus diminished. Liam Wray, brother of Jim Wray, 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.”

Bloody Sunday was different, too, in that it was to prove a significant plot point in the narrative of the Northern Troubles. Communal heartache in the wake of mass killings has tended generally to dissipate over time, the happiness of those left behind likely shattered forever but public life not discernibly changed.

In contrast, Bloody Sunday catapulted working-class Catholic communities across the North outside all notions of constitutionality, removing from the Stormont parliament whatever legitimacy it had retained among Catholics. The parliament, which had governed the North since partition, was abolished eight weeks after Bloody Sunday, three weeks before publication of Widgery’s findings. No other major change has stemmed so directly from a single incident.

Bloody Sunday was unique among atrocities, too, in that it was perpetrated in full public view. Most killings in the North have happened with thunderclap suddenness, on lonely roads or in the dead of night, by stealthy ambush or furtive bomb. Bloody Sunday unfolded over a period of perhaps eight minutes in a built-up area on a bright afternoon and in circumstances in which thousands of the victims’ friends and neighbours were crowded into the immediate vicinity.

Within hours, even as Jackson was transmitting to Whitehall the account which was to be disseminated by the British government to deceive the world, people in Derry were piecing their memories of the day together and assembling their unshakeable truth. Few local people didn’t know some of the dead or the families of the dead.

It has regularly been argued Saville’s inquiry was likely to prove futile as “people have already made their minds up”. And, true, campaigners didn’t demand a new inquiry because they wanted to be told the truth but because they wanted the truth to be told.

In the two years after the killings, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association held commemoration marches; from 1975 to 1989, they were organised by Sinn Fein. Some families, disapproving of the political colouration, withdrew from participation. The demand for a new inquiry wasn’t prominent on the agenda. Militant nationalist politics, on the face of it, sought an end of British jurisdiction, not justice from within the British legal system.

In 1987, a group of relatives, along with a number of Sinn Feiners and other political activists, reflecting the drift towards constitutional politics, formed the Bloody Sunday Initiative, later the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign (BSJC), specifically to push for a second inquiry. In 1992, the new group took over organisation of the annual commemorative march, advancing three demands: repudiation of Widgery and the institution of a new inquiry; formal acknowledgement of the innocence of the victims; and the prosecution of the soldiers responsible.

The BSJC was to encounter considerable initial hostility, but attitudes began to shift as the move towards a settlement gathered pace. The nascent peace process involved the Dublin government taking on issues which might otherwise have remained the prerogative of still only slightly constitutional republicans. In 1995, taoiseach John Bruton designated a civil servant specifically to liaise with the Bloody Sunday families.

Meanwhile, separately from activity in Derry, the director of British Irish Rights Watch, Jane Winter, and Belfast solicitor Patricia Coyle unearthed a series of documents at the Public Records Office in Kew, including the transcript of a now notorious conversation between prime minister Heath and Lord Widgery prior to the announcement that Widgery was to chair the first inquiry. The documents were to form basis of a report by Prof Dermot Walsh in 1997, The Bloody Sunday Tribunal of Inquiry: A Resounding Defeat for Truth, Justice and the Rule of Law .

In June 1997, the new administration of Bertie Ahern presented the newly elected government of Tony Blair with a 178-page assessment of the new material, drawing heavily on Walsh’s analysis. A preface placed the issue in the context of the developing peace process and, for the first time, asserted the demand for a new inquiry as an Irish government position.

When prime minister Blair announced the new inquiry in the House of Commons on January 29th 1998, the Bloody Sunday families celebrated what they saw, accurately, as a victory for their campaign. But they were also aware broader political developments had facilitated their success. Lord Saville delivered his opening statement in the Guildhall on April 3rd, seven days before the Belfast Agreement.

The Bloody Sunday Inquiry was to sit for 434 days. Oral hearings began in Derry’s Guildhall on March 27th 2000 and moved to London from September 2002 to October 2003 to take military and other evidence. In all, 921 witnesses took the stand: 505 civilians, 245 soldiers, 33 police officers, nine forensic experts, 34 IRA members, 39 politicians, civil servants and intelligence officers, 49 journalists and seven priests. Counsel to the inquiry Christopher Clarke made his closing speech on November 22nd and 23rd 2004.

Saville had to deliver a judgment on Bloody Sunday as a single event, and also on each killing and wounding. In effect, there will be 28 mini-reports within the 5,000-plus pages to be published on Tuesday.

For the families, living through the inquiry has been an intensely emotional, frequently fraught, sometimes fascinating and often tedious experience. For some during the hearings, it was virtually a full-time occupation. They face publication of the report with high hopes balanced against fear of a let-down.

On Tuesday they will march together from the killing ground around Rossville Street to the Guildhall, where, at around 10am, five and a half hours before David Cameron stands up in the Commons to introduce the findings, they will learn what Saville has to say about how and why their loved ones were gunned down on their own streets by members of an elite regiment of the British army.

It has been a long trek to reach the place where the march for civil rights had been scheduled to end, but never made it, 38 years ago. In London at the same time, Gen Jackson will learn just what the inquiry has to say about his shot list.

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