Does the inquiry hide darker aspects of Bloody Sunday?

‘Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland.”

That is the final sentence in the Saville Report into the shootings by the British army in Derry on January 30, 1972 that left 14 people dead and a similar number wounded.

No one would argue with Lord Saville’s assessment.

Bloody Sunday was of such significance that it is possible to say that the events of that day ensured that the North would be enveloped in conflict for almost the next 30 years.

Last Tuesday, the relatives of the dead and injured secured what they had been awaiting for 38 years.

Their loved ones were pronounced innocent and the British government issued an unprecedented apology for the actions of the British paratroopers.

But, as the dust settles and we have more time to assess the report, there are many issues still left unanswered.

The main thrust of the report was that all the shootings carried out by the Support Company of 1 Para were “unjustified”.

It then went on to lay the blame for what happened squarely on the soldiers, and on their commander, Lt Colonel Derek Wilford.

This officer, according to Saville, “disobeyed orders” and sent his soldiers into an area they were unfamiliar with, an area where they believed they would come under attack.

The inquiry concluded that he “should not have sent soldiers of Support Company into the Bogside”.

Saville also ruled that, in every case, the soldiers fired either “in panic and fear” or “when no one in the areas towards which they fired was posing a threat to cause death or serious injury. . . or not caring whether or not anyone was posing such a threat”.

It was a damning indictment of the actions of the soldiers involved. However, the first problem is that the blame stops at Wilford.

His immediate superiors, Brigadier Patrick McClelland and Major General Robert Ford, were cleared of any responsibility for what happened, as were the governments in Belfast and London.

So Saville suggested that the responsibility for the “catastrophe” of Bloody Sunday and all that flowed from it rested on a company of triggerhappy soldiers and a commanding officer who disobeyed orders.

While the legal teams for the families did not pursue the line of inquiry that there was some sort of plan in place for Bloody Sunday, Saville does not seem to have considered pertinent issues, such as the preparations for the march that day.

What was planned as a civil rights march in Derry - something that was not uncommon at the time - had been discussed at cabinet level at Stormont the week previously. It had also been discussed at cabinet level in London.

A memo, revealed to the inquiry, had been sent to the British embassy in Washington warning of possible adverse reactions if there was trouble in Derry on the Sunday.

Why would a simple civil rights march in Derry warrant such high levels of attention unless there was some idea that things could go wrong?

Then there was the question of the immediate aftermath. Given that this was outside Saville’s remit, perhaps it is not surprising that he did not go into it in any depth.

Following the killings, the British government’s propaganda machine swung into action with great haste.

Hardly had the echo of the paratroopers’ shots died away than Ford outlined how his men were attacked, “not only by the hooligans, but also by, as I understand it at this moment, half a dozen nail bombers and a petrol bomber and then seven gunmen opened up on them from the top of the flats” ( in an interview given on the day).

The British government itself weighed in with reports of how several of the dead were “on the wanted list”, and other details designed to defend the paras.

Bernadette McAliskey - who was an MP at the time and was addressing the crowd when the shooting started - also questioned why, if the shootings were solely the responsibility of a squad of soldiers, the then British Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, felt it necessary to lie to the House of Commons. She physically attacked him for his statement at the time.

Then there was the Widgery Tribunal and the famous warning from prime minister Edward Heath to Lord Widgery to remember there was a propaganda war going on. This suggests a government going to enormous lengths to cover up the actions of a few rogue soldiers.

All of this activity suggested that the powers-that-be were more deeply involved in the events of Bloody Sunday than Saville’s bland assertion that they bore no responsibility would suggest.

Saville’s judgment and British prime minister David Cameron’s apology have, in some ways, brought to a conclusion one of the most painful chapters in Irish history and allowed everyone to move on.

However, it would be a mistake to see the report as supplying the definitive answers to what happened on January 30, 1972 in Derry.

Perhaps that was Lord Saville’s intention in the first place - to give enough to keep people happy, but try to avoid a new can of worms being opened.

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