Saville missed the failures of leadership

By Niall O Dochairtaigh (for the Sunday Business Post)

Lord Saville carried out his primary task with meticulous care and attention to detail, rigorously dissecting conflicting accounts of the shootings on Bloody Sunday. Claims that the report, once published, would satisfy no one have been proven false.

The fact that people may take issue with points of detail does not detract from the fact that Saville has met the central expectations of those who campaigned for a new inquiry.

It was the strength of Saville’s forensic attention to detail - and his concern to sweep up every possible scrap of evidence - that made his analysis of the individual shootings so persuasive. When it came to fine detail, Saville’s precise legal approach served the inquiry well.

But this sometimes narrow legal approach may not provide the best method of approaching the broader historical questions of political responsibility, and may not provide the appropriate analytical tools for understanding the high-level decisions that led to the events of Bloody Sunday.

Part of the problem lies with the method, and not the man.

An excessively narrow legal approach concerned primarily with assessing compliance with formal rules and procedures may not be adequate to understanding the deep currents of power, personality and politics that shaped the Bloody Sunday operation.

The inquiry analysed the decision making process quite narrowly in terms of formal responsibilities, a fact evident in Saville’s discussion of the role of General Robert Ford, the architect of the operation.

For the inquiry, Ford’s responsibility for events on the day more or less ended at the point at which he ordered the commander in Derry to launch a massive operation using the ‘toughest’ regiment in the army on one of the most dangerous occasions for civilians.

Because Ford was not involved in the detailed planning, Saville did not hold him responsible for any of the events that resulted from the operation.

But the driving force behind the aggressive operation that day was Ford’s clear intent to stage a massive confrontation in Derry.

The operation that he ordered was on a scale never before seen in the city: he proposed that the Paras arrest 300-400 people. The largest number arrested in the city in any previous arrest operation was 27. It also went directly against the grain of a local policy of restraint.

That policy had been formally endorsed by the British government only weeks before Bloody Sunday, when prime minister Edward Heath told ministers that now was not the time to provoke a major confrontation in Derry.

The Bloody Sunday operation devised by Ford has to be understood in the context of an intense and ongoing struggle to shape policy in Derry that had been under way for several months.

This struggle pitted senior military officers in Belfast, who were impatient at the toleration of the no-go areas in Derry, against police and military commanders in Derry, who had long operated a policy of relative restraint.

This policy, sanctioned by the British government, was aimed at retaining the support of the bulk of the population in this predominantly nationalist city.

In October 1971, London gave the go-ahead for a much more aggressive policy in Derry.

This was put into effect through a directive by Ford to the local commander, Brigadier MacLellan. But within days of embarking on this new approach, MacLellan brought an end to the initiative. He stopped the large-scale raids into no-go areas because they were alienating moderate nationalists.

He recommended a return to a policy of relative restraint, a recommendation endorsed by the military and political hierarchy in December 1971.

Saville has accepted the account provided by Ford that presented him as the author of this return to restraint.

But there is substantial evidence to suggest that Ford was, in fact, dissatisfied with the situation in Derry in early 1972, precisely because local commanders had gone over his head to have his earlier directive reversed.

Saville also accepted that Ford was, by early January, justifiably dissatisfied with the outcome of this restraint - continuing violence in Derry.

However, this was at the height of the Troubles, and the return to restraint had been decided in the full knowledge that high levels of violence would continue.

Official documents have indicated that there was no wider sense in military and political circles of a new crisis in January urgent enough to warrant the reversal of a policy that had only just been endorsed by government.

What the documents do show is that the earlier aggressive approach had caused a spike in violence in the city in December.

If Ford thought the new policy was not working, one might expect that he would go through the same process that MacLellan had gone through and propose a reconsideration at the highest levels, but he did no such thing.

The impending civil rights march in Derry provided Ford with an opportunity effectively to reverse the policy by ordering a major repressive initiative in the city without going through any of the channels he would have to use if he had proposed a formal change in policy.

The inquiry heard that Ford’s decision to order this operation was taken by him alone, without any attempt to secure political endorsement, or any attempt to discuss it with the commanders on the ground in the city.

MacLellan vividly described the meeting at which Ford ordered him to use 1 Para to launch this extensive arrest operation.

“This was not a sort of debating association, it was what the army would call an orders group. He would say ‘this is what you are going to do, boom, boom, boom.’ I think he made about eight or ten points,” said MacLellan.

The polite and ostensibly rational discussion of the pros and cons of various courses of action in Derry had abruptly given way to the naked exercise of power.

The story of this plan for confrontation cannot be understood in terms of narrow legal responsibilities.

The Bloody Sunday operation emerged at the intersection between the political and the military, in a grey space which left plenty of room for manoeuvre by individuals.

At the heart of the story was a system in which the currency of bureaucratic rationality was strategically deployed, in which deeply political decisions were advocated and justified on strictly technical grounds, and in which complex debates and struggles using the language of rationality were sometimes abruptly and decisively resolved by the exercise of naked power.

Saville too often took rationalisations for rationality and failed to see through the arguments advanced in the documents to the power struggles that generated and shaped these arguments.

A narrow legal approach that traces behaviour in relation to formal rules and procedures may provide a basis for assigning legal responsibility, but is an extremely weak basis for understanding how power was wielded. It is also a weak basis for offering an explanation of the decision-making processes that led to Bloody Sunday.

Saville’s approach has served the inquiry well in relation to the minute detail of individual shootings, but his account of high-level decision making - which absolved key figures of responsibility - is questionable.

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