Bloody Sunday revisited


Despite the report of the Saville Inquiry in 2010, Eamonn McCann doesn’t believe that the British have told the whole truth about Bloody Sunday.


The publication of the report of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry sparked an explosion of joy in Derry. The sea of shining faces gathered in Guildhall Square on 15 June 2010 could have lit up a continent. This, at last, was the acknowledgement of the innocence of the victims of the massacre that their families had pursued for almost four decades, and it was sufficient unto the day.

Viewed solely in that perspective, the positive verdict can, for the most part, still stand. With a single exception, the innocence of all of those struck down was unambiguously conceded. True, the finding by the Tribunal under Lord Saville that Gerry Donaghey had more likely than not been carrying nail bombs at the time he was killed cast a shadow on proceedings and has vigorously been challenged by the families, in sections of the local media and in a stage presentation. But, on balance, the exoneration of all the other victims still represented a tremendous victory.

However, the most glaring and serious flaw in the report had to do with the way Saville and his colleagues ignored or appeared to manipulate evidence in order to let the British ruling class off the hook. The report was rightly unequivocal in declaring the guilt of the men who pulled the triggers and one of their officers. But it gave Britain’s military and political leaders a clean bill of health which the evidence had shown they didn’t deserve.

In this respect, the Bloody Sunday Report followed traditional lines - blame those at the bottom, protect those at the top. It was this which allowed David Cameron to welcome the report while declaring that the reputation of the British army itself remained unsullied - the “rotten apple” theory in action. The evidence had shown that the apple-barrel was rotten to the core.

Cameron would have found it difficult to use such forthright language - the killings “unjustified and unjustifiable” - had those named for involvement in the crime included Major General Robert Ford, Commander of Land Forces, Northern Ireland, at the time, and future Chief of the General Staff Michael Jackson, adjutant on the day to the commander of the unit which carried out the killings, the First Battalion of the Parachute Regiment.

He would have found it impossible to exculpate the military and political elite generally if Saville had dealt properly with evidence suggesting the involvement of senior soldiers and politicians in London in sanctioning the plan which was to lead to the killings and commissioning a cover-up afterwards.

Saville’s case against the soldiers who fired the shots was that they had targeted unarmed people posing no possible threat to them or to others. His iondictment of the commander of 1 Para, Lt. Col. Derek Wilford, was based on findings that he breached orders by sending his men into the Bogside to arrest rioters despite the fact that the youths concerned were mingled into a much larger number of peaceful civil rights marchers; by sending in two companies of paras when the operational plan had authorised only one; by sending in one of the companies in armoured personnel carriers rather than, as ordered, on foot; and by allowing “a running battle down Rossville Street” to develop, whereas orders had been specific that the paras were not to go deeply into the area. According to Saville, these acts on indiscipline and derelictions of duty provided as full an account of the reasons for Bloody Sunday as it was possible to assemble from the evidence.

The implication was that Bloody Sunday held few lessons, none of them profound, for the conduct of State forces. Cameron didn’t have to announce any changes in policy or practice. If a bunch of squaddies and one rogue officer had to shoulder all the blame, no criticism could attach to higher authority or to the British Army as a whole or to the Parachute Regiment as an entity.

But there was more to Bloody Sunday than Saville allowed and deeper and politically more disturbing lessons to be learnt.

It was Ford, at the time second in seniority in the North only to the General Officer Commanding, General Harry Tuzo, who commissioned the Bloody Sunday battle plan, Operation Forecast, and arranged with the army’s Belfast commander, Brigadier Frank Kitson, that 1 Para would be sent to Derry for the day to put the plan into action.

In the weeks leading up to Bloody Sunday, Ford had made plain his frustration at the failure of Derry-based regiments to bring the Bogside no-go area to heel. In a document published by the Inquiry dated January 7th 1972, he declared himself “disturbed” by what he regarded as the soft attitude of army and police chiefs in Derry to the Bogside, and added: “I am coming to the conclusion that the minimum force necessary to achieve a restoration of law and order is to shoot selected ringleaders amongst the DYH (Derry Young Hooligans).”

Six days before Bloody Sunday, Ford overruled objections to the proposed use of the paras by Derry commander Brigadier Pat MacLellan and local police chief Frank Lagan. He remained firm as other senior Derry-based officers expressed similar alarm.

Two days before Bloody Sunday, the commander of the Derry-based Royal Green Jackets, Col. Peter Welch, protested to MacLellan about Ford’s plan, and, when rebuffed, said that he might take his protest to HQ Northern Ireland in Lisburn. He said is his statement that he was advised by MacLellan that this would be a pointless exercise, that the decision had been taken “at the highest level.” He said that he understood this to mean at Government level.

Welch ‘phoned an old friend from military college, Col. David Ramsbotham, chief adviser to the Chief of the General Staff, General Michael Carver, asking him to alert Carver to what he saw as the dangers of Ford’s plan. Carver was due to attend a cabinet meeting the same day.

Whether or not Carver passed these concerns to ministers, the only decision of the cabinet meeting was to note and implicitly at least to endorse Operation Forecast. The highest military and political authorities in Britain were thus aware that paratroopers were set to go into the Bogside on Sunday and knew or had every opportunity to know that officers on the spot were concerned about the possible consequences.

On the day, although with no operational role, Ford travelled to Derry where, much the most senior officer present, he took up position at the edge of the Bogside, shouting “Go on the paras!” as they charged through a barbed-wire barricade towards what was shortly to become the killing ground of Rossville Street.

The possibility that Ford’s decisions in advance and comportment on the day might have played some part in the way matters developed is dismissed by Saville: Ford “neither knew nor had reason to know at any stage that his decision would or was likely to result in soldiers firing unjustifiably on that day.”

In the same chapter, Saville insulates political and military leaders from blame: “It was also submitted that in dealing with the security situation in Northern Ireland generally, the authorities (the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland Governments and the Army) tolerated if not encouraged the use of unjustified lethal force; and that this was the cause or a contributory cause of what happened on Bloody Sunday. We found no evidence of such toleration or encouragement.”

This finding is so much at variance with the evidence that it is difficult to accept that it was innocently made.

Numerous incidents over the previous year suggested toleration if not encouragement of unjustified lethal force, specifically by 1 Para. The most egregious had happened just six months before Bloody Sunday when men of the battalion killed 11 unarmed civilians over three days in Ballymurphy in west Belfast. Newspapers of the period, particularly Nationalist newspapers, were carrying regular complaints and editorial condemnations of unjustified lethal violence by soldiers against civilians, particularly by the Parachute Regiment. Nationalist politicians of the most moderate variety were appealing to Dublin, London, Washington, wherever, to do something to restrain the army gunmen. But senior officers including Ford paid no heed.

Toleration of murderous behaviour might have been inferred from the fact that no inquiry had been held into the Ballymurphy massacre nor any soldier disciplined nor any statement issued by the political or military authorities expressing sorrow or regret at the 11 deaths. What were the paras to believe but that what they’d done in Ballymurphy was acceptable to their superiors - indeed, was what had been expected of them?

Saville’s conclusion that there was no evidence of a “culture of tolerance” would be unremarkable if by “evidence” he meant testimony to the Inquiry. But he had declined at an early stage to examine prior events in the North on the ground - in itself not unreasonable - that to subject the Ballymurphy incident, for example, to the same level of scrutiny as Bloody Sunday would have made the Tribunal’s task impossible. This makes the statement that “We found no evidence...” puzzling: the Tribunal had decided not to seek such evidence.

Ford should have had vivid memory of the paras’ involvement in Ballymurphy. He had arrived in the North to take up his post on August 6th 1971 - three days before the introduction of internment without trial which triggered the protests that led to the Ballymurphy events. The internment killings were his baptism of fire which it is impossible to believe he could have forgotten six months later. But Saville finds that he neither knew nor had reason to know that the soldiers of the same battalion whom he sent into the Bogside to deal with the aftermath of an anti-internment march might open fire without justification. This is not credible.

If the report had gone where the evidence led and concluded that Ford shared responsibility for the killings, Cameron could not have castigated the killers in such unequivocal terms while maintaining that their behaviour would have been regarded as intolerable and would not have been condoned by those in authority over the army.

When he read through Saville’s report, General Sir Michael Jackson must have heaved an even deeper sigh of relief than Major General Ford. Jackson was the man who organised the cover-up of the killings. His denials of his role at the Inquiry were implausible to the point of being farcical. But Saville found no fault in him.

Jackson testified at the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster in April 2003 that, although he had been in the Bogside and in the vicinity of the shooting, he had no clear memory of seeing anyone shooting or anyone shot. He shrugged off the incredulity of the families’ lawyers. He made no mention of compiling a list of the shots which had been fired or of having written out any other description of the day.

The following month saw Major Ted Loden on the witness stand. He had been the commander of Support Company of 1 Para: his men had fired all of the shots which killed or wounded. He described how, late in the afternoon, shortly after the killing ended, he had taken statements from the soldiers who had fired rounds and in each case had plotted map references showing the location of the shooter and of his target and had noted the soldier’s account of why he had fired - the target had appeared to be armed with a gun or a nail or petrol bomb or whatever. Loden told that he had interviewed the soldiers one by one as he sat in the back of an armoured vehicle at the paras’ forming up point on Clarence Avenue a few hundred yards from Rossville Street, with the map spread out on his lap and by the light of a battery-powered lamp. He had written out the details by hand.

Map on his lap, pen in hand, lamp-light flickering, the compilation of the list must have been a lengthy, awkward task. Not the sort of experience to be conjured out of nothing or to slip the mind.

The document handed to Loden on the witness stand was type-written. Loden said that it must have been typed out from his handwritten notes, no copy of which appeared to have survived. The following morning, however, Saville’s lead barrister, Christopher Clarke QC, announced that a handwritten copy had been discovered overnight. An employee of the Department of Defence, he told, had called in to the hearing the previous day out of casual interest and had heard Loden’s evidence about the list. (The MoD’s HQ was on Whitehall, a few hundred yards from where the inquiry was sitting.) It occurred to the MoD official that this list seemed reminiscent of a hand-written document which he had come across at his office. So he had gone back to work and found it and brought it in and passed it to the tribunal.

Loden, still on the witness stand, looked at the document and said that while he recognised the content, the handwriting wasn’t his. Had he any idea, then, whose it was, queried Clarke? Loden replied that it appeared, possibly, to be General Jackson’s. But if, as he had testified, he had written out the list himself, how come this document was in Jackson’s hand? Loden replied: “Well, I cannot answer that question.” This was greeted by a perplexed silence from all parties. Saville announced that he’d have to consider recalling Jackson.

Jackson returned to the witness stand in October. He had been a 26-year-old captain in 1972, present in the Bogside as second-in-command to Wilford. His subsequent ascent through the ranks had been impressive. He was now Chief of the General Staff, Britain’s top soldier.

None of the shots described in the list conformed to any of the shots which evidence told had actually been fired. Some of the trajectories showed bullets passing through buildings before finding their targets. The map-references given as the positions of the shooters bore little relation to the positions in which the soldiers giving evidence had placed themselves. None of the locations where uncontested evidence showed the victims had fallen was recorded as such in the map references. It wasn’t that the list contained inaccuracies: from start to finish, it was wrong in every detail.

A number of other documents in Jackson’s hand, also discovered by the MoD man, were produced. These were narrative accounts of the events of the day by Wilford, by the commanders of the three para companies which had gone into the Bogside - Support, A and C - and by the battalion intelligence officer. Taken together with the shot-list, these represented a substantial hand-written dossier which it must have required considerable time and painstaking labour to produce.

Jackson had made no mention of any of this in his statement to the Inquiry or in his previous evidence. None of the five officers whose accounts had been set out in his hand-writing had recalled being interviewed by him or supplying him with any relevant information.

Jackson explained that he had entirely forgotten producing the documents when first giving evidence but had recovered a “vague memory” after learning of the document produced to the Inquiry and put to Loden.

Under questioning, he seemed hampered by a continuing vagueness of memory, on more than 20 occasions using phrases along the lines, “I cannot remember,” “I do not recall,” “I am afraid I cannot help you there.”

In his report, Saville resolves one of Jackson’s difficulties by accepting both Loden’s original claim that he had written out the shot-list and Jackson’s subsequent explanation that he must have copied Loden’s script verbatim - although Jackson could offer no explanation why he might have done this or recall the circumstances in which it might have happened.

The inquiry heard no satisfactory evidence as to who in the immediate aftermath of the massacre had asked or ordered Jackson to compile or transcribe an account of events. In a supplementary statement made before his second appearance, he told that: “I am confident that the statements resulted from an order from 8 Brigade (which in turn would almost certainly have been on instruction from HQNI)...It is even possible that the requirement may have been instigated in London, but that is pure speculation on my part.”

Speculation or not, the fact that Jackson had volunteered the possibility of the exercise having been ordered from London was intriguing. Just as intriguing was the fact that none of the barristers present thought it worthwhile pursuing the point with any vigour and trying to establish who in London might, a few hours at most after the killings, have sent word to Derry that the account be produced which, we now know, turned out to be a compendium of lies.

It was not put to Jackson that an alternative explanation for this witch’s brew of falsehood was that a lying account of events was urgently needed and that he had been singled out as the most suitable man for the job.

In his report, Saville rejects suggestions that “the list played some part in a cover-up to conceal the emerging truth that some innocent civilians had been shot and killed by soldiers of 1 Para. It is not explained exactly how this conspiracy is said to have worked.”

Having declared that it was not clear how a cover-up based on the Jackson documents might have worked, Saville continues: “The list did play a role in the Army’s explanations of what occurred on the day.” He cites an interview on BBC radio at one am on the day after Bloody Sunday in which the army’s head of information policy in the North, Maurice Tugwell, used the list as his basis for explaining the “shooting engagements”.

About nine hours after the last shots were fired in Rossville Street, then, the list possibly commissioned by someone in London and compiled by Jackson was being used in a live radio interview by the army’s leading spokesperson in the North as the basis for explaining to a BBC audience that all of those killed and wounded had deserved it.

Elsewhere, Saville finds that “information from the list was used by Lord Balniel, the Minister of State for Defence, in the House of Commons on 1st February 1972, when he defended the actions of the soldiers.”

Saville also had evidence that the shot-list had been distributed to British diplomatic missions around the world as a guide for answering questions on the killings.

Most common-sense people would see this not just as evidence of a conspiracy to cover up the truth but as a practical account of the conspiracy in action - with General Sir Michael Jackson at the heart of it.

But if that had been Saville’s conclusion, had the man at the very apex of Britain’s armed forces been found to have concocted a series of lies to conceal unjustified and unjustifiable killings, Cameron would not have been able to speak in terms which were to be hailed as a major move towards reconciliation and healing in Ireland.

Cameron’s Commons speech, to give it a positive construction, may have reflected a genuine willingness to acknowledge the now-undeniable innocence of the victims. It was also based on a false account of the role of the most senior army officers in Derry on the day and of much higher military and political figures. The fact that this account had effectively been endorsed by Saville was a godsend for Cameron, for the British establishment generally, and for those in Ireland who wanted no lingering awkward issues to complicate their increasingly friendly relations with their British counterparts.

Jackson’s leading role in the cover-up obviously did his military career no harm. On the contrary, we might reasonably speculate, one of the reasons for the successive promotions which were to carry him all the way to the top may have been that, back in 1972, still in his ‘20s, he had shown himself capable of micro-managing the aftermath of an army massacre.

One additional mysterious aspect of the shot-list affair concerned the circumstances in which the hand-written documents had originally come to light. Christopher Clarke recounted these to the Inquiry. A corporal based at Ebrington Barracks in Derry, HQ of 8 Brigade, had chanced upon them in August 1998 while clearing out a cupboard in an administrative office. At the time, the corporal was involved in a long-running debate with his brother about the rights and wrongs of Bloody Sunday.

The account continued that, recognising the relevance of the documents and believing that they supported his view and not his brother’s, he thought to make copies and send them to his brother. However, he left a copy behind in the photostat machine, where it was discovered by an officer. The corporal was court-martialed, convicted of “conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline,” reduced to the ranks and discharged in disgrace. He remains the only soldier to have been charged with any offence in connection with Bloody Sunday.

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