Licensed to kill: the culture of impunity that shaped Bloody Sunday

Tom Griffin
29 July 2010

Bloody Sunday was only part of a wider culture of impunity on the part of the army in Northern Ireland that needs to be examined if similar events are to be avoided in future, Derry-based human rights group the Pat Finucane Centre (PFC) said this week.

During a visit to London to consult the National Archives, the PFC's Paul O'Connor said "there is overwhelming evidence from official documents that the Ministry of Defence, the Northern Ireland Office and the criminal justice system colluded to ensure that soldiers would not be subject to the rule of law - essentially a license to kill. As we speak soldiers convicted of the murder of Peter Mc Bride continue to serve in the armed forces."

In his recent report on Bloody Sunday, Lord Saville acknowledged suggestions that the soldiers involved in the atrocity believed they could "fire with impunity, secure in the knowledge that the arrangements then in force (arrangements later criticised by the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland) meant that their actions would not be investigated by the RUC, but by the Royal Military Police (the Army’s own police force), who would be sympathetic to the soldiers and who would not conduct a proper investigation." He nevertheless ruled that the suggestion was outside the scope of the inquiry. 

In his valuable analysis of Saville's findings, Nicholas Whyte suggests that "Given the firmness with which he knocks down other conspiracy theories elsewhere in the report, Savile's countenancing of this theory in the first place, and the fact that he says nothing at all to contradict it, together rather suggest that he believes this interpretation, though felt he could not make it a formal finding of the report."

Evidence of just such a culture of impunity emerged last month in a report from the Police Service of Northern Ireland's Historical Inquiries Team. It found that more than 150 killings by soldiers between 1970 and 1973 were never fully investigated because of an informal understanding between police and the army:

It said the policy meant that "RUC investigators were to have gathered all relevant civilian witness and forensic evidence, and furnish it to the RMP prior to an interview being conducted with a soldier. It clearly envisaged that soldiers would face a thorough investigation, and was designed to enable the RMP to provide effective support in the difficult times that existed."

But the result, the HET said, was that "this policy was not followed; in any event it negated any possibility of independence and it is questionable whether the chief constable had the legal authority to devolve his responsibilities in this manner, notwithstanding the immensely difficult security situation that existed at the time. These arrangements meant that in practice, soldiers were not interviewed by civilian police officers at all".

The report into the killing of 41-year-old William McGreanery, shot dead by the Army in Derry on 15 September 1971, also shed light on the role of prosecutors:

immediately after the shooting, the RUC chief superintendent in Derry at the head of the RUC in Derry, chief superintendent Frank Lagan, recommended that the soldier who fired the fatal shot, 'Soldier A,' be prosecuted for murder. However the request was overruled by the then Attorney General, Basil Kelly, who was an Ulster Unionist MP and member of the Stormont cabinet.

The Attorney General said 'Soldier A' could not be prosecuted for murder because he "acting in the course of his duty". He made the ruling in December 1971, six weeks before Bloody Sunday.

For Paul O'Connor this legacy needs to be addressed: "First of all by understanding what the legacy is - we still have no idea because files are being sealed for another generation and the culture of secrecy pervades Whitehall. A classic example of the negative impact of this is where we see the same human rights violations that were condemned by the European court in the 1970s -the five torture techniques - being used in Iraq and Afghanistan and Government ministers 'forgetting' that these had been banned. We must learn from history!"

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