This week the Ballymurphy Inquiry, currently underway in Belfast, heard shocking evidence that a former paratrooper stationed in Northern Ireland used the skull of Henry Thornton, a man killed in the area, as an ashtray. Other soldiers have testified that their former colleagues ran sweepstakes and awarded winnings based on the number of civilians a person killed, about crude language and jokes made about those shot, and of a general attitude that anyone walking around in certain areas (always working class) could be presumed to have IRA involvement, and so was fair game to kill. One paratrooper broke down in tears as he described how many fellow soldiers were honest, professional and did the right thing, but some were “psychopaths and dangerous to be around”, boasting after shootings that “the army would give them cover for whatever they had done”.
Comments made in recent weeks suggest several high-profile Tories are inclined to do just that. Last week, Johnny Mercer announced on Twitter that he would stop voting with the government on non-Brexit issues until May promised to end “the macabre spectacle of elderly veterans being dragged back to Northern Ireland to face those who seek to re-fight that conflict through other means.” Back in March, when the Public Prosecution Service announced it would prosecute the man known as Soldier F for involvement in the Bloody Sunday massacre that occured a few months after the Ballymurphy massacre, Mercer said in an interview on Channel 4 that the inquiry probably hadn’t been fair – but couldn’t offer any explanation as to how. And a few hours after the PPS’s decision, Gavin Williamson penned a statement promising that the state would fund Soldier F’s legal costs, and decrying the unfair treatment of the armed services. Previous inquiries have already found that Soldier F had perjured himself, and that he admitted to having killed 4 civilians, including Patrick Doherty, shot in the back as he crawled away, and Barney McGuigan, who witnesses report died waving a white flag.
Karen Bradley, not to be outdone, provoked an outraged response from victim’s families in the same week, when she stood in the House of Commons and called the actions of soldiers in Northern Ireland “dignified and appropriate”. References to fairness and being “dragged back to Northern Ireland” appear to deliberately evoke images of elderly, low level soldiers being dealt shadowy justice by armed paramilitaries, simply for the crime of doing their job. In reality, a legitimate legal process has shown that several individuals behaved in a deeply disturbing way while stationed in Northern Ireland, acting with disregard for the lives of the people of the people who lived there. Such behaviour shames army members who acted properly, and it is deeply worrying that any politician should seek to defend it.
It is also worth remembering that lots of what happened during the Troubles was unfair and disquieting, but still legal. My mum was a child living in the Bogside area of Derry during the 1970s, she remembers how it was normal for soldiers looking for scraps of information to ransack houses and hold men in prison overnight. She remembers regular instances when: “Soldiers would come to the house, break down the door, break a random few plates, turn over a few beds, break a window, hold my brother (who was 10) up against a wall and pretend to shoot him, then go outside and pretend to shoot a dog.” Male relatives would vanish for days at a time, held under dubious pretexts, and people lived in a constant climate of fear. This was all legal, and for the sake of the Peace Process Northern Irish people have had to let go of resentment over being treated like this. The price of peace has been a collective swallowing of pride over such harassment, but the murder of civilians is another matter.
Recent inquests into Bloody Sunday, and now the Ballymurphy Massacre, have dealt in specifics: the impossibility of a soldier’s statement when his bullets were found in a body; the things people were said to have been doing, and the positions in which their bodies were found; bodies in morgues wearing clothes they had never worn in life; and guns held in dead hands in strange, unlikely positions. The collective memory is more general: caked blood, an overwhelming funeral with 13 coffins, and the sense of unfairness at a civil rights march turned into something far more violent.
In the weeks leading up to Bloody Sunday, rising tensions between the local community and the army had led to the Bogside having been sealed off “in a kind of ghetto”, as my mum describes it, with people unable to access schools or hospitals, and forced to smuggle in food from across the border in Donegal. A few days before the march, the army broke into the community and “bombarded everyone living there, kids and everything, with tear gas.” Locals sensed it wouldn’t be safe to have young children there and she was sent to Donegal for the day itself but, 45 years later, she remembers the aftermath vividly: “I remember passing all the hardened blood in the street. Seeing it all there. There hadn’t been rubbish collection for weeks because we’d been barricaded in for so long, so it was rubbish covered in blood. People put flowers on the street, and nearly every place you walked had blood somewhere.”
Northern Irish people are British citizens, and Tory MPs should represent their interests before soldiers found guilty of murder but, in a way, it is understandable that those like Johnny Mercer, Gavin Williamson and Karen Bradley feel no affinity with the working-class communities most impacted by The Troubles. Mercer, now 37, was a 17-year-old at private school in Surrey the year the Good Friday Agreement was signed, Gavin Williamson was at University in Bradford and Karen Bradley was working as a senior tax advisor in London; all a world away from the violence and terror in Northern Ireland at the time.
Careless statements made by Tory politicians have charged the already polarised atmosphere in Northern Ireland by fostering an “us and them” narrative of British soldiers and Nationalist paramilitaries with nothing in between. You can’t condemn the army, the argument seems to go, since then the paramilitaries get off scot free. Actually you can, and should, condemn both. Sara Canning, the partner of the young journalist Lyra McKee, who was murdered by a sectarian gang, gave a masterclass in doing so in an interview several weeks after losing the love of her life, saying, “Soldiers who indiscriminately opened fire in the Bogside on Bloody Sunday are no different to the thug that opened fire on Creggan on Holy Thursday and shot Lyra. They shot a gun indiscriminately towards a crowd. There is no difference.” Why is it that some MPs are unable to present a similar critique review without resorting to point-scoring bias?