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Bloody Sunday - The Saville verdict on Britain's masacre of the innocents in Northern Ireland

After years of taking years of evidence and an expenditure of nearly £200 million, a British Inquiry has dispassionately concluded that the army paratroopers shot 14 innocent people in 1971 without justification, an event that convinced many Northern Ireland Catholics that war had been declared upon them and they had to take up the armed struggle in self-defense.

Blogger Splintered Sunrise sums up the mood of a historic day: 

It would seem that on the big issue – the innocence of those shot on Bloody Sunday – Saville has been unambiguous. From the reaction of the crowd in Derry, and specifically the families, that is the main thing they were looking for. After not only seeing their loved ones killed, but then seeing them being traduced by the now discredited Widgery report, what they wanted first and foremost was that vindication – the formal acknowledgement that those killed were unarmed civilians whose deaths were unprovoked and unjustified. That is also what’s behind the warm response to David Cameron’s statement – notwithstanding Cameron’s obligatory encomia to the British military, Cameron will get credit for playing this straight, and the frank admission of injustice by a Tory (and unionist) British prime minister means an awful lot, especially since the state took this long to admit any fault whatsoever.

Thirteen people were shot dead by the Army in Derry on 30 January 1972. A fourteenth, John Johnston, died of his injuries some months later. The fundamental acknowledgement that all were innocent makes the Saville Report a genuinely cathartic moment. It remains to be seen how far the report's ten volumes settle the debate on other issues.

As Splintered notes, one key question is the extent to which the day's events were premeditated. Although Saville makes a number of criticisms of senior officers, he concludes that none of them could have anticipated that the Paras would fire unjustifiably, placing primary responsibility on the shoulders of individual soldiers.

To that extent, Saville's verdict is the one anticipated by Paul Bew earlier this week when he wrote:

There is now an increasing acceptance on the nationalist side that Bloody Sunday was not a premeditated act. Eamonn McCann, the journalist and a leading figure in the civil rights movement in Derry at the time, has acknowledged that "there was no clear evidence of a high-level plan for a lethal assault on Bloody Sunday". McCann said that he had long believed that Bloody Sunday had been designed to shore up the Unionist government at Stormont: "But I was wrong. No convincing evidence emerged at the hearings to sustain my view."

But that is far from being the end of the matter. If British politicians cannot be blamed, then will the Army get it in the neck? How else are we to explain the deaths of 14 innocent people?

This assessment, however, elides the possibility of premeditation at a military rather than a political level. As such it arguably represents a significant misreading of nationalist opinion, as a fuller quote from McCann should make clear:

It seemed no more than common sense that the paratroopers were unleashed in Derry to save Faulkner's skin.

I wrote this down in books and pamphlets and dozens of newspaper articles. But I was wrong. No convincing evidence emerged at the hearings to sustain my view.

The evidence of Robert Ramsey, private secretary to Brian Faulkner at the time, was especially persuasive on this point and was confirmed in Army memos and other military documents produced in evidence.

On the other hand, there was plenty of evidence that the key factors were the rage of senior Army officers at the insult to their conception of military propriety, even their “honour”, which the no-go area represented.

That, plus the fact that London politicians and civil servants at the highest level, blithely careless of the implication for the safety of citizens, gave the go-ahead to the officers concerned.

A similar verdict to McCann's was reached by Niall Ó Dochartaigh in a highly nuanced interpretation of the Saville evidence in Contemporary British History.

Existing historical accounts of Bloody Sunday treat the killings as the outcome of a more-or-less unified military anxiety at increasing disorder in Derry, combined with unexpected events on the day, presenting the killings as the outcome of essentially responsive actions by the British military. In so doing they lend support to the 'cock-up' theory that represents the killings as the outcome of a series of (often understandable) errors of interpretation and communication. They reject the idea that the killings emerged from a high-level plan to carry out a massacre. In so doing they obscure the extent to which the killings were the outcome of a calculated confrontation carried out in the face of strong opposition from some elements within the security forces. At the heart of these events is a clearly planned confrontational initiative devised by one of the most senior military commanders in Northern Ireland.

This officer was the Commander Land Forces in Northern Ireland, General Sir Robert Ford, who Saville suggests was open to criticism for his decision to use 1 PARA as an arrest force on the day. Saville nevertheless refuses to criticise Ford's decision to launch an arrest operation as such, coming closer to the cock-up theory when he writes:

As to General Ford’s memorandum, where he suggested shooting selected ringleaders of rioters after warning, we are surprised that an officer of his seniority should seriously consider that this was something that could be done, notwithstanding that he acknowledged that to take this course would require authorisation from above. We are sure, for the reasons given in the report, that this idea was not adopted and that the shootings on Bloody Sunday were not the result of any plan to shoot selected ringleaders. In the event General Ford decided to use an additional battalion (1 PARA) as the means of seeking to deal with rioters. We found no evidence to suggest that the use of lethal force against unarmed rioters, who were not posing a threat of causing death or serious injury, was contemplated by General Ford or those senior to him as a possible means of dealing with any rioting that might accompany the then forthcoming civil rights march.

Saville accepts that Ford did not play any role in launching the arrest operation, despite being present in Derry on the day. That was the the responsibility of the local commander, Brigadier MacLellan. Yet Saville makes clear that the Para commander Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford disobeyed MacLellan's orders:

In our view Colonel Wilford decided to send Support Company into the Bogside because at the time he gave the order he had concluded (without informing Brigadier MacLellan) that there was now no prospect of making any or any significant arrests in the area he had originally suggested, as the rioting was dying down and people were moving away. In addition it appears to us that he wanted to demonstrate that the way to deal with rioters in Londonderry was not for soldiers to shelter behind barricades like (as he put it) “Aunt Sallies” while being stoned, as he perceived the local troops had been doing, but instead to go aggressively after rioters, as he and his soldiers had been doing in Belfast. 

Saville's conclusions about Wilford are in stark contrast to his rather milder criticism of Ford. Yet many will persist in seeing in Ford's role a key part of the explanation as to why Wilford and his men acted the way they did.

In his verdict on the most senior general in Derry on Bloody Sunday, Saville understates the culpability of the man most responsible for an escalation which prolonged the Troubles, and which the British state has been struggling to come to terms with ever since.

About the author

Tom Griffin is freelance journalist and researcher. He holds a Ph.D in social and policy sciences from the University of Bath, and is a former Executive Editor of the Irish World.


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