Derry is still dizzy from the eruption of joy that greeted the Saville Report’s recognition that all the Bloody Sunday wounded and dead were unarmed civilians – gunned down by British paratroopers for no good or legitimate reason.
But the report is not flawless. When it comes to the allocation of blame to the soldiers, it follows a pattern of convicting the lower orders while exculpating the higher command, and dismissing the possibility of political leaders had been even passively complicit in the events.
The individual paras who fired the shots that killed or wounded civil rights marchers are damned for the roles that they played. Additionally, Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford, commander of the First Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, is singled out for obloquy. It was his disobedience of orders, says Saville, which put the paras into position to carry out the killing. Had he followed orders, the massacre would never have happened. Thus, an undisciplined battalion commander and a small squad of kill-crazy foot soldiers did it all.
The effect is to insulate the rest of the British army from blame. The report was brilliant for the Bloody Sunday families, but it wasn’t a bad result for the British army either.
David Cameron might have found it more difficult to disown those involved in the atrocity so forthrightly had Saville included in his list of culprits, say, Major General Robert Ford, Commander of Land Forces, Northern Ireland, at the time, or General Sir Michael Jackson, second-in-command to Wilford on the day, later army Chief of Staff and NATO commander in Kosovo.
Ford, second in seniority in the North only to the general officer commanding, commissioned the Bloody Sunday battle plan, ‘Operation Forecast’, and ordered the paras to Derry to carry it out. In the weeks before Bloody Sunday, he 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 7 January 1972, Ford declared himself ‘disturbed’ by the attitude of army and police chiefs in Derry, 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).’
Insulates political and military leaders
Ford took the decision to deploy the paras six days before Bloody Sunday, overruling a message the same day from Derry commander Brigadier Pat MacLellan indicating that he and local police chief Frank Lagan believed that any direct confrontation with the civil rights marchers should be avoided. Ford also held to the plan in face of strongly expressed opposition from senior Derry-based officers. On the day, although with no operational role, he travelled to Derry and took up position at the edge of the Bogside, shouting ‘Go on the paras’, as they ran past him through a barbed-wire barricade towards the Rossville Street killing ground.
Saville suggests that Wilford allowed his soldiers in the Bogside to exceed MacLellan’s orders ‘not to fight a running battle’. But nowhere in the report is it considered whether Wilford and the paras might have believed or suspected that MacLellan’s orders need not be regarded in all the circumstances as binding.
The possibility that Ford’s decisions in advance and comportment on the day played a part in the way matters developed is brusquely dismissed: 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,’ Saville declares in chapter four of his report’s first volume.
In the same chapter, Saville insulates political and military leaders generally 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 is remarkable. Numerous incidents over the previous year might have suggested toleration if not encouragement of unjustified force. The most egregious had happened six months before Bloody Sunday, when the First Paras were involved in killing 11 unarmed civilians over three days in Ballymurphy in west Belfast. Newspapers of the period, particularly Nationalist newspapers, were carrying regular complaints, many of them plausible, of unjustified and sometimes lethal violence by soldiers against civilians. Toleration of this behaviour might have been inferred from, for example, the fact that no inquiry had been held into the Ballymurphy – neither massacre nor any soldier disciplined or statement issued expressing regret.
Saville dismissal of the suggestion of a ‘culture of tolerance’ would be unremarkable, if by ‘evidence’ he meant testimony to the Inquiry. He had at an early stage declined to examine prior events in the North on the reasonable ground 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. But this makes the statement that, ‘We found no evidence …’ puzzling: the Tribunal had decided not to gather such evidence.
Many who read through the body of the report will be puzzled, too, by Saville’s acceptance of the explanation eventually offered by Jackson of his role in compiling the ‘shot-list’, which formed the basis of the initial cover-up of the killings.
Questions over ‘shot list’
Jackson had provided the Tribunal with a detailed account of his movements and involvement in the Bloody Sunday events and took the witness stand in London in April 2003. Nowhere in his statement or his April evidence did he refer to compiling the shot list or other documents giving a version of what had happened. His role emerged the following month during evidence from Major Ted Loden, who described how, late in the afternoon of Bloody Sunday, he had taken statements from the shooters and plotted map references showing the trajectory of their shots.
However, when a number of documents including the original of the shot list were then produced, the list was not in Loden’s handwriting but in the handwriting of the now Chief of Staff of the British Army. How could this have come about, Loden was asked, ‘Well, I cannot answer that question’, came the reply.
#228 Climate Revolutions ● Transitioning beyond climate and Covid-19 crises ● Conservation without colonialism ● Prisons, profits and punishment ● Surveillance capitalism in India ● The uses of comedy ●Simon Hedges ● Book reviews ● And much more!
And you choose how much to pay for your subscription...
Connor Beaton reviews Daniel Finn's account of the politics and personalities which drove the IRA
The BBC hit drama shows the complexities of class mobility, but can’t avoid class and gender stereotypes, says Frances Hatherley
This summer, Irish LGBTQ campaigner Joseph Healy joined the Pride march in his home town of Newry. Here, he explains how life on the border has changed - and the stakes of Brexit installing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic
Luke Butterly writes that the government is quietly preparing for a return to a harder border in Northern Ireland.
Ireland's movement against water charges is being criminalised by a nervous state, writes Oliver Eagleton
Fifteen years on from Bolivia’s ‘water war’, Thomas McDonagh looks at the developing parallels between those dramatic events and the current Irish battle over domestic water charges