Just how important are the findings of the Saville Report on Bloody Sunday for the Nationalist community of Northern Ireland cannot be overestimated. Bloody Sunday was a seminal moment in the history of the province. It created the gulf between the security forces and a significant section of the local population that was never healed.
The Provisional IRA was almost finished before Bloody Sunday. Its numbers were down to around 30 and its popularity within the community was on the wane. But Bloody Sunday reinvigorated the Provisionals and they never again lost support.
The extraordinary misjudgement of the Army and the Government has never been fully detailed before now. In our film, Secret History: Bloody Sunday, which was shown almost 20 years ago, we revealed the extent of the cover-up and the serious questions that still hung over the whole episode. During almost two years of research, we spoke to almost everyone involved, including a number of the soldiers and many of the officers as well as the victims and their families and hundreds of witnesses. Saville has backed up our findings and brought some further clarity to the events of the day.
I have no doubt that some of the soldiers – especially those around the front of the Rossville Flats – believed that they had come under fire. The sound of the first shots, fired by the Lieutenant over the heads of the crowd, reverberated from the front of the Flats and those coming up the central spine felt that they were under fire. The soldiers on the other side of the infiltration area – around Glenfada Park – almost certainly knew that they were not under attack and fired recklessly and with utter abandon.
Those soldiers had been wound up by the officers to a high pitch. They had not been fed for two days and then were given raw steak in the hour before the mission. As they unloaded from their armoured personnel carriers they were urged to ‘Go, Paras, Go – Go Get ‘Em’ by the senior officers. Any attempt to lay the blame firmly at the door of the squaddies would be misplaced. There is no doubt that some of the personnel acted viciously and with no provocation but they had been stretched to such a pitch by those in charge that it really is no wonder. If any charges are to be brought then they should be brought against the senior officers involved and possibly all the way up to higher echelons of Whitehall and Heath Government.
However, I know from my extensive dealings with the families that this is not the wish of the vast majority. They now have what they wanted – an admission that the whole exercise was misguided, unlawful and reckless. To bring individual charges against individual soldiers would open a whole new can of worms that extends throughout the time of the Troubles. While there has been no full ‘Truth and Reconciliation Committee’ in the Six Counties there is a widespread understanding among the community today that the Troubles are behind them and that to reopen old wounds would only cause a renewal of bad feeling and possible hostility – no one wants a return to violence.
Our film and the subsequent documentary by Peter Taylor of the BBC helped to trigger the renewal of calls for a full and open inquiry into Bloody Sunday and thus opened a door for the Good Friday agreement. Those films were the catalyst that began the process and I am delighted today that our findings have been vindicated. That it took 18 years after the films were shown for the results to be published is a damning indictment of our judicial system. £200 million is far too high a price for elementary justice and will act as a deterrent for others who wish to re-examine serious crimes of the past.
We now need to urgently examine the processes of our judicial establishment to determine a better way of running inquiries of this kind, for they are fundamental planks in the protection of our human rights. An inquiry into the inquiry may seem like a costly and needless expense on top of the huge sums of money already spent but it is absolutely necessary to re-establish a methodology for such situations.
In the meantime we should share the relief and joy of the families that justice has finally been seen to be done and look forward to a better and more peaceful future for an area that has suffered so much division and violence over such a long period of its history.
Tony Cook was the Chief Researcher on Praxis Films award-winning documentary ‘Secret History: Bloody Sunday’ shown in 1992 on Channel 4