Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Bloody Sunday, Douglas Murray

On 30 January 1972, the British Army carried out the worst massacre of British citizens since Peterloo in 1819.  The half hour beginning just before 4pm on that afternoon must have been picked over at greater length and in greater detail than any other similar time period in human history - with the possible exception of the JFK assassination.

This book is a study of Bloody Sunday and the Saville Inquiry that was set up by the Blair government to investigate what happened on that afternoon.  Its author, Douglas Murray, is a well-known neoconservative opponent of Islamist terrorism.  However, Murray succeeds in giving us a mostly dispassionate and judicious account of the events of 30 January 1972 and the protracted attempts that were made to elucidate them.

*

By 1972, the Troubles were well under way and Northern Ireland was in a state of serious civil strife and disorder.  Republican paramilitaries, loyalist paramilitaries, civil rights campaigners, British soldiers and various brands of politicians, clergymen and community activists were at each others' throats, both metaphorically and literally.  Northern Ireland was ruled by a sectarian Unionist government that had been in power since 1921.  The mainly Catholic Bogside area in Derry was in the hands of Republican insurgents and was consequently off-limits to British forces.  The British Army's Parachute Regiment had already been involved in controversial incidents, including deaths by shooting.  For their part, the two IRAs - the Officials and the Provisionals - were murdering and maiming people whenever they deemed there to be a political or historical justification for doing so.

On 30 January, a civil rights march proceeded in defiance of a ban on demonstrations.  Most of the protestors were peaceful, but, perhaps inevitably, some rioting broke out in the region of the Bogside.  The men of the First Batallion of the Parachute Regiment were ordered into action to arrest the rioters.  The shooting started at around 3.55pm.  It is still not clear which side fired the first shots. Murray suggests that the first rounds from the Army and from the Republican side were fired in such rapid succession that the two sides must have decided to start firing at the same time.  This would be a remarkable coincidence - though by no means the strangest thing to have happened in Northern Ireland in those years.  Shortly after the first shots had been fired, a different soldier fired two further warning shots, and these appear to have resounded around the area and caused the other troops to believe that they were under attack.

Less than half an hour later, thirteen people lay dead, seven of them teenagers.  A fourteenth would die a few months later.  A similar number of people were injured by gunshot wounds.

The initial reports made by the soldiers to the Army authorities, and by the Army to journalists, claimed that the deceased had been gunmen and nail-bombers.  This was simply not true.  As Lord Saville eventually confirmed, they were innocent civilians who had posed no danger to the paras.  The only possible exception was Gerald Donaghy, a 17-year-old member of an IRA youth organisation who was reportedly later found to have nail bombs in his pockets - but the paras had no way of knowing this, and in any case Donaghy was killed by accident by a bullet fired at someone else.

Right from the start, things didn't add up.  If 1 Para really had been in mortal danger, why did the day's victims consist entirely of local civilians rather than British soldiers?  If, to the contrary, the soldiers had succumbed to some kind of murderous bloodlust, why had they seemingly taken care to select specific targets - mostly young males - rather than firing indiscriminately?  Rumours and conspiracy theories abounded.  It was said that some of the supposed victims were really IRA men who had died some time ago and whose corpses had been hidden in sewers.  Others claimed that the real death toll had been higher than the official count: aside from the innocent victims, actual gunmen had been shot and then buried secretly (this latter rumour survived and was put to the Saville inquiry by the Army's counsel).

*

The political fallout was immense.  The Irish Government recalled its ambassador from London, and a crowd of demonstrators burned down the British embassy in Dublin.  The radical Republican MP Bernadette Devlin punched the Home Secretary in the House of Commons.  Ted Heath dismissed the Unionist government at Stormont and placed Northern Ireland under direct rule from London.  He also ordered the Lord Chief Justice, John Widgery, to conduct an inquiry into the shootings.  As he did so, he famously remarked that the British Government was engaged in a "propaganda war" as well as a military operation.  This has often been interpreted as a veiled hint which Widgery duly took.  In his report, which was published in April 1972, the Lord Chief Justice came down in favour of the Army and against the demonstrators.  The Widgery Report was immediately denounced by nationalists as a grievous miscarriage of justice, defaming the reputations of the dead and exonerating their killers. It has gone down in history as a whitewash - a classic case of the old British Establishment closing ranks to protect itself.

This is partially true, but, as Murray points out, the Widgery Report is actually a less partisan document than is generally realised.  Widgery, who had been a senior Army officer himself, went against the Army's earlier official version of events by acknowledging that some of the victims had been innocent civilians.  He wrongly concluded that other victims had been handling firearms, but this conclusion was supported by the results of now-discredited forensic tests which were considered reliable at the time.  As for the soldiers, Widgery explicitly recognised that "one or two" had lied in their testimony to him, and that some of their firing had "bordered on the reckless".  As it happens, it seems that the soldiers themselves were none too happy with Widgery's endeavours, seeing them as an unwarranted attack from their own side.

Widgery was not so much a whitewash as a greywash.  No-one denies that the old boy failed to set out the full truth about Bloody Sunday.  But the fact remains that a senior judge stated in a public report to the UK Government that British soldiers had killed innocent people on the streets of their own city.  The true scandal was not that Widgery pulled his punches, but rather that no action was subsequently taken to discipline - let alone prosecute - the paras who had shot down unarmed civilians and then lied about it to the Lord Chief Justice.

Not everyone in Establishment circles concurred with Lord Widgery.  Back in Derry, the local Coroner - a good unionist with an Army background - stated that the soldiers had "run amok", and described their actions as "murder".  After Harold Wilson replaced Ted Heath in 1974, the British Government acknowledged that the victims had not been gunmen or bombers, and offered compensation to their families.  John Major repeated this acknowledgement in 1992.  But it was not until 1998, following the accession of Tony Blair, that the Government agreed to hold a new inquiry into the events of 30 January 1972.  The inquiry was to be chaired by Lord Saville, a commercial judge who had spent the previous few years churning through a bitter and protracted torrent of litigation arising out of the insurance market crash at Lloyd's.  It was a good enough preparation for what was to follow.

*

The soldiers themselves were a mixed bunch.  Some were experienced combat veterans.  Others were not.  "Soldier H" was a 20-year-old private who fired an incredible 22 rounds and never satisfactorily accounted for the whereabouts of 19 of them.  At the Saville inquiry, he stuck to the same surreal story that he had unsuccessfully tried to persuade Widgery to accept 30 years previously, namely that he had fired them all through a window at a gunman who kept ducking down.  Two of the more dislikeable killers appear to have been killed themselves in the 1970s - one at the hands of the other - after they went off to Angola to fight as mercenaries.  Among the paras who survived to appear before Saville, one of the most noteworthy was a gentleman referred to as Soldier F.  It appears that he had killed up to four of the victims.  He seems to have refused to attend the inquiry until he was threatened with imprisonment.  Once he was there, he proved unable to remember most of the particulars of the most momentous event of his life.  It looks like he'd have forgotten his head if it wasn't screwed on.  He had already experienced similar difficulties with recollection at the time of the Widgery inquiry.  Back in 1972, Murray reports that he seems to have changed his evidence after achieving a greater clarity of memory at around the same time as he found out that investigators were about to link a bullet found inside one of the victims to his rifle.  Fortunately, other witnesses were on hand to reconstruct the facts that Soldier F had inconveniently forgotten, and Lord Saville took a dim view of his conduct.

One of Soldier F's adversaries was an enigmatic character called Soldier 027.  It initially seemed that Soldier 027 was a whistleblower, a brave ex-para who was prepared to break ranks with his comrades.  He first came to light in 1997, when an account of Bloody Sunday which he had written around 1975 was published in the Irish press.  He wrote or spoke about the event on several other occasions prior to attending the Saville inquiry.  He portrayed Soldier F as an undisciplined sadist, blamed him for instigating the shootings, and reported that he had continued to shoot after the order to cease firing was given.  He added several other sensational allegations against the Army.  Did his evidence provide the missing pieces of the jigsaw?  Not necessarily.  Some parts of Soldier 027's testimony had a ring of truth, but other parts appeared to be exaggerated or false.  His story had changed over time in anomalous ways, and he was mistrusted by Lord Saville.  When called upon to flesh out his most damning allegations, which were otherwise uncorroborated - an Army officer had called for 1 Para to make "some kills"; Widgery's staff had deliberately falsified evidence; the paras had used controversial ammunition known as dum-dum bullets - he appeared to fall prey to the same baffling memory problems as Soldier F.  Even his original 1975 account seems to have been embellished.  His motives in telling his version of the story were unclear, and it did not help that he insisted on being paid by the Northern Ireland Office for giving evidence - an astonishing breach of precedent.  He claimed that he had flushed a crucial document down a toilet at the Channel 4 studios, and that another crucial document had been stolen from him by a gang of transvestites on the Paris Métro.  Murray suggests that he was "[p]art whistleblower, part fantasist".

Unreliable and amnesiac witnesses were not confined to the Parachute Regiment.  On the Republican side, there was evidence that the IRA had laid plans for Sunday 30 January, and that they had been messing about with guns on the fateful afternoon.  Yet Murray notes that local witnesses were strikingly reluctant to talk about the role that IRA gunmen played in Bloody Sunday, and there were credible reports of witness intimidation.  In fact, cracks ultimately appeared in the Republican omertà, and dozens of witnesses ended up testifying to the presence of gunmen in the Bogside that afternoon.  Some former members of the Official IRA came forward, one of whom, OIRA1, claimed to have fired the first shot of the afternoon (the one that was fired near-simultaneously with the Army's first rounds).  Another, OIRA4, admitted to firing further shots, though he rather implausibly claimed that the paras hadn't noticed them.  He collapsed in front of Saville and ended up being given first aid by the Army's barrister.  One well-known Official IRA man who did not testify was "Red" Mickey Doherty, who had the distinction of being the only IRA gunman to have been shot fair and square on Bloody Sunday after firing on the Army.  He survived the shooting to become a founder member of INLA.  He successfully evaded Saville's attempts to track him down, and he took whatever he knew with him to the grave in 2003.  The Provisional IRA was equally unhelpful, its members sticking to the party line that they had had no weapons and had fired no shots during the massacre.

Murray notes that witnesses had a particular tendency to clam up on any subject relating to Martin McGuinness.  The Deputy First Minister had been in Derry on Bloody Sunday, and he had been about to become the Provisional IRA's commander in the city.  He wasn't over-eager to assist the Saville inquiry, and Murray reports that his evidence as to his part in the day's events was not wholly satisfactory.  It turned out that an MI5 informant, codenamed "Infliction", had reported that McGuinness had claimed privately that he had fired the first shot of the afternoon (this was presumably a different shot from OIRA1's).  Infliction, who was by now living in an undisclosed foreign country, was such an exceptionally sensitive source that he was not even permitted to give evidence.  Another MI5 informant could not be called because he had died after giving his witness statement.  Intelligence officers, including Infliction's handler, ended up testifying under carefully controlled conditions on the reliability of their grasses.  As Murray intimates, the murkiness of the intelligence underworld means that we are unlikely ever to know what value to place on Infliction's reported claim.  We are also unlikely to know exactly what Martin McGuinness was up to on that long-ago afternoon.  Saville was agnostic about Infliction, but he concluded that McGuinness had probably been in possession of a Thompson submachine gun.

In general terms, there were formidable difficulties involved in dredging up memories from 30 years previously, particularly given that those memories centred on a few brief minutes of extraordinarily traumatic and chaotic events.  Murray cites the rather macabre story of Barney McGuigan's eyelid.  It appears that an eyelid from Mr McGuigan, one of the day's victims, had ended up deposited on a wall, and had been taken down and put into a matchbox.  This much was the general thrust of the evidence of a string of twenty different witnesses at the inquiry.  A striking and memorable story, one would have thought - the sort of thing that would stick in one's mind for ever.  The trouble was that the twenty witnesses consistently failed to agree on exactly who had done what to the eyelid and when.  Several claimed to have picked it up themselves.  Others claimed to have been with the person who picked it up, but could not agree on who that person was.  It was not even clear whether the episode had taken place on the Sunday or the following Monday.  It is unlikely that all of the witnesses concerned were deliberately lying.  Another example of false or unreliable memory was provided by the witnesses who reported hearing and seeing shots from the city walls (as distinct from the shots fired by 1 Para within the Bogside).  Saville found that this was not possible, but several individuals nevertheless testified on oath that it had happened.  Finally, and saddest of all, there were witnesses who appear to have been mentally ill, or simply fantasists.  The human mind is a strange thing.

*

Contrary to persistent Republican conspiracy theories, Saville did not find that there had been any wrongdoing among the Army top brass or at governmental level.  It had been noted that the Commander of Land Forces in Northern Ireland, General Robert Ford, had suggested in a memorandum to his superior on 7 January 1972 that the Army might have to shoot the ringleaders of the "Derry young hooligans" in order to restore order.  Republicans might be forgiven for surmising that this had something to do with what happened three weeks later.  Yet no-one has ever been able to find any evidence that Ford's musings were adopted as Army policy, let alone that they resulted in specific orders being given to the men of 1 Para.  Indeed, Saville expressly criticised 1 Para's commander, Colonel Wilford, for not having stuck to his orders when he sent his troops into the Bogside.  Wilford himself, incidentally, had built up a habit prior to the inquiry of publicly excoriating everyone involved in the situation, with the exception of his men, whom he seemed to think could do no wrong.

In broader terms, it appeared that the blame for Bloody Sunday could not be attributed to the UK Government.  The Government had had no policy to escalate the level of military intervention in Derry, and the ultimate arbiter of British policy in Northern Ireland, Ted Heath, was far from being a militant unionist.  The true crime of the Government lay not in having orchestrated the massacre but in having let the perpetrators literally get away with murder for the next 30-odd years and having failed to take proper steps to exonerate the innocent victims.  It may be noted that Heath was characteristically unhelpful and rude at the Saville inquiry, disclaiming all responsibility for Bloody Sunday and insisting that Widgery had dealt with the episode perfectly satisfactorily.  He would probably have won the award for being the most unpleasant and self-righteous political witness to appear, if Bernadette Devlin hadn't turned up.

*

In all, the Saville inquiry lasted 12 years, took evidence from 2,500 witnesses and cost £200 million of taxpayers' money.  It is generally agreed to have been worth it.  In his final chapter, Murray quotes David Cameron's statement made on the release of the report:
I am deeply patriotic. I never want to believe anything bad about our country. I never want to call into question the behaviour of our soldiers and our Army, who I believe to be the finest in the world. And I have seen for myself the very difficult and dangerous circumstances in which we ask our soldiers to serve.

But the conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt. There is nothing equivocal. There are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong....

It is clear from the tribunal's authoritative conclusions that the events of Bloody Sunday were in no way justified.

....[W]hat happened should never, ever have happened. The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and hurt of that day, and a lifetime of loss. Some members of our Armed Forces acted wrongly. The Government are ultimately responsible for the conduct of the Armed Forces. And for that, on behalf of the Government, and indeed our country, I am deeply sorry....

But what I hope this report can also do is to mark the moment when we come together in this House and in the communities we represent: come together to acknowledge our shared history, even where it divides us; and come together to close this painful chapter on Northern Ireland's troubled past.... Northern Ireland has been transformed over the past 20 years, and all of us in Westminster and Stormont must continue that work of change, coming together with all the people of Northern Ireland to build a stable, peaceful, prosperous and shared future.