Eamonn McCann reflects on the Saville Report one year on

18 Jun

Bloody Sunday The Saville Report’s recognition that all of the 13 Bloody Sunday dead and 13 wounded had been innocent unarmed civilians sparked an eruption of joy in Derry. The sea of shining faces gathered in Guildhall Square on 15 June 2010 could have lit up a continent. This was the acknowledgement which the Bloody Sunday families and their supporters had craved throughout their long trek towards the truth, and it was sufficient unto the day. A year later, it should be possible also to acknowledge that the report was far from flawless. It convicts the lower ranks while exculpating the higher military command and dismissing any suggestion of political leaders having been complicit in the events. The individual paras who fired the shots which killed or wounded civil rights marchers in Derry are, rightly, damned in the report. Additionally, Lt. Col. Derek Wilford, commander of the First Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, is singled out for obloquy. It was his disobedience, says Saville, which put the shooters into position to carry out the killings: specifically, it was Wilford’s failure to follow the plan drawn up by more senior officers, and not the plan itself, which led to the massacre. One undisciplined middle-rank officer and a small squad of kill-crazy foot-soldiers did it all. This does not reflect the totality of the evidence given to the Inquiry. The report is brilliant for the Bloody Sunday families, and not a bad result for the British military and political elite either. The political significance of Saville’s failure to face up to the role of senior figures was important for Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech in the House of Commons introducing the report. Cameron’s admission that the killings and woundings had been “unjustified and unjustifiable” was more forthright and fair than many had anticipated. But he would have found it difficult to deploy this sort of language had Saville included in his list of culprits 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, Britain’s number one soldier. Saville’s case against Wilford is that he breached orders by sending his men into the Bogside to arrest rioters despite the fact that the youths who had been throwing stones etc. were mingled into a much larger number of peaceful civil rights marchers; by sending in two companies of paras when the operational plan had authorised only one; by sending one of the companies into the Bogside in armoured personnel cars rather than, as ordered, on foot; and by allowing “a running battle down Rossville Street” to develop, when orders had been specific that the paras were not to go deeply into the area. According to Saville, these derelictions of duty on Wilford’s part, taken together with the readiness to kill of a number of rank-and-file paratroopers, provide as full an account of the reason for Bloody Sunday as it is possible to assemble. However, if these are the only proximate causes of the killings, Bloody Sunday holds few lessons, none of them profound, for the conduct of State forces involved in internal conflicts, whether in Britain or elsewhere: make sure orders are obeyed, make sure that rioting elements are separated from others before sending in arrest squads and so on. The truth about Bloody Sunday includes not just what the paras did in the Bogside but why the paras were there. The answer is that General Robert Ford insisted on the paras as the lead force on the day. Ford, second in seniority in the North, only to the General Officer Commanding, commissioned the Bloody Sunday battle plan, Operation Forecast. It was he who organised with the army’s Belfast commander, Brigadier Frank Kitson, that 1 Para would be “loaned” to Derry for the day to carry out the arrest operation at the edge of the Bogside. In the weeks before Bloody Sunday Ford 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 January 7th 1972, Ford declared himself “disturbed” by what he regarded as the soft attitude of army and police chiefs in Derry to the Bogside “no-go” area, 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).” Six days before Bloody Sunday, Ford overruled objections to the proposed use of the paras by Derry commander Brigadier Pat MacLellan and local police chief Frank Lagan. He held to his plan over the next few days as other senior Derry-based officers expressed alarm at the likely result of bringing in the paras as the lead force in an operation to “scoop up” rioters. One officer felt so strongly that he phoned a military contact in London to try to get a message to the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Michael Carver, asking him to intervene. On the day itself, although with no operational role, Ford travelled to Derry and took up position at the edge of the Bogside, shouting “Go on the Paras!” as they charged through a barbed-wire barricade towards what was to become the Rossville Street killing ground. He was, of course, the most senior officer on the scene. The possibility that Ford’s decisions in advance and comportment on the day might have played a part in the way matters developed is dismissed by Saville: 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.” 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.” 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 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 massacre nor any soldier disciplined or any statement issued by anyone in authority expressing sorrow or regret. Saville’s conclusion that there was no evidence 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 ground – in itself not unreasonable – 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. Ford in particular would have known of the paras’ involvement in the Ballymurphy massacre. He had arrived in the North to take up his post as army no. two in the first week of August 1971 – a few days before the Ballymurphy events: the killings were his baptism of fire, which it is difficult to believe he would have forgotten. But Saville finds that he neither knew nor had reason to know that the soldiers he sent into the Bogside might fire unjustifiably. It is equally puzzling that Saville accepted Jackson’s explanation of the role he had played in compiling the “shot-list” which was to form the basis of the account of Bloody Sunday offered in the aftermath by British military and political leaders. Jackson testified in London in April 2003 that, although he had been in the Bogside in the vicinity of the shooting, he had seen little of the events under scrutiny. He made no mention of afterwards compiling a list of the shots fired or of writing any other description of what had happened. A different version of Jackson’s role began to emerge the following month during evidence from Major Ted Loden, commander of Support Company of the First Paras. He described how, late in the afternoon of Bloody Sunday, he had taken statements from the shooters and plotted map references showing in each case the location of the shooter and of his target and had noted the soldier’s account of why he had fired – the man he aimed at had been armed with a gun or a nail or petrol bomb etc. He explained that he had interviewed the soldiers as he sat in the back of an armoured vehicle at Clarence Avenue a few hundred yards from Rossville Street, with the map spread out on his lap and by the light of a battery-powered lamp. He listed 14 “engagements”. However, when a number of documents including the original of the shot-list were produced, they turned out to be not in Loden’s handwriting but in the handwriting of the now Chief of Staff, Michael Jackson. How could this have come about, Loden was asked. “Well, I cannot answer that question,” he replied. None of the shots described in the list conformed to any of the shots which evidence told had actually been fired. Some of the trajectories described took bullets through buildings to find their targets. The other documents in the Chief of Staff’s hand were personal accounts of the day’s events by Wilford, the three para company commanders present and the battalion intelligence officer. None of these gave evidence of the debriefing session which this must have entailed, just as Jackson had made no mention of the exercise in his evidence in April. In their statements to the Inquiry, none of the soldiers whose shots were included on the list mentioned being interviewed by either Loden or Jackson about firing the shots. Recalled to the stand in October, Jackson explained that he had forgotten about these documents when giving evidence in April but had recovered a “vague memory” after learning that they had been produced to the Inquiry and put to Loden. Under questioning, Jackson seemed hampered by poor memory, on more than 20 occasions using phrases along the lines, “I cannot remember,” “I do not recall,” “I have only a very vague memory.” Saville’s resolves one obvious contradiction by accepting both Loden’s original claim that he had written out the shot-list and Jackson’s subsequent explanation that he must have copied Loden’s script verbatim, although he could offer no explanation why he might have done this or recall who had asked or ordered him to do so. Loden’s own list has never been found. Saville rejects suggestions that “the list played some part in a cover-up to conceal the emerging truth that some innocent civilians had been shot and killed by soldiers of 1 Para. It is not explained exactly how this conspiracy is said to have worked.” However, having declared that it was not clear how a cover-up based on the documents might have worked, Saville continues that, “the list did play a role in the Army’s explanations of what occurred on the day.” He cites an interview on BBC radio at 1am on the day after Bloody Sunday in which the army’s head of information policy in the North, Maurice Tugwell, used the list as his basis for explaining the “shooting engagements”. Elsewhere, Saville finds that “information from the list was used by Lord Balniel, the Minister of State for Defence, in the House of Commons on 1st February 1972, when he defended the actions of the soldiers.” (The shot-list was also distributed to British diplomatic missions around the world as a guide for answering questions about the killings.) Saville seems not to have considered a conclusion that here we had not just evidence of a conspiracy but clear sight of the conspiracy in action, and with Michael Jackson had been at the heart of it. Had this been among Saville’s findings, Jackson would have been branded as having concocted q series of lies to cover up unjustified and unjustifiable killings. Mr. Cameron would not have been able to make the Commons speech which was to be hailed as a major contribution to reconciliation, and even healing, in Ireland. The response of the families and their supporters to Saville’s resounding vindication of their murdered loved ones was thrillingly and properly euphoric. Whether other findings of the Tribunal stand the test of time as well is less certain.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: