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10 June 1999 Edition

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Bloody Sunday - Usual suspects close ranks

BY FERN LANE

     
By re-casting those who took lives, rather than those who lost them, as the victims of Bloody Sunday, the waters are conveniently muddied. Whilst the focus remains on Colonel Wilford and his men, the chain of command which reaches into government remains shrouded from public view
As we go to press, former members of the Parachute Regiment, funded by the Ministry of Defence, are preparing to go to the High Court in Belfast to argue that they should be allowed to remain anonymous when they appear before the Saville Inquiry. At least 17 of the solders have said that, should the appeal fail, they will either lie to the Inquiry or refuse to appear at all, risking imprisonment for contempt.

The appeal will be heard as the British right wing, embodied by The Daily Mail, launches into a `Don't Betray the Paras' campaign, which, whilst ostensibly calling for anonymity, has the secondary purpose of interfering still further with the Inquiry by attempting to sway public and judicial opinion back to the discredited Widgery Tribunal's interpretation of the events of Bloody Sunday. The Human Rights Lawyer Michael Mansfield, who represents some of the Bloody Sunday Families, has already expressed his concern that the newspaper is in contempt of court in its efforts to predetermine the outcome of the Inquiry.

The tone of the coverage suggests that the `Don't Betray the Paras' campaign is in reality an `It Was Only a Few Paddies Who Deserved It Anyway' campaign, with Lt. Colonel Derek Wilford's appalling comments in The Daily Mail that his regiment ``has absolutely nothing to apologise for'' in respect of Bloody Sunday and that he would do the same again. The Daily Telegraph has joined in, quoting a former paratrooper as saying: ``Everyone killed on that day was guilty of at least riotous behaviour and at worst out and out terrorism.'' That everyone killed on that day was guilty of precisely nothing, a fact finally acknowledged by the British state to which Colonel Wilford and his cohorts claim allegiance, seems to have escaped all of them.

For all that, however, the stance adopted by Wilford - who, curiously, has managed to survive his own lack of anonymity for almost three decades - of refusing to appear before the Inquiry may be pointless as well as illegal, given that the names and photographs of the soldiers involved have been in the public domain for many years. But then, perhaps the whole issue has been concocted not only with the intention of blaming the dead, but also to make the Inquiry revolve around anonymity alone - rather like the peace process has become about decommissioning alone - in order to avoid the real questions. By re-casting those who took lives, rather than those who lost them, as the victims of Bloody Sunday, the waters are conveniently muddied.

Whilst the focus remains on Colonel Wilford and his men, the chain of command which reaches into government remains shrouded from public view.

Added to all this another, newer, factor has come in to play. The press, aided by the military establishment, is using the Inquiry as an indirect means of giving vent to its irritation with the British government over another, unconnected issue - Kosovo. To the obvious chagrin of retired generals such as Sir Peter de la Billiere, a veteran of the Gulf War, Tony Blair has disregarded their advice on the handling of the Kosovan conflict.

Consequently, he and others have publicly expressed their fury that whilst the Parachute Regiment is to go into Kosovo - ironically to protect unarmed civilians - its former members are expected to undergo the indignity of being asked to honestly account for the shooting of unarmed civilians, as if there were some kind of trade-off involved or legitimate link to be made between the two events.

However, for all these differences, the sound of ranks closing and mutual interests being protected could still be heard above the criticism when the Minister of Defence, George Robertson, justified the funding of the appeal by saying that the MoD has a ``duty of care'' towards its former employees - although this `duty of care' does not seem to extend to former soldiers suffering from Gulf War Syndrome - and by personally lobbying for anonymity for the men. Although he retreated to a position of merely expressing ``concern'' for the men's security, the incident was revealing because it demonstrated that the instinct of any British government (and, despite Tony Blair's protestations of neutrality, the MoD is part of the government) is to come down against the nationalist community in the Six Counties.

Whatever the outcome of the appeal today, whether the Paras are successful or not, the Inquiry has now been indelibly tainted by the suspicion that the question of anonymity has been exploited as a stalling and masking tactic. And, that if this tactic fails, another will be employed in its wake.
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