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30 March 2000 Edition

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The plain and simple truth

The biggest inquiry in British legal history opened at Derry's Guildhall on Monday, 27 March. The Saville Inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972, which is set to continue for two years and hear evidence from over 1,400 witnesses, has pledged to seek out the truth, ``plain and simple.'' Liam Wray, whose brother James was shot dead that day, has described the new probe as ``an opportunity to heal''. The families of those killed and injured, said Liam, had put their trust in Lord Saville and it was now up to Saville to prove he was trustworthy. Here, An Phoblacht's Laura Friel examines the scale of the injustice inflicted on the people of Derry that day and the obstacles that have been placed in the way of those seeking the truth.


Alice Long was only ten years of age when she first joined the Knights of Malta, a voluntary first aid organisation along the lines of St John's Ambulance. When British paratroopers opened fire on unarmed demonstrators in Derry on 30 January 1972, Alice was one of a number of teenage girls to attend the injured and dying. More accustomed to treating cuts and bruises, the first aiders, sometimes working in pairs but more often alone, valiantly attempted to save the lives of people with devastating gunshot wounds.

     
Raising his rifle so that it was pointing downwards, the soldier poked it through an open vision flap and fired three rapid shots. ``They'll not make any more noise,'' the para gloated
As was the routine after attending a public event, in the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday the Knights of Malta paramedics wrote detailed reports. Alice, along with 14 other first aiders, described her experiences. She described finding the body of Barney McGuigan lying beside the telephone box near Rossville Flats and his terrible head wounds. She described the bath, full of blood, in a flat in Columbcille Court where Damian Donaghy had been placed before a leg wound could be attended.

But there was one incident, an atrocity witnessed by Alice and her Knights of Malta superior, which in 1972 was considered too terrible to recount. At the time, Alice was persuaded to protect the families of those shot dead by staying silent. It would be over a quarter of a century later before Alice felt able to tell her tale.

Within sight of Rossville Flats, Alice and her colleague Leo Day saw a priest remonstrating with paratroopers beside a British Army vehicle. A woman bystander in great distress stopped Alice and her colleague and told them she had seen three men, dead or badly injured, being dumped by paratroopers in the back of one of their armoured personnel carriers, known as `Pigs'. The woman pointed out the vehicle. ``One of them may still be alive,'' she insisted.

Alice and her companion approached the vehicle and asked to see the injured inside. Eventually, the rear door of the vehicle was pulled open and the two first aiders saw three men sprawled on top of each other. There was blood running across the floor. When one of the two paramedics attempted to get inside he was stopped by a soldier. At that moment Alice heard a moan from inside the vehicle. She grabbed the rear door but a soldier with a blackened face kicked it out of her hands and it shut.

Alice opened the door again. The foot of one of the men inside moved, confirming that at least one of the people in the vehicle was still alive. The paratrooper kicked the door shut for a second time. Then raising his rifle so that it was pointing downwards, the soldier poked it through an open vision flap and fired three rapid shots. ``They'll not make any more noise,'' the para had gloated.

Alice's story doesn't end there. She noticed two discarded bullet cases on the ground and picked them up. The front of each casing had peeled back in four sections, suggesting that the bullets had been deliberately tampered with to ensure the infliction of maximum injury when fired. The soldier who had fired into the vehicle cocked his rifle again and threatened to shoot Alice if she didn't hand them over. The casings were handed back.

In their account of Bloody Sunday, `Those are real bullets, aren't they', journalists Peter Pringle and Philip Jacobson follow up Alice's account. After Alice left the scene, the vehicle carrying the three men was driven to a location where a British Army medic attached to the paras allegedly examined them.

He later claimed that the three bodies had been placed side by side in a position which would have allowed them to breath if any of them had been alive. But the army medic's account contradicted another witness, a civilian who was helping identify the dead arriving at Altnagelvin hospital morgue, who saw the bodies of three men arriving. He described them inside the vehicle as ``piled in like lumps of meat''. One of the three bodies was still warm.

In his radio and television repair shop on William Street, amateur radio enthusiast Jim Porter regularly tuned in and tape recorded British Army radio messages. Just two days before Bloody Sunday, Porter had recorded a conversation involving a British Army officer and a soldier on patrol in an armoured vehicle in William Street.

On the tape the officer, identified only as 1.9 orders, soldier 1.6, who claims to have just seen a youth throwing a nail bomb, to shoot him. The soldier tells the officer that the youth is unarmed, ``he has nothing in his hands'' and the officer replies ``shoot him dead''. The soldier opens fire but reports missing his target by ``two inches''. ``Bad shooting,'' says the officer. It's a telling insight into the British military mindset in the days running up to Bloody Sunday.

Only two other incidents perpetrated by the British state present an historical comparison with Bloody Sunday, argue Pringle and Jacobson: in Ireland the shooting of 12 spectators at Croke Park football ground in Dublin by British troops in 1920 and in England the `Peterloo Massacre', when demonstrators seeking parliamentary reform were charged by the cavalry in Manchester in 1819.

The authors say that ``the 13 unarmed men, seven of them teenagers, were killed as part of a deliberate plan, conceived at the highest level of military command and sanctioned by the British government, to put innocent civilians at risk by authorising the use of lethal force during an illegal civil rights march''.

Shortly after the establishment of the Saville inquiry, an archive of material collected in the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday by the Sunday Times Insight team, of which Peter Pringle and Philip Jacobson were members at the time, was made available to Saville. Pringle and Jacobson were subsequently asked to assist in authenticating the material.

Dermot Walsh is currently the Director of the Centre for Criminal Justice at Limerick University. For him, Bloody Sunday ``represents the classic example of a state resorting to the might of its armed forces, and the use of lethal force in particular, to crush public protest against the implementation of oppressive and discriminatory policies by that state''.

Bloody Sunday cannot be explained away as an isolated aberration, argues Walsh. ``The subordination of the rule of law and justice to the immediate demands of the executive and security policies which allowed Bloody Sunday to happen were well established by January 1972 and continued unabated right up until the current peace process began to take effect.''

In 1998, a detailed analysis by Walsh of discrepancies between initial statements made by British paratroopers involved in the shootings and their subsequent evidence presented to the Widgery Inquiry became a key element of the Irish government's submission calling for a new inquiry to the British government.

In almost every case where a soldier fired one or more shots, Walsh found substantial discrepancies within their initial and subsequent accounts. ``An even more sinister feature is the extent to which the accounts were changed again in the later statements to the Treasury Solicitor,'' he reported. ``In almost all cases, the changes converted what had originally amounted to an unlawful killing to a more justifiable one.

``The extent of the inconsistency in the soldiers' statements and testimony is such that it would not be safe to rely on the army's version in virtually any instance where there was credible and cogent evidence to the contrary.''

Pringle and Jacobson fear that any quest for truth by the Saville Inquiry is inevitably undermined because it ``requires the rank and file soldiers and senior officers who apparently lied on oath to Widgery to re examine their stories.'' This requirement is made all the more unlikely after the British courts ruled that the paratroopers will remain anonymous. ``The truth that Lord Saville seeks is simply unattainable,'' they conclude.

Their pessimistic view appears to be corroborated by a recent book, `The Paras', by military journalist John Parker, in which he repeats the long since discredited British paratrooper accounts of IRA snipers and nail bombers. ``Unfortunately, the subsequent Widgery inquiry did not produce witnesses to back up the soldiers' claims,'' writes Parker. ``There was little doubt that the IRA themselves `doctored' the scene by whisking away incriminating materials.''

In 1972, the reports compiled by members of the Knights of Malta were offered as evidence but rejected out of hand by the Widgery Inquiry. The tapes of British Army radio contacts recorded by Jim Porter were also offered to the inquiry. In a meeting to discuss the tape recordings, Lord Widgery accused the Bogside shopkeeper of being unpatriotic. Porter replied in the words of Dr. Johnson, that ``patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel''. The tapes were rejected on the grounds they had been made ``illegally''.

In 1998, British Prime Minister Tony Blair took the unprecedented step of establishing a second inquiry - an action which in itself was a clear repudiation of Widgery. He did so not because of any serious change of heart by the British military establishment but because the civilians whose testimony has been derided and denied were never deterred in their quest for truth and justice. After 27 years, the people of Derry remain optimistic that their voices will be heard.

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