30 October 2003 Edition
Dishonesty marked London hearings
"Any serving officer will be inclined to plead memory failure or tell outright lies to investigators, as they know telling the truth may embarrass or expose their bosses, from whom they have no legal protection or trade union representation."
- David Shayler, MI5 Whistleblower, giving evidence to the Bloody Sunday inquiry.
After 13 long and difficult months, the Saville Inquiry's sojourn in London finally drew to a close last week. It has been a memorable period, partly because the major players in the events of Bloody Sunday have been called, in person, to provide an honest of their role on that day, and partly because of the refusal of most of them to do so.
The London hearings opened against the backdrop of the British government's and Army's case already falling apart - and not just because of the consistent eyewitness accounts of the citizens of Derry. The government forensic scientist who told Widgery that at least seven of the Bloody Sunday victims had either fired a gun or had been close to someone using a gun before they were killed had just admitted that he could no longer stand by that claim. Dr John Martin told the Saville Inquiry that he now believed that "contamination is the major issue" and that his original findings should be seen in that light.
Then, a forensic expert appointed by the Saville Inquiry itself, Dr Richard Shephard, said he believed that the wound to Patrick McDaid had been caused by a "doctored" rubber bullet and could not possibly have been caused by shrapnel from a nail bomb.
There was more to come. During the questioning of the most senior RUC officer on Bloody Sunday, Patrick McCullagh, the inquiry heard the contents of a letter from then Superintendent Michael Finn (now deceased) referring to the death of Jackie Duddy. In his letter, Superintendent Finn said: "There is no evidence to establish which member of the army fired the fatal shot but it is clear that he had just dismounted from the APC before doing so. In my opinion, he is clearly guilty of murder but as he has not been identified no further action can be taken."
The inquiry had also heard the evidence of a number of media witnesses. For example, the film maker John Goodard produced a record of a former British Army soldier, saying during an interview: "Widgery - It was a matter of keeping our reputation. The platoon was broken after that. Jesus, we got away with murder - cracked up you know. Nobody will talk about it. Not even to other soldiers in the battalion. We were told by the officers and senior NCOs 'just button your lip on this one'.
"Bloody hell - some of those guys even fired from the hip - bloody cowboy attitude - craphats only do that. Lost our dignity over that. Some of them tried to be cocky after - but the older soldiers got angry with them. A few fights over beers, I tell you. We were lucky with Widgery - show job, wasn't it. Army had to cover up. Nobody wanted to talk. Better left alone."
Another journalist, Richard Eyre, had written that in 1979 he met with a senior army public relations officer in connection with a television play he was hoping to make. This meeting, said Eyre, provided "anecdotal support for Murray Sayle's argument in his [unpublished] piece about Bloody Sunday that the Paras were carrying out a plan to 'bring the enemy to battle. 'What,' I asked the officer, 'is the Army's policy in Northern Ireland?' 'Well, if I had my way,' he said, 'we'd line all the Catholics up against a wall and shoot the fucking lot of them'."
In London, they were all there; Edward Heath, Frank Kitson, Colonel Overbury, General Ford, Colonel Wilford, General Jackson (twice), Major Loden and members of the Parachute and other regiments. Many of the more senior officers, accustomed to a lifetime of deference and unquestioning obedience, entered the witness stand with an air of impenetrable self-confidence and self-assurance. After questioning by the families' legal teams, however, most ended it in a somewhat dishevelled state and with their stories largely in ruins. All were accused of dishonesty of one sort or another, either in the account they gave of their own actions or in the way they sought to cover up or justify the actions of others.
Edward Heath, Tory prime minister at the time, was perhaps the most obnoxious of all the witnesses; arrogant and obstructive, refusing to answer questions, he regarded as "irrelevant" or simply did not like. He treated Michael Lavery QC acting for the families with such patronising, calculated rudeness that the latter was eventually forced to formally complain to Lord Saville.
For his part, Saville seemed to be rather in awe of the witness in front of him and outraged many observers when he continuously interrupted the questioning of Heath, in the process protecting him from the more difficult questions.
Like so many of the other witnesses, however, Heath momentarily revealed himself in an exchange with Eilish McDermott, which was prematurely ended by Lord Saville:
Heath: "I just ask one thing of you: some 30 years after all this occurred could we not please deal with the present situation and how to deal with it, rather than spend our time looking at the past, which, in so many cases, can be condemned?"
McDermott: "Well, it is uncomfortable to look at the past sometimes, is that not right?"
Heath: "I could not agree more."
McDermott: "And it is uncomfortable in this particular situation?"
Heath: "But what good does it do us?"
McDermott: "That is the business of the Tribunal and of the Government which set it up. But is that what you are saying you would rather do? Not look at it too closely and move on?"
Heath: "Well, please think about it."
McDermott: "It does not bear being looked at too closely from the British Government's point of view, does it?"
Lord Saville: "I am not sure that a question posed in that manner is really going to help us."
Another event which has stayed in the memory was the crushing of Colonel Derek Wilford, who spent what to him must have seemed like an eternity on the witness stand. It might seem like a strange thing to say, but watching Wilford, one could almost believe that in any other walk of life he would have been an essentially decent man. But then he wasn't in any other walk of life; he was in command of 1 Para when they murdered 14 people and in his dogged refusal to see any wrong in what they did, he has forfeited any right he may have had to be considered moral. During his time before the inquiry, he seemed to physically shrink as the families' legal teams exposed, bit by bit, the story he has stuck to for 30 years - essentially that he saw and heard virtually nothing on Bloody Sunday - as wholly implausible.
He was also forced into a humiliating retreat after one outburst when he said that he was not convinced that none of the dead were gunmen or nailbombers, only to have his legal team make a statement in which they conceded, on his behalf, that all were innocent. The army has, in fact, formally acknowledged that none of the dead were armed at any time; their argument is that they were fired on by others and that the civilians were caught in the crossfire. There isn't space or time to go into just how ludicrous and unsustainable that argument is.
Of the soldiers themselves, for the most part there was little surprise in what they were or what they said. Stories of nailbombers, snipers, gunfire (in some cases, soldiers claimed to have heard the sound of the IRA firing AK-47s) and all the familiar nonsense was regurgitated by often aggressive, mostly not-too-bright, usually inarticulate men, who appeared to have been coached in their answers, only to have their accounts comprehensively refuted. It was striking too that so many of them had total recall of some events (being shot at) but complete amnesia of others (shooting at civilians); events often separated by the space of few seconds.
And despite all the protection offered by the inquiry to these soldiers - we do not know their names or what they look like - they too could not help but reveal themselves in the things that they said, or through evidence provided by other witnesses.
For example, from witness accounts, we learned that Soldier O - who had cocked his weapon before entering the Bogside in order, according to Barry MacDonald QC, to "shoot people as soon as the opportunity arose" - was a slightly built, "true blue loyalist" Scotsman, who was known "to sing The Sash on occasions". We learned from a Times journalist, as well as from the victim himself, that he had severely assaulted William Doherty - "The Para started beating the shit out of Doherty. He hit him several times on the top of the head with the barrel of his rifle, causing cuts and abrasions to the top and side of the head that eventually required seven stitches." After Doherty was "hurled" into a vehicle "the Scottish Para said 'you Irish bastard' and crashed the butt of his rifle into Doherty's face. I have seen the scars that this produced in the region of the left forehead and face."
Another soldier was recalled to the inquiry to be questioned after his membership of the UDA came to light.
In the case of a number of other former soldiers, however, their fragile psychological condition was apparent. One, Soldier L, who for reasons which were not really apparent, was described to the inquiry as mixed-race, disturbingly, when he talked about himself seemed to have internalised to a quite depressing degree the rampant racism and anti-Irish loyalism which permeates every level of the British Army. He was clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder which one suspects is not only caused by his time in Ireland, but rather his treatment by the army itself. Another soldier could not continue after spending a morning giving evidence, appearing to suffer some kind of breakdown after describing his experiences of soldiering in Derry and Belfast.
It was, of course, Soldier 027, a former member of 1 Para, giving evidence shortly after the Inquiry moved to London, who broke ranks to provide the most damning account of Bloody Sunday. In his lengthy statement he recalled in vivid detail the appalling behaviour of 1 Para both before and after Bloody Sunday, and said that he was "ashamed" of his own behaviour in Belfast at the time.
His account of the lead up to the Widgery tribunal and the way in which the MoD legal team had treated his evidence was stark. After having provided his account, Soldier 027 recalled that:
"To my utter surprise one of these doddering gentlemen said 'dear me Private  you make it sound as though shots were being fired at the crowd, we cannot have that can we'? He left the room and returned ten minutes later with another statement which bore no relation to the facts and I was told with a smile that this was the statement I would use when going for the stand. What a situation. The Lord Chief Justice of Great Britain, the symbol of all moral standing and justice and having his minions suppress and twist evident, with or without his knowledge, who can tell. I was amazed."
Some weeks after Soldier 027's evidence, the Saville Inquiry heard from Colonel Ted Overbury, a former British Army legal officer, who had been assigned to "cross-check" a number of statements provided by soldiers. Lawyers for the families pointed out, much to Colonel Overbury's chagrin, how a number of these statements changed materially, particularly in relation to providing justification for opening fire after Overbury had "checked" them.
The Ministry of Defence
The London hearings were also characterised by the constant attempts of the MoD to undermine, interfere with and obstruct the inquiry with a shower of Public Interest Immunity certificates being issued by British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon. By late spring, these attempts to interfere with the legal process reached new heights when the MoD demanded the right to vet questions to be put by lawyers acting for the families to members of the 'security forces'. It was assisted in this by Lord Saville himself, who had ruled that the legal teams had to provide detailed reasons for each question they wished to ask when they questioned the British agent known as Martin Ingram.
Hoon demanded that certain "categories of information" should not be "disclosed" during the questioning of Ingram and other security forces agents. Those categories included: (a) "the organisation, chain of command, method of operation, capabilities, training, equipment and techniques of the special units of the armed forces; (b) "the identity and location of the premises of special units of the armed forces; the identities and physical appearance of members and former members of the special units of the armed forces; (c) "any counter-terrorist activities in which Martin Ingram, or any units with which he served, may have been involved, in particular those summarised in the confidential annex to this certificate; (d) "the nature and sources of intelligence information; (e) "any other information which might be useful to terrorist organisations of detrimental to national security".
In other words, they could object to any question at all.
Bloody Sunday Relatives' last week in London
The Bloody Sunday Relatives presented a plaque to the Wolfe Tone Society and the James Connolly Society in London on the last week of the hearings in London, before they moved back to Derry
The presentation was made at a well-attended social organised for the relatives on Monday 20 October by the Wolfe Tone Society. A commemorative plaque from the relatives was also presented to the Wolfe Tone Society and to individuals who had attended the hearings in London and supported the relatives of those murdered and injured by the British Army on Bloody Sunday.
The Wolfe Tone Society thanked the Bloody Sunday relatives for their help in keeping people informed in London of the ongoing Inquiry and their resiliance in coming over every week to the Tribunal.
For further information on campaigns in London please contact the Wolfe Tone Society at WTS, BM bopx 6191, London WC1N 3XX. Tel: 020-8442 8778 or email [email protected]