An Phoblacht Issue 2 - 2021 small

27 August 2010

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Bloody Sunday: So who was guilty?


MAKE no mistake about it: the Saville Inquiry and its report represent a huge achievement for the families of the victims and all those who challenged the denial of what really happened on Bloody Sunday. 

In 1972, Widgery had exonerated the British Army, blamed civil rights protesters, blamed the IRA and, most despicably, blamed the victims, those shot and killed by British paratroopers. 

Widgery pointed a finger of accusation at organisers who decided to march despite the imposition of a ban. He suggested the IRA fired the first shot and engaged British troops in a gun battle. 

Widgery colluded in the branding of those shot dead as ‘gunmen and bombers’ and in doing so declared their deaths at the hands of British paratroopers to be legitimate.

Saville has now exonerated the victims, declaring all those killed and wounded to be unarmed and posing no threat whatsoever to the British soldiers who shot them. 

He has also removed any responsibility from the Civil Rights Association and ruled out any suggestion that the IRA or members of the IRA had taken any action that precipitated events. 

Saville admitted British soldiers fired the first shot and continued firing without any provocation. He dismissed notions that those who opened fire panicked, acted out of fear or confusion. Their killing and wounding of unarmed civilians was “unjustified and unjustifiable,” he said.

Widgery had blamed the people of Derry, nationalist and republican; Saville declared them innocent. No wonder the crowd standing outside the Guildhall in Derry City clapped and cheered. For the people, it was a rare historical moment of vindication, like the election of Bobby Sands or release of the Birmingham Six. 

But if all the victims, those killed and injured, the tens of thousands of people who had exercised their democratic right to peaceful protest, the rally’s organisers and republicans were innocent, who was guilty?

“Our overall conclusion is that there was a serious and widespread loss of fire discipline among the soldiers of Support Company,” says Saville of the Parachute Regiment unit involved.

Soldiers opened fire either “in the knowledge or belief that no one was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury or not caring whether or not anyone there was posing such a threat”.

British soldiers had shot unarmed civilians in the back as they ran or crawled away. They shot people waving white handkerchiefs to indicate they posed no threat and those attending the injured and dying. And on at least one occasion they shot someone mortally wounded as he lay on the ground. 

Apart from a token nod towards the responsibilities of command, Saville ring-fences all responsibility around the soldiers who fired the shots. For Saville, their actions are inexplicable, “unjustified and unjustifiable”. 

As such, their actions require no further investigation. By definition, they can only be described, never explained. That’s a highly convenient scenario for the British Army high command, senior officers and all the other agencies of the British state that had a hand in the making of Bloody Sunday. 

And it soon becomes clear that the inquiry arrives at this conclusion, not because they’ve considered all the evidence but because they’ve ruled out some of the most challenging questions as beyond their remit or unknowable. 

But, in something akin to a Freudian slip, in his conclusion, Saville leaves us with just a hint of something more.

Saville cites “the indefensible belief” as something that may possibly have been the motivation behind the British paratroopers’ actions.

A belief “that all the civilians they fired at were probably either members of the Provisional or Official IRA or were supporters and so doing deserved to be shot notwithstanding that they were not armed or posing any threat,” says Saville.

Curiously, such a ‘belief’ had been under discussion months before Bloody Sunday within a secret Cabinet committee through which the British Government and its military advisers determined policy in the North of Ireland.

It was also being advocated by a senior military strategist, Brigadier Frank Kitson, who was stationed in Belfast at the time. And it was being recommended by an officer, regarded by some as the architect of Bloody Sunday, the Commander of Land Forces in Ireland, Major General Robert Ford. 

The secret committee, known as GEN42, met at 10 Downing Street. It included key military personnel, senior members of the British Cabinet and it was chaired by British Prime Minister Edward Heath. 

The British Army had been sent into the North in August 1969 by British then PM Harold Wilson but within less than a year a newly-elected Conservative administration took control. The Conservative Party had electioneered on the basis of a ‘tougher’ military stance in Ireland and historically they were closer to the unionist regime. 

Heath, although often regarded as a moderate, surrounded himself with hardline grandees, probably the most notorious being Quentin Hogg, Lord Hailsham. In fact, Heath’s propensity for confrontation even at home resulted in prolonged strikes, power cuts, and the three-day week. As for Hailsham, he was an extreme right-wing member of the British aristocracy, an out-and-out militarist and bigot. 

In 1971, responding to calls by US Senator Ted Kennedy for a peace initiative in the North of Ireland, Hailsham had slammed his fist on the table and exclaimed: “Those Roman Catholic bastards have no right to interfere!”

As Prime Minister, Lord Chancellor and Home Secretary, Heath, Hailsham and Reginald Maudling were the most powerful politicians in Britain - and all of them were members of GEN42. They were assisted by a top-ranking member of the British Army, Chief of the General Staff, Lord Michael Carver. 

Interviewed in a British TV documentary in the 1990s, Carver admitted he had been urged by the Heath government to allow the British Army to shoot people in the North of Ireland regardless of whether they were armed or not. Heath had been assured by the highest judicial authority, the Lord Chancellor, that such action was totally legal.

Carver said:

“It was being suggested that it was perfectly legal for the army to shoot somebody whether or not they thought they were being shot at because anyone who obstructed or got in the way of the armed forces was by that very act, the enemy.”

Carver advised the Cabinet committee that such action would not be lawful and any soldier put in that position was likely to come up against the law. But that was not the end of the discussion.

Heath insisted:

“The primary goal was to bring terrorism to an end at the earliest moment, without regard for the inconvenience to the civilian population.” 

During a meeting of GEN42 on October 6th 1971, Heath is recorded as arguing that “the first priority should be the defeat of the gunman by military means and that we would have to accept whatever political penalties were inevitable”.

Over the same period, Maudling visited Belfast to instruct British Army commanders that, despite the fact that the military had been deployed ostensibly to provide a buffer between loyalist mobs and Catholic communities, as far as the new government was concerned, the IRA was the sole enemy and must be put down. It was up to the British army “to deal with these bloody people,” said Maudling.

Meanwhile, in the secret meetings of GEN42, the British Cabinet and their military adviser were discussing possible paradigms which would allow the British Army to shoot unarmed civilians as well as gunmen. They were keen to do this because they knew increased repression would lead to mass protests, unarmed, peaceful but just as strategically inconvenient.

At the heart of this discussion was the status of ‘Northern Ireland’. Was it a colony or part of the ‘UK’? The British weren’t sure and there were implications for the kind of military intervention upon which they could embark. 

In one discussion, Carver pointed out that, in a colonial situation, the British Army restores order but not law and order. In other words, the British Army is free to protect British interests by whatever means without recourse to what is legal in the civil administration sense.

But the Cabinet believed ‘Northern Ireland’ was part of the ‘UK’ and, as such, the British Army could only assist the civil powers by engaging in policing-style methods. This was not what Heath & Co had in mind. They were looking for something more robust. 

Hailsham offers the first hint of a solution: if the North of Ireland is part of the ‘United Kingdom’, any rebellion against the British state and any resistance to measures to put down that rebellion, even peaceful protest, is treason.

Within this paradigm, Northern nationalists seeking democratic rights and Irish republicans seeking an end to British occupation are not simply threatening British interests, they’re threatening the British state and, in such circumstances, a whole new set of balls come into play. 

And at the core of this discourse is Saville’s “indefensible belief”, the coupling of peaceful protest and armed resistance as one and the same thing. Now the civil rights movement could be regarded simply as a front for the IRA and unarmed civilians regarded as ‘legitimate’ targets for the British state and its soldiers. 

But this was still order without law. What the British really wanted was to frame their actions within a law and order discourse. Kitson provided the answer. 

Frank Kitson was a senior military strategist within the British Army and a veteran of a series of colonial wars. In his writings, Kitson also employed Saville’s “indefensible belief”. For Kitson, the enemy is a two-pronged fork: subversives and insurgents.

Kitson defined subversives as people who seek political change or reform which the state is unwilling to concede by using peaceful means. Insurgents are those who seek change through armed struggle or who take up arms to defend subversives when the state responds with repression. 

Kitson argues that to defeat subversives and insurgents the government must harness all agencies of the state. The British Army could deliver law and order if the law and all its manifestations were subservient to military objectives. Ironically, in terms of democracy and civil government, that must make Kitson one of the most dangerous subversives of our times.

Kitson suggested a way in which, through the manipulation of the agencies of state, Carver’s initial evaluation that soldiers carrying out such a policy would end up before the courts could be overcome.

In his essay, ‘Bloody Sunday; Error or design?’ Niall Ó Dochartaigh describes how a cabal of senior commanders, most significantly General Robert Ford, developed a parallel chain of command which bypassed those officers who were still pursuing a policing-type operation.

In his now-notorious memo, written after visiting Derry on January 7th 1972, Ford declares he is “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].”

In the same memo, Ford suggests the use of a lower-velocity bullet as more suit for such an operation. Thirty guns, modified to take a lower-velocity bullet, were delivered to Derry just prior to Bloody Sunday.

If Heath, Hailsham and Kitson had developed a paradigm within which murder could take place, Ford, Wilford and 1 Parachute Regiment provided the means by which it could be realised.

Announcing the Saville Report to the British House of Commons at the end of June, British Prime Minister Cameron went further than Saville in ring-fencing what happened on Bloody Sunday. The British Government would like us to believe the action of British soldiers on Bloody Sunday was historically unique, an exception that proved the rule. 

In the words of David Cameron, “Bloody Sunday is not the defining story of the service the British Army gave in Northern Ireland” rather British soldiers have displayed “professionalism” in “upholding democracy and the rule of law”. If only wishing made it so.

But the Saville Report isn’t the end of the story... just another beginning.

Saville identified a “belief” that unarmed civilians could be legitimate targets while identifying that belief as “indefensible”. In doing so he has, inadvertently, opened up a whole new can of worms.

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