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16 March 2000 Edition

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What are the British military so eager to hide?


The rifles used by British paratroopers on Bloody Sunday may have been modified as part of a pre-arranged plan to kill street protesters, suggests new evidence. This latest revelation may explain the Ministry of Defence's recent unauthorised destruction of two more rifles used on Bloody Sunday and which were due to be re-examined by the Saville Inquiry. Of the original 29 rifles, only 3 now remain available. The recent destruction of evidence by the MoD was carried out despite reassurances to the inquiry that the few remaining rifles were secure and access to them restricted.

Now evidence uncovered by two authors of a forthcoming book on Bloody Sunday suggests that the British military may have good reason to thwart further examination of the weapons. Research by Peter Pringle and Philip Jacobsen revealed a secret memo written three weeks before the Bloody Sunday killings stating that CS gas and rubber bullets were no longer an effective deterrent against nationalist youths in areas like the Bogside.

The memo was written and sent to his superiors by British Army Major General Robert Ford, who was in day to day command of the British Army in the Six Counties at the time. In the memo, Ford refers to nationalist youths in the Bogside as the `DYH', a term used by the British military and meaning ``Derry's Young Hooligans''. The Major General concludes: ``The minimum force necessary to achieve a restoration of law and order is to shoot selected ringleaders amongst the DYH, after clear warnings have been given.''

Significantly, as the memo makes clear, the British Army's preoccupation was not with military engagements with armed IRA Volunteers but with unarmed civilians engaged in street protests, more specifically, young Catholic males in the Bogside. The profile of the kind of civilians Ford recommends shooting fits too exactly to be coincidental the profile of those killed by British paratroopers just three weeks later on Bloody Sunday. Of those who died, all were male and the majority teenagers.

But the revelations don't end there. Detailing such an eventuality, General Ford considers that soldiers would be `justified' in opening fire with their general issue 7.62 self loading rifles (SLRs) but questions whether the high velocity rounds used with these weapons would be suitable in the specific task of targeting `selected ringleaders'.

The general proposed adapting some SLRs to take a smaller .22in high velocity round. Such an adaptation might result in fewer collateral casualties; more significantly, it might also give the weapon greater accuracy, more suitable for deployment in an urban counter insurgency situation than its battlefield counterpart.

In early January, General Ford's plan to shoot unarmed civilians in the Bogside was apparently underway, with 30 of the modified rifles suggested by the general being sent to Derry ``for training purposes''. The general emphasised that they would not be deployed without authorisation. It remains unclear whether these were the rifles which were used by paratroopers to kill on Bloody Sunday although the coincidence is remarkable both in the timing and number of modified weapons available.

After it was formally opened in 1998, the Saville Inquiry asked the MoD to provide all the SLRs used by the paratroopers. In 1972, during the Widgery Inquiry, 29 rifles had been produced, but Saville was informed by the MoD that only five of the original rifles remained available for examination.

For over a quarter of a century, the 29 rifles had been preserved by the MoD, then just three days before British PM Tony Blair announced a new inquiry, the British military began to eliminate them. Fourteen were destroyed and a further ten had been sold to private companies, the MoD told Saville. The inquiry received assurances that the remaining five weapons would be preserved as evidence, but last January two more rifles were destroyed.

So just what are the British military so eager to hide?

Pringle and Jacobson suggest that some or possibly all the 29 rifles fired by British paratroopers on that day may have been some of the 30 modified rifles requested by General Ford. This would throw new light on the general's memo. Indicating that the lethal actions of the British Army in Derry on 30 January 1972 were pre-planned, authorised and involved the deployment of weapons specifically designed for a shoot to kill operation against unarmed demonstrators.

At the time of the Widgery Inquiry, General Ford's memo about the .22 rifles was kept secret, so questions about the calibre of the weapons used in the shootings were never investigated. According to British Army statements, ammunition issued on that day only included 7.62mm rounds for the SLRs and 9mm rounds for Browning pistols. But according to Pringle and Jacobson, the entry wound on the body of at least one of the victims was much smaller than would be expected from the higher velocity weapon.

Only 21 paratroopers fired their rifles. Only three of the original 29 rifles preserved after the Widgery Inquiry now remain available for forensic examination. It remains to be seen if any of the three remaining rifles were even fired on Bloody Sunday. If the British military set out with the intention of thwarting the Saville Inquiry, the only question which may now remain is just how successful have they been.

Meanwhile, with the Saville Inquiry due to begin as scheduled on 27 March, the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign is organising a candle lit procession from Free Derry Corner to Guildhall Square on Sunday 26 March. The procession will set off at 7.30pm.

According to organisers, the only speaker will be a young relative of one of those killed by the British Army on Bloody Sunday and who will announce a list of demands from the Campaign.

Last week, lawyers acting on behalf of the dead and wounded of Bloody Sunday sought leave for a judicial review to delay the beginning of the inquiry. The families were unhappy that many witness statements, mostly those of British soldiers, were not available to the inquiry.

However, the lawyers withdrew the request and while no reason was proffered, it is thought the inquiry has taken on board the concerns of the families.

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