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10 April 2003 Edition

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Wilford rattles under pressure

The Bloody Sunday Inquiry


Now well into his second week of giving evidence to the Saville inquiry, the commanding officer of 1 Para on Bloody Sunday, Colonel Derek Wilford, is becoming more and more unstuck by his almost obsessive desire to engineer the exoneration of the men under his command; men who on the day in question behaved like armed thugs.

He began confidently enough last week, telling the inquiry that the arrest operation "was successful until the moment that, of course, we came under fire and then the whole situation changed" and insisting that his men "did nothing improper". When asked whether he could have done anything better he replied, "I really have no idea".

However, after several days of questioning by Arthur Harvey QC, who has repeatedly pointed out the glaring contradictions, errors and what appear to be straightforward untruths in Wilford's many statements from 30 January 1972 until the present inquiry, the former colonel has become increasingly rattled. At one point last week, he turned to Lord Saville and asked for the session to be brought to a close because "I have had enough".

Just one example of the numerous inconsistencies in his evidence pointed out by Mr Harvey, concerned the fact that the Paras went through barrier 12 without permission from Brigade HQ. Wilford claimed to have had an "understanding" which precluded the need for explicit permission but the inquiry heard that there was absolutely no evidence to support this claim. Somewhat unconvincingly, Wilford suggested that the permission he received from Brigade for his men to go through barrier 14 also included barrier 12.

"That is how it works?" asked Mr Harvey. "In other words, if you had asked for permission to go through barrier 12, and permission to go through barrier 12 had been granted, you would have been perfectly at liberty to go through barrier 14 because that is what the Brigade understood. Is that the crazy form of logic we are into now?"

Under questioning, Wilford retracted virtually all of the public comments he has made since 1972, in which he referred to the army in Derry as behaving as 'Aunt Sallies' and in which he acknowledged the fearsome reputation of his regiment and the unease felt within the Brigade at their deployment.

He said that he now felt that his comments were "probably wrong and unsupportable".

He added, however, that he felt he had been "betrayed" by unnamed "high-ranking officers" who had cast doubt on the operation and that he felt "bitter".

When asked why he had made these comments he said:

"It was always referred to as the deliberate killing of 14 unarmed civilians. I had become frustrated; I might even say that I had become angry - I felt that myself and my troops had been betrayed because, whenever anybody was interviewed, they were always nameless, they were always faceless and I found that hard, and I think that is why I actually spoke in this way, as I did both to Channel 4 and the BBC some five or six years previous to this."

Harvey, however, suggested to Wilford that "you were not being reckless when you spoke to these journalists. These comments you made were measured comments based upon a genuine attempt to analyse events as they occurred on Bloody Sunday and before.

"I suggest to you that perhaps part of your feeling of betrayal was that you believed that your battalion had been specifically chosen to carry out a particularly difficult operation that 8 Brigade was incapable of, and then, things having gone not according to plan, you were simply left to sink on your own with your battalion."

"I cannot support that, it simply is not so," replied Wilford.

On Tuesday this week, Lord Anthony Gifford QC, for the family of James Wray, suggested to the inquiry that the actions of the Paras on Bloody Sunday were "a deliberate, planned frontal assault into the Bogside by this regiment under the command of this officer" with Support Company "punching down the middle".

He put it to Wilford that his objective was "to occupy and dominate a part of the no-go areas, namely part of the Bogside - dominating and controlling and occupying a part of the Bogside was considered important by you because it showed that the Army, in the shape of your battalion, was capable of going into the no-go areas and occupying them". He suggested Wilford instructed his officers "and intended them to instruct their men that, in order to occupy a part of the no-go areas, your men would have to act speedily, aggressively and if necessary ruthlessly".

Wilford denied this and retracted comments he made in two separate interviews that on Bloody Sunday he "owned the Bogside". Lord Gifford suggested to Wilford that he had been encouraged by his senior officers to reclaim the no-go area. "And you did exactly what you were asked to do," he added. "You dominated the area and then felt let down."

"No, I was not asked ever to dominate the area," Wilford responded. "I was asked to make an arrest operation. The domination bit only came because in fact we were fired upon and we had to go to ground, as it were, and take up a defensive posture."

"I suggest that is not true and you dominated by firing first and firing aggressively and shooting anybody who moved," said Lord Gifford.

Under questioning, Wilford also refuted an interview in which he said "I think that day ended my career, I mean, it certainly did mentally within myself". He insisted that he did not, as he has previously said, feel that he was a "scapegoat" or that he had been "let down" by the Army - a comment which seemed in direct contradiction to what he told Arthur Harvey QC shortly before.

General Jackson

On Monday this week, General Sir Mike Jackson, formerly Adjutant of 1 Para in the Six Counties but now busy with another occupying British force, this time in Iraq, returned to Britain to give evidence to the Saville Inquiry.

He spent much of his time in the witness box hectoring the inquiry about "the way the army works" and complaining about lawyers' "concentration on minutiae of words as though they had some legal basis".

Jackson is on record as telling journalists that he thought Bloody Sunday was a "first rate operation" - an observation which must surely colour anything he has to say about the activities of the men under his command in Iraq - and was questioned by Arthur Harvey about an interview he had given on 4 February 1972. In it, he boasted about his regiment's prowess, saying, in the words of the journalist, that "the idea was to inflict casualties, never to receive them, and this was possible due to battalion's aggressive posture in always seizing the initiative".

The inquiry heard about 'Operation Hailstone', which, although ultimately abandoned, was planned for July 1971 and in which the Paras were to have been involved. The operational order was "to capture as many Provisionals, auxiliaries and hooligans as possible in the target area". At the time Jackson told a journalist that another of the objectives of the operation was "to get the yobbos and gunmen into the streets by provocative searches - but the IRA would not play and went on R&R".

The journalist recorded that "Jackson said that the bloody thing never got off the ground, and since then the 1st Battalion had always wanted to sweep through the no-go areas of Derry. He agreed to talk about Derry, but off the record and certainly not in his position as Adjutant. He said that [on Bloody Sunday] the battalion had overturned convention and made amends for the 17 July fiasco. He said that the battalion, having proved it could go anywhere in Belfast, had now proved it could go anywhere in Derry."

Jackson said he could not now recall either the interview or the "sentiment".

The inquiry was also shown part of an interview Jackson gave to Peter Taylor in 1992, in which he said he had been "not entirely surprised" to learn that 13 people had been killed on Bloody Sunday. He told Taylor that "the question of the IRA's hold on the Bogside and the Creggan, the question of us crossing this so-called containment line, all of that had led me to believe that the afternoon was not going to go peacefully. It was a great tragedy, as I say, but there it is. The IRA chose to react in the way they did, and it was inevitable that the soldiers concerned would take effective action."

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