It is the eve of the publication of the Saville report into Bloody Sunday. For the families it must be a hugely stressful time.
Almost 40 years of campaigning, including 12 years of the Saville Inquiry and waiting for its deliberations, would have taxed the energy and patience and emotions of any group of families. But throughout all of those years the families of the 14 men killed by the British parachute regiment, and the others wounded, have been an inspiration and example of fortitude and courage to us all.
Tomorrow I will travel to Derry to avail of the opportunity to read the report before its publication at 3.30pm. It is by all accounts 5,000 pages long with a 60 page executive summary.
There has been speculation in some sections of the media about what it will contain and a range of comments by unionist and conservative politicians expressing horror at the length of time it has taken to produce the report; at the cost of Saville, and stating that there should be no more inquiries. None spoke about those killed, or their families and their right to truth.
This blog will wait until after the report is published to comment on it.
However, it is important to set Bloody Sunday in its proper context as one part of the British state’s strategy to bolster the Unionist government at that time, and the subsequent political and military policies that successive British governments pursued in the following decades.
Everything a British government does, every decision it takes or policy it introduces, is in the context of its national interest. That is as true today as it was in 1972. The British Army is one branch of the British system. It is inextricably linked into MI5 and MI6 and all the intelligence agencies that make up its ‘security’ services.
In 1970 the British Army embarked in the north on a strategic political and military approach lifted directly from its experience of over 50 colonial wars in the previous 25 years. Many of its senior and junior officers had gained this on the streets of Cyprus and Aden, in the Kenyan countryside and in the jungles of Malaya.
The tactics used there were integrated into the north. This included the use of torture of detainees; the recruitment of agents and informers; the creation of ‘counter-gangs’ through the establishment of unionist paramilitary groups like the UDA; additional new repressive laws; manipulation of the media; discrimination in economic planning and investment; and shoot-to-kill actions by British forces.
Internment in August 1971 was introduced to placate unionist demands for an offensive against nationalists. The Paras shot dead 11 citizens in the Ballymurphy area and scores more were killed or injured across the north in actions by the British Army.
A few months later the same regiment was in Derry as General Ford’s ‘shock troops’ against civil rights marchers. The military decisions and actions that day replicated so many similar actions in other British colonies.
So too was the institutionalised structured collusion which saw British security agencies directly and indirectly arm, train, and provide information to unionist death squads in the running of a sectarian terror campaign over several decades which led to the sectarian killing of hundreds of citizens.
The British government’s approach to all of this has been governed by its over-riding desire to cover-up and conceal the actions of its forces. It has done this through its influence within sections of the media; by blocking inquests; protecting members of its own forces from investigation or charges; and by opposing inquiries or erecting obstacles to those which have been established.
Consequently, it refused to co-operate with the Irish government Commission of Inquiry into the Dublin, Monaghan and Dundalk bomb attacks in 1974. It has opposed the publication of the Sampson, Stalker and various Stevens reports. It did a deal with Brian Nelson – a British agent – to avoid the extent of its involvement in sectarian murder and the importation of arms for unionist death squads, becoming widely known. It has refused to hold an inquiry into the murder of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane for the same reason.
The decision by Tony Blair to hold the Bloody Sunday inquiry was a courageous decision which was clearly taken by him as part of the evolving peace process and the negotiations that were then taking place in early 1998 prior to the Good Friday Agreement.
But the length of time it took to get to this point and the enormous cost are down directly to the machinations of the British Ministry of Defence and others within the British system who worked hard to subvert and prevent the Inquiry from getting to the whole truth.
They sought to do this in a number of ways, including failing to provide essential materials and destroying other material.
This includes British Army photographs and the identity of the photographers, the contemporaneous film footage from army helicopter, destruction of the rifles fired, relevant contemporary documents such as the armoury register, and internal reports.
The relatives, and lawyers acting for them, challenged this given that contemporaneous material that was of benefit to the soldiers’ case was available.
29 rifles were identified as belonging to the Parachute Regiment at the Widgery Tribunal and of being responsible for all shootings. All of these were accounted for by 29th September 1999. However, almost two years after the Saville Inquiry was announced all but three were subsequently destroyed.
The lawyers acting for the families also sought relevant documentary material. Much attention was paid to documents for the relevant forensic evidence concerning the rifles, their examination and testing, armoury registers to ascertain which rifles were assigned to whom, ammunition registers to detail how much was in possession of whom. The lawyers also sought intelligence reports, signal instructions, training documents, standing orders records, disciplinary procedures, etc and none of this was made available.
Whatever the conclusions of the Saville Inquiry it is clear that a concerted and planned attempt was made by elements of the British system to frustrate the Inquiry.
These same elements will continue to seek to prevent further inquiries or the creation of any serious effort – for example an Independent International Truth Commission - to get to the truth of British actions during several decades of war.