Sunday, January 29, 2012
Bloody Sunday – The untold story
This weekend I was in Derry. Sinn Féin held the latest of our very successful Uniting Ireland conferences which drew a capacity crowd in the Millennium Forum.
Derry is a beautiful city, full of history and culture and art. And the people are great.
But for many people, particularly in the USA, the name Derry is synonymous with the terrible events that occurred there on January 30th 1972. On that day – exactly 40 years ago – British Paratroopers shot dead 14 civil rights marchers and wounded others in what has passed into history as Bloody Sunday.
For the 39 years following that atrocity the families and the people of Derry campaigned for truth and justice for those who died and were injured. At great personal cost they organised and marched and lobbied.
In this they received invaluable support from Irish America. Noraid, the AoH, Clann na nGael and many others enthusiastically and relentlessly lobbied US politicians. Irish people throughout the globe and Irish America in particular in the Arts, academia, the labour movement supported the families.
Motions of support were passed in local and state legislatures and hearings were held in Washington. It was a long drawn out battle as successive British government’s lied, opposed, and obstructed every effort by the families to get the truth.
The British Widgery Inquiry had blamed the organizers of the march, the victims and the IRA. Widgery accused the dead of being ‘gunmen and bombers’. According to the British the Paras actions were legal.
The Saville report in June 2010 finally binned that lie and established that the victims were innocent. The Saville report was a vindication for the families who had campaigned for so long. It also concluded that the organizers of the march were not to blame for what happened. Saville decided that the IRA or members of the IRA had not taken any action that precipitated events.
Saville acknowledged that British soldiers fired the first shot and continued firing without any provocation. He dismissed any suggestion that soldiers acted out of panic or fear or confusion. Their actions were “unjustified and unjustifiable”.
But Saville ‘s conclusions are not the end of the matter. It is clear that the report tries very hard to limit blame for what happened to the soldiers on the ground who carried out the killings. In doing so it seeks to exonerate their military and political masters.
And it is here that Saville fails. The report makes only a tokenisitic nod towards the British Army command and there is minimal criticism of the Para commander who was present in Derry.
The reality is that the Paras were acting within a political and military regime constructed by their political masters and by the top generals.
In the months before Bloody Sunday a secret British Cabinet committee – GEN 42 - had been discussing policy in the north. It was chaired by the British Prime Minister Ted Heath. It involved senior British Army figures and senior politicians, including Quentin Hogg, Lord Hailsham, who was on the far right of the Tory party, and was regarded as a hard militarist.
In 1971, during an interview in which he was asked about US Senator Ted Kennedy Hailsham had banged the table with his fist and cried; “Those Roman Catholic bawstards! How dare they interfere!”
Over 20 years later Michael Carver, who had been the British Army Chief of the General Staff, and was a member of GEN42 at that time, admitted that Heath had wanted soldiers to be able to shoot citizens irrespective of whether they were armed or not.
He claimed that Heath had been told by Hailsham, who as Lord Chancellor was the head of the British judiciary, that this was legal.
During a meeting of GEN42 on October 6 1971 – four months before Bloody Sunday - it is reported that Heath said: “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”.
Mindful of the public and international response to state killings and the legal consequences GEN 42 debated at length how best to cover-up any killings with Carver arguing that in a colonial situation the British army restores order but not law and order. It was therefore free to do whatever was necessary to protect British interests.
Others didn’t like this approach. So Hailsham suggested that citizens involved in rebellion or who resisted state measures to deal with that rebellion, were guilty of treason and therefore the state was free to deal with them.
All of this dovetailed into the approach being articulated by Britain’s foremost military strategist Frank Kitson. He had served in almost every colonial war fought by the British after World War 2 including Belfast in the early 70’s. Kitson defined the ‘enemy’ as subversives and insurgents and subversives included people who seek political change or reform by peaceful means.
He argued that to win the state must bring together all of its resources and agencies into one overarching strategy. These included everything from law and order, through policing, to government departments like planning and education, to propaganda and the manipulation of the media. Everything had to be subservient to the needs of achieving a military victory, including killing citizens.
This was the political and military climate in which General Robert Ford, who was the British Commander of Land Forces in the north of Ireland, wrote a memo after visiting Derry on January 7 1972.
In his memo Ford states that 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 Derry on January 30 1972, a senior correspondent from the London Times was standing next to Ford when paratroopers were ordered into the Bogside. Brian Cashinelle reported Ford, waving his swagger stick and shouting “Go on the Paras, go and get them, go on, go and get them”.
However, in his report Saville ring-fences blame around the small number of Paras who shot the marchers and attaches no blame to the generals and the politicians who made it happen. That is a fault. Especially when one considers the role of the British state in collusion, and in other similar atrocities like the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and the Ballymurphy Massacre.
It is also worth noting that Hailsham’s son Douglas Hogg was the British Minister who in 1989 claimed in the British Parliament that there were solicitors in the north who "unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA". Weeks later human rights lawyer Pat Finucane was murdered by a UDA death squad made up entirely of British Army and RUC Special Branch agents!
Finally, the weekend’s Uniting Ireland conference in Derry demonstrates the great resilience of the citizens of that fine city and the work that is going on to unite and re-imagine a new Ireland.
It is also proof that British military policy – including the murders of Bloody Sunday have failed. For that we give thanks to the Bloody Sunday families and everyone who supported them.