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Analysis: A great day for Derry; not a bad day for the British army either

Banners bearing portraits of Bloody Sunday victims are carried to the Guildhall in Derry, where relatives were able to read the first copies of the Saville report, 15 June 2010

Banners bearing portraits of Bloody Sunday victims are carried to the Guildhall in Derry, where relatives were able to read the first copies of the Saville report, 15 June 2010

By Eammon McCann via Sunday Tribune

Derry is still dizzy from the eruption of joy which greeted the Saville report’s recognition on Tuesday that all of the Bloody Sunday wounded and dead were unarmed civilians gunned down by British paratroopers for no good or legitimate reason.

But the report is not flawless. When it comes to the allocation of blame to the soldiers, it follows a pattern of convicting the lower orders while exculpating the higher command, and dismissing the possibility of political leaders having been even passively complicit in the events.

The individual paras who fired the shots that killed or wounded civil rights marchers are damned for the roles they played.

Additionally, Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford, commander of the First Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, is singled out for obloquy. It was his disobedience of orders, says Saville, which put the paras into position to carry out the killing. Had he followed orders, the massacre would never have happened. Thus, an undisciplined battalion commander and a small squad of kill-crazy foot-soldiers did it all.

The effect is to insulate the rest of the British army from blame. The report was brilliant for the Bloody Sunday families. It wasn’t a bad result for the British army either.

David Cameron might have found it more difficult to disown those involved in the atrocity so forthrightly had Saville included in his list of culprits, say, Major General Robert Ford, Commander of Land Forces, Northern Ireland, at the time, or General Sir Michael Jackson, second-in-command to Wilford on the day, later army chief of staff and Nato commander in Kosovo.

Ford, second in seniority in the North only to the General Officer Commanding, commissioned the Bloody Sunday battle plan, Operation Forecast, and ordered the paras to Derry to carry it out.

In the weeks before Bloody Sunday he had made plain his frustration at the failure of Derry-based regiments to bring the Bogside no-go area to heel.

In a document published by the inquiry dated 7 January 1972, Ford declared himself “disturbed” by the attitude of army and police chiefs in Derry, and added: “I am 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).”

Ford took the decision to deploy the paras six days before Bloody Sunday, overruling a message the same day from Derry commander, Brigadier Pat MacLellan, indicating that he and local police chief Frank Lagan believed that any direct confrontation with the civil rights marchers should be avoided. Ford held to the plan in face of strongly-expressed opposition from other senior Derry-based officers.

On the day, although with no operational role, he travelled to Derry and took up position at the edge of the Bogside, shouting “Go on the paras!” as they ran past him through a barbed-wire barricade towards the Rossville Street killing ground.

Saville suggests that Wilford allowed his soldiers in the Bogside to exceed MacLellan’s orders “not to fight a running battle”.

But nowhere in the report is it considered whether Wilford and the paras might have believed or suspected that MacLellan’s orders need not be regarded in all the circumstances as binding. The possibility that Ford’s decisions in advance, and comportment on the day, played a part in the way matters developed is brusquely dismissed: Ford “neither knew nor had reason to know at any stage that his decision would or was likely to result in soldiers firing unjustifiably on that day,” Saville declares in chapter four of his report’s first volume.

In the same chapter, Saville insulates political and military leaders generally from blame: “It was also submitted that in dealing with the security situation in Northern Ireland generally, the authorities (the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland governments and the army) tolerated if not encouraged the use of unjustified lethal force; and that this was the cause or a contributory cause of what happened on Bloody Sunday. We found no evidence of such toleration or encouragement.”

This is remarkable. Numerous incidents over the previous year might have suggested toleration if not encouragement of unjustified force. The most egregious had happened six months before Bloody Sunday when the First Paras were involved in killing 11 unarmed civilians over three days in Ballymurphy in west Belfast.

Newspapers of the period, particularly nationalist newspapers, were carrying regular complaints, many of them plausible, of unjustified and sometimes lethal violence by soldiers against civilians.

Toleration of this behaviour might have been inferred from, for example, the fact that no inquiry had been held into the Ballymurphy massacre, nor any soldier disciplined, nor any statement issued expressing regret.

Saville’s dismissal of the suggestion of a “culture of tolerance” would be unremarkable if by “evidence” he meant testimony to the inquiry. He had at an early stage declined to examine prior events in the North on the reasonable ground that to subject the Ballymurphy incident, for example, to the same level of scrutiny as Bloody Sunday would have made the tribunal’s task impossible. But this makes the statement that, “We found no evidence…” puzzling: the tribunal had decided not to gather such evidence.

Many who read through the body of the report will be puzzled, too, by Saville’s acceptance of the explanation eventually offered by Jackson of his role in compiling the “shot-list” which formed the basis of the initial cover-up of the killings.

Jackson had provided the tribunal with a detailed account of his movements and involvement in the Bloody Sunday events and took the witness stand in London in April 2003.

Nowhere in his statement or his April evidence did he refer to compiling the shot-list or other documents giving a version of what had happened. His role emerged the following month during evidence from Major Ted Loden who described how, late in the afternoon of Bloody Sunday, he took statements from the shooters and plotted map references showing the trajectory of their shots.

However, when a number of documents including the original of the shot-list, were then produced, the list turned out to be not in Loden’s handwriting but in the handwriting of the now chief of staff of the British army.

Loden was asked how this could have come about. “Well, I cannot answer that question,” came the reply.

None of the shots described conformed to any of the shots which evidence indicated had actually been fired.

Some trajectories took bullets through buildings to hit their targets. All the targets were identified as gunmen or as nail or petrol bombers.

The other documents in the chief of staff’s hand were personal accounts of the day’s events by Wilford, the three para company commanders present and the battalion intelligence officer.

Recalled to the stand in October, Jackson explained that he had entirely forgotten these documents but had recovered a “vague memory” after they had been put to Loden.

It had earlier slipped his mind that he had produced, by his own hand, within hours of the massacre, a detailed version of Bloody Sunday in which no British soldier did anything wrong and their victims were all to blame for their own injuries or deaths.

Under questioning, Jackson was badly hampered by poor memory. More than 20 times he used phrases such as, “I cannot remember”, “do not recall”, “I have only a very vague memory”.

Saville resolves one contradiction by accepting both Loden’s original claim that he had written out the shot-list and Jackson’s subsequent explanation that he must have copied Loden’s script verbatim, although he could offer no explanation as to why he might have done this, nor could he recall who had asked or ordered him to do so. Loden’s own list has never been found.

In volume eight of the report, Saville rejects suggestions from the families’ lawyers that “the list played some part in a cover-up to conceal the emerging truth that some innocent civilians had been shot and killed by soldiers of 1 Para, although it is not explained exactly how this conspiracy is said to have worked”. He accepts Jackson’s claim that compiling the documents would simply have been standard operational procedure (which he’d forgotten about).

In their statements to the inquiry, none of the soldiers whose shots were included on the list recalled being interviewed by either Loden or Jackson about their firing.

Having suggested it was not clear how a cover-up based on the documents might have worked, Saville goes on to say that, “the list did play a role in the army’s explanations of what occurred on the day”.

He cites an interview on BBC radio at 1am the day after Bloody Sunday in which the army’s head of information policy in the North, Maurice Tugwell, used the list as his basis for explaining the “shooting engagements”.

Elsewhere, he finds that “information from the list was used by Lord Balniel, the Minister of State for Defence, in the House of Commons on 1 February 1972, when he defended the actions of the soldiers”.

Saville seems not to have considered the possibility that this was how a conspiracy might have worked.

Many in high positions in Britain will have been relieved to find that Jackson bore no blame for the Bloody Sunday events. The response of the families and their supporters to Saville’s report has been understandably and properly euphoric. Whether other finding of the tribunal will stand the test of time is less certain.

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