The admirable decision to post the whole of the report of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry online (first volume in PDF available here) may not actually spur a lot of people to read it, but it has gripped me, and over lunch breaks and commutes in the last week or so I have been poring over the details of the first volume. (In case you are interested, I’ve been saving the HTML files from the Inquiry website and converting them to Mobipocket format for the Blackberry.)
To start with a comment on form rather than substance: one admirable skill displayed throughout the report by Lord Saville and his colleagues is the ability to boil down a great deal of conflicting evidence very succinctly. This is particularly so for the kernel of the report, Chapter 3, which chronicles the events of 30 January 1972Chapter 4, which allocates responsibility for the deaths and injuries directly to the soldiers who fired, also sharply criticising the decisions made by Lt-Col Derek Wilford who was in command; and the summary of the summary, Chapter 5, which concludes:
5.5 The firing by soldiers of 1 PARA on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury. What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the Army and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed. Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland.
It is worth dwelling on this point a bit.
Some of the critics of the Inquiry have asked why Bloody Sunday is more important than any number of atrocities perpetrated by paramilitary groups over the course of the Troubles. I would make three points in reply, one sympathetic, the other two less so.
- Any death is an incalculable loss to the bereaved. It is impossible to compare or to give relative rankings to the personal impacts of any loss of life, and distasteful to even try. Everyone has an absolute right to know what happened to their loved ones, and to demand that justice be done to the perpetrators.
- But Bloody Sunday had a wider political impact than any other single violent incident in the course of the Troubles. All such incidents ought to be chronicled and examined, but understanding Bloody Sunday is of particular importance. History is usually shaped by political decisions made by individuals whose memoirs and contemporary records can be examined by later historians. This, however, was a confused and confusing event involving dozens of people, none of whom had a complete picture. The forensic sifting of evidence by Saville was necessary to establish that picture.
- Even more important, however, is that the State colluded with its own agents’ efforts to prevent the truth from emerging, and smeared the victims as legitimate targets who could justifiably be shot without warning. This was a lie, and most people in Derry knew it was a lie. The formal Inquiry led by Lord Widgery perpetuated that lie as a legal finding. The fact that the state colluded in the lies told by its own agents about the deaths of 14 citizens matters hugely.
So, for those reasons, I start reading the report with a prejudice in favour of believing that it was a worthwhile effort.
The opening summary: details that caught my eye
Saville’s overall narrative problem is this: the soldiers who fired the fatal shots maintained throughout that they were returning fire because they were under attack. The earlier tribunal could not bring itself to find that they were all lying. But, in Saville’s view, they were. Saville and colleagues examine a number of alternative explanations, and find them all wanting, for instance:
3.6.6: we have considered the possibility that one or more of the casualties might have occurred from soldiers firing by accident, in the sense of discharging their rifles by mistake and without intending to do so. We have found no evidence that suggests to us that this was or might have been the case.
But this doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter, which is the question of why soldiers, and particularly the Paras, thought that they could get away with such a mass conspiracy to deceive the world about what they had done. We must remember that initially they did get away with it, and were praised for their efforts by the British establishment. Saville raises an important avenue of interpretation, as follows (I truncate some of the text):
4.7 it was submitted that those who fired did so because of a “culture” that had grown up among soldiers at the time in Northern Ireland, to the effect that they could fire with impunity, secure in the knowledge … that their actions would … be investigated … by the Royal Military Police (the Army’s own police force), who would be sympathetic to the soldiers and who would not conduct a proper investigation… we are not in a position to express a view either as to whether or not such a culture existed among soldiers before Bloody Sunday or, if it did, whether it had any influence on those who fired unjustifiably on that day.
Given the firmness with which he knocks down other conspiracy theories elsewhere in the report, Saville’s countenancing of this theory in the first place, and the fact that he says nothing at all to contradict it, together rather suggest that he believes this nterpretation, though felt he could not make it a formal finding of the report.
The formal finding of the report is that the deployment of the Paras in Derry on 30 January to arrest rioters was dubious in principle and wrong in practice.
4.8 [Commander of Land Forces, General Ford’s] decision to use 1 PARA as the arrest force is open to criticism, on the ground that 1 PARA was a force with a reputation for using excessive physical violence…
4.24 Colonel Wilford [the commanding officer of 1 Para] should not have sent soldiers of Support Company into the Bogside for the following reasons:
- because in doing so he disobeyed the orders given by Brigadier MacLellan [Commander of 8th Infantry Brigade, which was the Army brigade in charge of the Londonderry area];
- because his soldiers, whose job was to arrest rioters, would have no or virtually no means of identifying those who had been rioting from those who had simply been taking part in the civil rights march; and
- because he should not have sent his soldiers into an unfamiliar area which he and they regarded as a dangerous area, where the soldiers might come under attack from republican paramilitaries, in circumstances where the soldiers’ response would run a significant risk that people other than those engaging the soldiers with lethal force would be killed or injured by Army gunfire.
General Ford’s decision to deploy the Paras in the first place, and the way in which Colonel Wilford sent them in, are the top-level political decisions identified by Saville as having led to the deaths on Bloody Sunday. But the key events remain the decisions of individual soldiers to shoot at unarmed civilians who posed no direct threat.
The opening summary occupies less than a seventh of the pages of Volume I of the Inquiry’s report, but I felt I had to go on and read more; there is something grimly compelling about this awful event.
This does require adjustment by the reader to a real change of pace in the telling of the story. Chapters 8 of the report is longer than the first six combined: Chapter 9 is three times as long, accounting for 275 of the 488 numbered pages of Volume I of the report. Knowing that the total time taken up by the killing on Bloody Sunday was about ten minutes, and having already seen Saville’s forensic style, I imagine that we will get second-by-second dissections of events in future volumes. This first volume, however, leaves us teetering with suspense on the morning of the 30th.
It starts much earlier. Chapter 7 is a moderately detailed account of the history of Northern Ireland since 1920 (readers can follow in the footnotes some gentlemanly bickering between two academic historians called Paul, both of whom I have known for a long time). This essentially takes us to and through the decision to deploy the army in Northern Ireland in support of law and order, ie in support of the Unionist single-party government in Stormont, by 1972 led by Brian Faulkner.
Chapter 8 begins with a very detailed explanation of the security architecture in Northern Ireland, and how the accountability of the army to the London-based Ministry of Defence was integrated with its role in support of the autonomous Stormont regime and its police force. We then move fairly seamlessly to the history of the last five months of 1971, starting with Faulkner’s disastrous decision to introduce internment without trial of suspected terrorists, which lifted entirely the wrong people, mistreated them (slightly short of torture, according to the European Court of Human Rights) and thus further increased tensions with no corresponding security gain.
Here, unusually, we run into some ambiguity of analysis from Lord Saville and his colleagues. By late 1971, there appear to have been two contradictory currents of opinion on security policy in general and in Derry in particular. Describing a committee meeting in October 1971, Saville concludes:
8.92 The perceived need to keep Brian Faulkner in power as the last chance to avoid direct rule seems to us to have caused a shift in priorities towards a greater effort to defeat the terrorists, evident from the record of this meeting.
Yet at the same time local security force commanders in Derry – particularly the police, but to a certain extent the local army commanders also – appear to have decided that their aggressive stance had failed, and that they needed to wind down a bit. That takes us to the end of the year.
This book-length chapter is mainly about the security situation and decision-makng processes in the first 29 days of 1972. But actually the sections that jumped out at me were the brief discussions of moves towards a political settlement. Reginald Maudling (of all people!) appears to have taken on board the need to engineer Catholic representation in the Stormont government; indeed he recognised that:
[9.185] a solution would have to comprise three elements, these being reassurance about the border, a change in the composition of government and a redefinition of the powers of government.
Add to that the necessity for an all-Ireland dimension, however cosmetic, and you basically have British policy from that day to this. In the meantime, the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, was thnking along similar lines, and thinking out loud about them to Edward Heath and other British officials, and no doubt to many others. I would observe that little thought was being given as to how to bring Faulkner on board with any such policy, and none at all as to how to engage Northern Ireland Catholics; the key diplomatic problem for London was dissuading Lynch from presenting his ideas in such a way as to kill off Maudling’s similar undrafted proposal (as would have certainly happened had he gone ahead and launched his own initiative from Dublin).
That is not, however, the meat of Chapter 9, which starts with a grim portrayal of the security situation in Derry: a recurrent picture of riots, gunfights between army and paramilitaries, bombing and arson. It is not clear if this was getting worse in late January, but it is clear that it was bad. The Bogside and Creggan were essentially free of government control. In these circumstances, General Ford wrote his notorious memo proposing the shooting of selected ringleaders of the Derry Young Hooligans, which was seized on by the representatives of those killed on Bloody Sunday as evidence of an assassination policy going right to the top of the military hierarchy. Saville shows from the documentary evidence that Ford’s memo was bureaucratically buried; it never went further up the tree than his immediate superior, and rather more crucially did not make it down the tree as far as Colonel Wilford. In addition, Ford’s proposal, bone-headedly homicidal though it was, was to shoot ring-leaders after due warning with .22 inch ammunition; the shootings of Bloody Sunday were not of ring-leaders, were carried out without warning, and were done with 7.62 mm rounds. Saville reasonably concludes that Bloody Sunday was not an implementation of Ford’s memo. (The political negotiations described above are part of this analysis; however wishful the thinking in London about a political settlement, nobody could have believed that shooting civilians would bring it closer.)
Because it explores in so much depth the military and police perceptions of the situation, the Inquiry somewhat neglects the reality of the situation on the ground. Not always; Saville reports that though the army thought they had shot and probably killed 15 IRA men in Derry in January 72, there is no evidence to support even a small fraction of this number [9.239]. But more strategically, the Inquiry misses an important point about the inflitration of the Civil Rights Association by the Official IRA. Nobody denies that this was happening, but what the security forces missed at the time, and what Saville fails to explain, is that this was not the subversion of a peaceful campaigning group by paramilitaries, but in fact part of the process of conversion of a paramilitary group to peaceful means. The security forces as a whole appear to have made little effort to differentiate between the organisation and agendas of the Officials, the Provos, and the Derry Young Hooligans (this last group existing as an organisation only in imaginative internal army memos). This surely counts as an intelligence failure, and I fault Saville for not picking up on it.
I do not fault Saville for querying Ford’s decision to use the Paras on 30 January, as the key force in arresting the leaders of the supposed ‘Derry Young Hooligans’ after the planned (illegal) march. The previous weekend, a diifferent company of 1 Para had brutally attacked an anti-internment march at Magilligan Strand, a few miles from Derry, as reported in depth by the well-known pinko rag, the Daily Telegraph. Of course only one soldier was investigated for attacking unarmed civilians, and he was rapidly cleared by the RMP’s internal inquiry process. More than one senior officer from other regiments queried in advance the decision to deploy the Paras as the arrest force on 30 January. Saville is understanding but critical of Ford’s decision to use them; I would be less understanding.
Immediately below Ford, Brigadier McLellan was much more sensitised to local conditions, and very aware of important issues like ensuring that peacful marchers and rioters were well separated before any arrest operation was implemented. It is absolutely clear from Saville that McLellan failed to communicate this concern adequately to Colonel Wilford, in charge of the Paras. Saville is equally clear that this was entirely Wilford’s fault; that it was his duty to seek clear orders from McLellan and his failure that he did not do so. I am not so sure; in environments where I have been managing gifted and idiosyncratic individuals, I certainly felt it my responsibility to give clear guidelines as to what behaviour and actions were and were not acceptable, and at least partially my failure if those guidelines were not followed because they had not been clearly issued. Perhaps the military environment is different.
Having said that, most of Saville’s criticism of Wilford appears very well founded – helped by the evidence which Wilford himself gave over the years to Widgery, to the media and finally to the Saville Inquiry itself, which is a mess of contradictions, evasions and inaccuracies. From the analysis in the summary of the report, I had expected to find Wilford a homicidal maniac, determined to prove the valour of his men; this certainly seems to be Saville’s inclination, dwelling on his remark years later to a journalist that he did not want his soldiers to stand there having things thown at them “like Aunt Sallies”. But in fact the picture I see is of a man out of his depth, given dangerously to woolly thinking, indeed wilfully so. A telling paragraph for me was Saville’s summary of Wilford’s rather perfunctory recce of the ground over which the operation would take place, a few days in advance:
9.553 We find that this was an unsatisfactory reconnaissance. In our view, a more careful examination of the terrain should have taken place… Colonel Wilford should have consulted closely with those stationed in the city on how best an arrest operation should be conducted and should have looked at the route through which he proposed to send troops. We formed the firm impression that Colonel Wilford was intent on showing the local troops how an arrest operation should be conducted and was not keen to take advice from them on how it should be done…
And so the chapter ends, with the Paras tucked up in bed on the verge of launching an unprecedentedly large arrest operation in hostile and unknown territory, amid warnings that the peace of Northern Ireland for years might depend on the outcome of the operation. (And yes, there was a palpable sense of apocalypse among both military and civilians on the day.)
I have left out a lot here – the army’s distrust of the local police commander because he was a Catholic, the internal discussions among the civil rights leaders, the overall question of marching. I don’t pretend to be writing a balanced overall summary of the report; rather I am just noting the points that jumped out at me. If you are at all interested in the topic I urge you to do the same.