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'Unjustified and Unjustifiable' - the action of soldiers on Bloody Sunday, 1972

Margaret Gilmore
Commentary, 16 June 2010
Land Operations, UK, Land Forces, Military Personnel, Europe
The longest and most expensive public inquiry in UK legal history has finally produced its report - to extraordinary scenes in Londonderry. Just as Bloody Sunday was a catalyst leading to an upsurge in violence then, so this report into events could now prove a critical turning point in consolidating the peace process today.

'What happened on "Bloody Sunday"' was 'both unjustified and unjustifiable - it was wrong'. As the Prime Minister David Cameron uttered these words in the House of Commons, families of those killed by British soldiers on Bloody Sunday gave the thumbs up outside the Guildhall in Londonderry in Northern Ireland, and a huge cheer erupted from tens of thousands of supporters. This was the result they had waited for, for nearly 40 years.

The Prime Minister had to steer a fine path. With no room for ambiguity he had to send a clear message - recognising the culpability of the British soldiers involved without undermining the life-threatening work of the vast majority of troops both during the long campaign in Northern Ireland and now in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

David Cameron had two key messages: 'I am deeply sorry' he told the families of those who died. But he also said he was deeply patriotic and did not want to call into question the behaviour of most other British soldiers or the British Army which he described as 'the finest in the world'.

Findings of the Report

The report is a devastating indictment of the role of soldiers of the Parachute regiment involved in the incident in 1972. It finds that troops went in as a result of an order that should not have been given. They lost discipline and self control and later 'knowingly put forward false accounts in order to seek to justify their firing'.    

None of those shot were throwing petrol bombs or stones - all were innocent. Some were fired at as they were helping those already injured or were fleeing themselves.  And while there were shots fired by republican paramilitaries the report found this did not justify the soldiers opening fire on the crowd. The report states that Martin McGuinness, then a Provisional IRA leader, now Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland, was present and probably armed with a submachine gun on Bloody Sunday but he did not engage in any activity which provided soldiers with any justification for opening fire.

The inquiry found no evidence of premeditation or conspiracy by the UK Government or the Army as a whole and no sign of any shoot to kill policy.  

The implications of Bloody Sunday

'Bloody Sunday' had a devastating effect on the course of the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland. It formed a catalyst, effectively ending the non-violent civil rights campaign, and increasing recruitment to the IRA.

In his report Lord Saville reaffirms this: "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' he wrote.

In the early days after 'Bloody Sunday', recriminations were bitter. Some soldiers claimed they'd been shot at first by IRA paramilitaries, and had opened fire in defence. Some in the military said they believed some protestors were carrying bombs. Those claims are roundly dismissed in the report.  

Individual Blame

It is not the job of public inquiries to apportion blame or state who should be prosecuted. The function is to establish what happened, how and why - and to see what lessons should be learned. But as part of his fact-finding mission Lord Saville has inferred wrongful conduct, in some cases linking soldiers to specific deaths.   

He suggests for example that a soldier identified only as 'F' was probably responsible for several shootings including that of 17-year-old Michael Kelly, possibly firing 'either in the belief that no-one at the barricade was posing a threat or causing death or serious injury, or not caring whether or not anyone at the rubble barricade was posing such a threat.'

Colonel Derek Wilford, who was in charge of the troops in Derry that day, is also criticised for either disobeying the orders of his superior or failing for no good reason to appreciate what he was allowed to do that day.

Prosecutions Possible  

Such specific detail opens the door for possible prosecutions against some of the soldiers. It will be for prosecutors in Northern Ireland to decide whether this should happen. Their decision will be based on two criteria - firstly, whether it's in the public interest - which it probably is. The second is whether there is a sensible chance of obtaining convictions. This is less clear-cut given how long ago this all happened and how little some of the soldiers appeared to remember under cross examination at the Saville Inquiry.   

If the prosecuting authorities however, eventually decide against legal action - the families could still bring private prosecutions against the soldiers, seeking compensation.

Stephen Pollard, a lawyer representing soldiers involved in the Bloody Sunday inquiry, disputes the idea the report paves the way for possible criminal proceedings. He told the BBC he disagreed with the finding that soldiers shot at protesters without justification.   

Political implications now

There are also political issues linked to the possibility of prosecutions. While soldiers could now face arrest some paramilitary killers have never been brought to justice or have been released from jail early and are now free as part of the peace process. Loyalist and unionists who lost family members in the police and army during the Troubles will not be happy if British soldiers are prosecuted while the killers of their loved ones have not - in their view - been fully brought to justice. 

There will also be sensitivity over the position of Northern Ireland's Deputy First minister Martin McGuinness. He was a Provisional IRA leader at the time of Bloody Sunday and is now second in the command chain of government in Northern Ireland - as Deputy First Minister. The report found he was present in Derry on Bloody Sunday and probably armed with a sub-machine gun. But the report finds he did not engage in any activity that caused the soldiers to open fire. Nevertheless questions will be asked about the tenability of his position in the light of this - not least by the unionist opposition in Northern Ireland. But he and his party Sinn Fein remain critical to the continuance of the peace process and he is likely to cling tenaciously to his position. 

Was Saville Worth It?

The Saville Report was commissioned by the Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998 as part of the peace process. The 5,000 word document has cost £195m to produce and taken 12 years to complete. The new Conservative Government have questioned the cost and time it took.   

Yet it provides a unique, and most detailed historical document. Nothing will ever come closer to the truth surrounding the circumstances of Bloody Sunday. It offers unprecedented scrutiny of all involved - marchers, soldiers, army bosses and the politicians of the time. It looks at the IRA and other paramilitaries, and at the policies of the government and military. It is a microscopic study of the wider issues facing Northern Ireland in 1972 - political, social, religious and paramilitary. As such it has long lasting value.

What's more without the individual scrutiny it has afforded each case it could not have been so conclusive - down to the detail in some cases of who shot who. This has gone a considerable way to satisfying the long standing frustrations of the families - 'though it will bring an unnerving few months for the army and soldiers involved. The families will be pushing for prosecutions against the former soldiers, who we can presume are now in their sixties.

As for the peace process - there are always some on the extreme who will use this report to try to destabilise it. Its long awaited publication has brought increased and intense security amidst fears of repercussions. But Northern Ireland has become a vibrant society. There is a generation of young people who weren't born in 1972 and who routinely cross the old republication and loyalist lines to see their friends. They do now want a return to a part of their history many would rather forget. The peace process may wobble but it will not be derailed - there's too much at stake.

Margaret Gilmore, Senior Research Fellow at RUSI, is a former BBC journalist who lived and worked in Northern Ireland

Author

Margaret Gilmore
Senior Associate Fellow

Margaret Gilmore is an award winning writer, broadcaster and analyst, and a Senior Associate Fellow with RUSI. She specialises in... read more

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