|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Innocent protesters murdered by the British army
THE PUBLICATION of the report of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, more commonly known as the Saville inquiry, has brought to light, once again, the murderous and brutal lengths the British capitalist state is prepared to go to defend its interests. The Saville inquiry, which cost nearly £200 million and lasted twelve years, has officially confirmed what everyone has known all along: that those who were murdered by the British army on Bloody Sunday were innocent.
What the inquiry has failed to expose or even attempt to explain, is the role of Edward Heath’s Tory government and British army chiefs in the events of Bloody Sunday and the subsequent cover-up. On these crucial questions, the Saville inquiry is silent. In that respect, it is another form of official cover-up of the role of the British state in the events of that day and their aftermath.
On 30 January1972, 27 innocent people were shot on the streets of Derry by British soldiers. Their crime was to march against internment without trial and to demand civil rights. Thirteen people died that day. A fourteenth died several months later, as a result of a bullet-wound.
A tribunal was quickly established by the Heath government, headed by Lord Widgery. In April 1972, the infamous Widgery Report concluded that the soldiers from the Parachute Regiment were justified in shooting marchers, that shots were first fired at soldiers from the crowds on the streets in Derry, and it implied that those killed had been in close contact with weapons. Both the Unionist government in Stormont, the seat of local power in Northern Ireland, and the British government in Westminster shared no blame. The Widgery report was a complete whitewash, a cover-up for murder carried out by the British state on the streets of Derry.
Incidentally, four years later, Widgery was to turn down the first appeal by the Birmingham Six – six Irishmen who were framed by police and wrongly imprisoned for 16 years for IRA Birmingham pub bombings. From the British ruling class and Unionist establishment point of view, the Widgery report was the last word on Bloody Sunday.
For the past 38 years, the families of the Bloody Sunday victims have campaigned tirelessly to uncover the truth and for the British government to recognise the innocence of the victims. Thousands joined the families on the day the Saville report was released to retrace the march they and their murdered relatives took part in, back in January 1972. On their way to the Guildhall, in central Derry, where the victims’ families would hear the conclusions of the Saville report, they stopped at the spots where demonstrators were gunned down by the paras.
Eight of those killed were aged under 22. Six of them were aged 17. The Saville report describes the brutal manner which the paratroopers shot unarmed demonstrators. Kevin McElhinney (17) was shot as he crawled away from the soldiers in the direction of Rossville flats for cover. William McKinney (27) was shot in the back. Hugh Gilmore (17) was shot in the back as he was running away from the soldiers. Jim Wray (22) was shot twice in the back in Glenfada Park, the second bullet fired as he lay mortally wounded on the ground. Gerald Donaghy (17) was also shot as he was attempting to escape the scene. Four nail bombs were claimed to have been ‘found’ on his body after being examined by soldiers. Eyewitnesses have consistently denied this. They pointed out that there were no nail bombs on Gerald Donaghy when he was examined in the Bogside, but that they were planted on his body at an army regimental aid post. Jackie Duddy (17) was also shot in the back.
Brian Doherty, a young member of the Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party), at the time in Derry, participated on the civil rights march. He gave an eyewitness account to the Saville inquiry: "I had been watching the riot for a few minutes when the scene changed. This was when a number of foot soldiers came through the barrier towards the crowd. The soldiers seemed to come from nowhere, and I remember being surprised at how many of them there were. I could see by the way in which the soldiers were dressed that they were different from normal riot containment troops. They were wearing full combat gear and were not carrying riot shields. After I had been looking at the soldiers for perhaps a second or two, a young man appeared in my field of vision. I believe he came from my right and was running hard in the direction of the gap between Block I and Block 2. All at once, the young man fell. I remember seeing his body roll over more than once when he fell because he had been running fast. At the same time, I heard the sound of a shot which seemed to me to have come from the direction of the soldier who was standing at Point D. I also saw this soldier’s rifle appear to recoil, as if he had just fired".
The Parachute Regiment was sent to Derry from Belfast, where it had a reputation for brutality. The journalist, Robert Fisk, recounted how, shortly before Bloody Sunday, he was in Belfast and witnessed paratroopers viciously beat Protestants in the Shankill Road area, after they had blocked a street with vehicle tyres, peacefully protesting over a lack of security. Fisk also tellingly recalls a protest march to the internment camp on Magilligan beach, near Derry, on 22 January, when peaceful protestors were brutally battened by British troops. Internment without trial had been introduced in August 1971 and all marches were deemed illegal. John Hume, who was to become an MP for Derry and leader of the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP – a mainly middle-class nationalist party), represented the middle-class, right-wing section of the leadership of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) and was on the Magilligan protest. Fisk recounts how "a para officer walked up to Hume and – in a very English public-school accent – threatened him. I realised something new was happening. Hume was to tell me years later: ‘Some decision had been taken by the military. I was very worried about this. These were very hard men. There was no way of negotiating with them’." Hume chose not to participate on the march on Bloody Sunday.
In the weeks leading up to Bloody Sunday, there were signs that the establishment was preparing to shoot protestors. The British army commander for land forces in Northern Ireland, at the time, Major General Robert Ford, was on record supporting the shooting of selected ringleaders of rioters, to set an example. It was Ford’s decision to send the paras to Derry, a city with a large nationalist population, major parts of which were ‘no-go’ areas for the RUC police force and the army. Ford had visited Derry in January 1972 and wrote a confidential memo to the general officer commanding, Sir Harry Tuzo, in which he stated that he was disturbed by the attitude of the officers commanding residing troops. Ford referred, in particular, to the so-called ‘Derry Young Hooligans’, as a factor in the continued destruction of the city, and expressed the view that the army was virtually incapable of dealing with them.
Derry Young Hooligans was a derogatory name given to the young people involved in fighting against state repression, many of whom were members of Derry Young Socialists, the youth wing of the Derry Labour Party. This grew rapidly in opposition to the Unionist state and the right-wing Nationalist Party. What deeply concerned the British and Unionist establishment, at the time, was the rapidity with which socialist ideas and organisations inspired by the revolutionary events in France 1968 and the civil rights movement in the US, for example, were beginning to grow and challenge the poverty and class discrimination which blighted not just Catholic areas but also Protestant workers and youth.
One of the soldiers who gave evidence to Saville, known as Private 027, has written in his memoirs that as a 19 year-old soldier in Derry, on the night before Bloody Sunday, a lieutenant told his platoon: "We want some kills tomorrow". Private 027 also went on to claim that he did not write ‘his’ statement that was given to the 1972 Widgery inquiry whitewash, but that this ‘account’ was actually written by crown lawyers and that it was an untrue account. Yet Saville concludes: "In our view, what is likely to have happened is that Private 027 felt that he had to invent a reason to explain providing a statement for the Widgery inquiry that was inconsistent with his later accounts; and chose to do so by falsely laying the blame for the inconsistency on others".
Given Private 027’s evidence, it is not a minor but a fundamental flaw of the Saville report that it concludes that neither the Unionist government in Northern Ireland nor the British government in 1972 was directly or indirectly responsible for Bloody Sunday. Saville claims that Bloody Sunday was the result of several soldiers deciding independently to deliberately kill unarmed peaceful demonstrators in the Bogside, which had been a no-go area for the state, without orders from above. This conclusion simply does not explain anything and lacks credibility. Likewise, there appears to be no comment whatsoever in Saville’s findings on why the Widgery report, which it strongly contradicts, was supported for so long by the establishment.
Unfortunately, while the Bloody Sunday families have succeeded after 38 years to clear their loved ones’ names, the truth behind who ordered the shooting of innocent people with live rounds, how far it went up the command chain and who was involved in covering it up, still remain to be discovered. Prime minister David Cameron has stated there will be no more inquiries into the past in Northern Ireland. It is clear that the establishment wants to bury the remaining questions. You can have an apology, but do not ask any more questions! This does not just include the British government. The Irish taoiseach (prime minister), Brian Cowen, praised Cameron’s "brave and honest words". Irish president, Mary McAleese, paid tribute to the families’ 38-year battle for justice while she was visiting the butchers of Tiananmen Square, in China, on an official state visit. Sectarian politicians in Northern Ireland, on both sides, will also attempt to cloud the issues with their sectarian poison.
Questions have been raised about why there has been no inquiry into the deaths of other innocent victims of the Troubles, including many people killed by paramilitaries, often for no other reason than they happened to be Catholic or Protestant. The families of these victims also deserve to hear the truth. The issue of victim’s rights to justice and the truth cannot be dealt with satisfactorily by politicians who were part of sectarian bloodshed, on both sides. They are more interested in defending their own positions of privilege than unearthing the role sectarian parties, paramilitaries and the state played throughout the Troubles. The working class in the North paid the biggest price for the Troubles. A genuinely independent inquiry, consisting of representatives of the working class, which examines the role of all participants in the conflict, is needed to find out the truth.
Bloody Sunday was a defining moment in the history of Northern Ireland. Brutal state repression, in the form of the Lower Falls army curfew, internment without trial (which saw hundreds of innocent men jailed for months and years, and tortured) and Bloody Sunday, pushed thousands of young people into the Official and Provisional IRA. The Bloody Sunday murders, in particular, created the idea among some of the most radical sections of the Catholic youth that the civil rights era was over, that it and ‘politics’ had failed, and fostered the mistaken belief that individual terrorism was the only way to take on the British state.
Due to the absence of a mass socialist alternative, and the failure of the labour and trade union leaders, some of the most combative Catholic youth followed the false and counterproductive ideas of individual terrorism, which ultimately failed and cultivated greater sectarian division among the working class.
Bloody Sunday was an outrage and tragedy for which the families of the victims and the working class of Northern Ireland paid an enormous price. Over the next weeks, as the entire 5,000 pages of the Saville report are dissected and analysed, it will become clearer to many that crucial questions still remain about what happened on Bloody Sunday and who should be held responsible.
Socialist Party, Belfast: www.socialistpartyni.net