Bloody Sunday Inquiry - A Cover Up That Went Right to the Top

Issue section: 

Thirty years after it happened, why is there still such a fuss about Bloody Sunday? 'Daily Telegraph' and 'Daily Mail' commentators rant and rage about the huge political, legal and media concentration on Bloody Sunday, and about the cost of the Saville tribunal of inquiry into the events of 30 January 1972. They point to the fact that other atrocities have seen as many, or more, innocent people cut down, and just as cruelly.

There was no justification for those killings either. So why isn't there a film, much less two films, about the IRA's Remembrance Day bomb in 1987, which left 11 dead? And why are the Bloody Sunday soldiers being pursued when paramilitaries have an effective amnesty?

Of course, the Paras don't need an amnesty. They've never been classified as having done wrong. Bloody Sunday was not the work of people labelled terrorists working in the dead of night. It happened in broad daylight in a built-up area crowded with people. Hundreds watched as men representing the British state went on a killing spree. The long campaign for a new inquiry to repudiate the finding of the Widgery tribunal in 1972 did not arise from a need to know the truth, but from the fact that, knowing the truth, the families of the dead needed to have it acknowledged.

Saville's inquiry may cost as much as £200 million and not report until 2004, six years after it was set up. But already something has been achieved - the inquiry is a triumph for the relatives of the dead and for the Bloody Sunday campaign. In appointing Saville, the British government was accepting that the Widgery tribunal could be repudiated. If Saville ends up acknowledging that Widgery was a whitewash, an 'appalling vista' will face Widgery's office, the Lord Chief Justice, and the British state institutions generally - especially if it is shown that he acted on the urging of high political figures. This, along with the damning implications for the reputation of the Parachute Regiment of the truth coming out, is what fuels the anger of some who attack the cost and the timescale of the Saville proceedings.

Yes, the Saville inquiry has already cost almost £100 million and the lawyers are earning huge fees. One of the reasons the tribunal has cost so much is the insistence of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) on obstructing Saville at every turn to try and block the emergence of the truth. All the British army photographs from the day are missing - there were at least ten army photographers taking photographs of the march, which had been declared illegal. Most of the remaining rifles used on the day were destroyed by the MoD after the inquiry asked to have access to them.

So where has the inquiry got to so far? From the start lawyers for the soldiers have told the inquiry that they 'would not argue that any of the known dead and injured were armed with guns, nail-bombs, petrol bombs or acid bombs'. However, they say, 'Those who fired live rounds will say without exception that they aimed and shot at, and only at, those who they believed to be using firearms or to be threatening lethal violence to them or to others... We do positively make that assertion...that gunmen and bombers were killed on Bloody Sunday.'

The Paras' lawyers say there were about 34 unacknowledged casualties on the day and these were the IRA men the soldiers were in a gunfight with when they inadvertently killed the acknowledged dead. They contend that over 30 families in a town as small as Derry [80,000 people] have for 30 years been covering up the death of a loved one they had buried in secret. People in Derry just laugh at the idea, while lawyers for the soldiers grasp at any lapse of memory they can say is evidence for it. It doesn't seem to occur to the soldiers' lawyers to explain how not 13 but over 40 people could have been killed on the day, with the only casualty on the army side a soldier who shot himself in the foot before the massacre began.

Documents already published by the inquiry have revealed much about the political and military background to Bloody Sunday. In particular, they show the fury of army commanders and politicians right up to Downing Street about the 'no-go area'. This was the area known as 'Free Derry', which had fought the police and army on the barricades and established that it was a 'no-go area' for state forces. Unionist politicians, in particular, were apoplectic at its continued existence.

In December 1971 home secretary Maudling was told by the general officer in command in the North, General Harry Tuzo, that 'a choice had to be made between accepting that Creggan and Bogside were areas where the army were not able to go...or to mount a major operation...which would involve, at some stage, shooting at unarmed civilians.' Maudling did not object to the idea.

On 7 January 1972 General Robert Ford declared in a memo to Tuzo, 'I am coming to the conclusion that the minimum force to shoot selected ringleaders among the Derry young hooligans after clear warnings have been issued... I am convinced that our duty to restore law and order requires us to consider this step.'

At Downing Street four days later prime minister Heath told his Northern Ireland cabinet committee, 'As to Londonderry, a military operation to re-impose law and order a major operation necessarily involving numerous civilian casualties.' When Jimmy McGovern's superior film Sunday put Tory prime minister Edward Heath on screen urging Lord Widgery to 'remember...we are fighting in Northern Ireland not just a military war but a propaganda war', he was quoting directly from one of the papers released by the Saville inquiry.

So that is why there still is, and should be, a fuss about Bloody Sunday after 30 years--the British government sent the Paras into Derry knowing that 'numerous civilian casualties' would be the result and then engaged in a cover-up involving the highest legal official in the land.