Interview of the Month: Reliving the War in an Irish Town

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Journalist and playwright Richard Norton Taylor tells Pat Stack about his dramatisation of the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday.

On the face of it, inquiries seem unlikely settings for dramas, but they've worked very well for you. What drew you to the idea?

Nicholas Kent, a committed director at the Tricycle theatre, first had the idea when I was covering the Scott arms to Iraq inquiry. Writing a few hundred words one day, and then a few hundred more a couple of days later, was getting disjointed. We thought we'd put it all together into one package with an audience, and it would lead to a much greater understanding of the whole thing.

What attracted you to the Bloody Sunday inquiry?

I suppose because it was a public inquiry dealing with serious issues. Everyone knows the general gist of what happened on Bloody Sunday. I thought there was a lot of good stuff there. Sometimes the devil's in the detail.

The families of the victims are obviously going to say quite moving things. But, less predictably, it was interesting to get Bernadette McAliskey talking about her role as an MP in Westminster, but also about the politics of Republicanism in Ireland and the divisions between the Official IRA and the Provisionals, who [in 1972] are just beginning to be a more disciplined and aggressive force of younger people. And of course Bloody Sunday attracted even more to them.

And you've got the soldiers, who are clearly either telling lies or saying nothing. The counsel for the inquiry, Christopher Clarke, draws out a lot of the evidence against the soldiers. Soldiers and witnesses may say, 'I don't remember,' but it's drawn out of them.

It's not only about individual soldiers who were 'hyped up'. The senior officers - generals, brigadiers, colonels - were all at a loss about what to do. They 'didn't know what the orders were meant to be', and they passed the buck on. So I think it makes quite a good drama.

Do you think the Saville inquiry exposes the shootings as a deliberate policy, or as nervous soldiers gone wrong?

That's the key question. I think in some cases he will blame 'undisciplined soldiers'. On the policy he is more likely to say that it's 'fair' on the evidence that the orders were confused, and the soldiers couldn't do what they were ordered to do in the way that they were ordered to do it. For example, the order was to have a pincer movement to arrest the ringleaders. But there's no way, given the geography of Derry, that they could do that.

But soldiers did disobey orders, whether they were hyped-up or not. They got out of their armoured personnel carriers and charged through the barricades. That was not in the orders.

The soldiers fired loosely, some from the hip, shooting like cowboys. One soldier says he fired 19 shots, all going through a single little hole in a frosted window in someone's house. It's laughable, in a way. Unfortunately at the inquiry the Paratroops were told by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), 'This thing happened 30 years ago - just don't co-operate.' They just kept on saying, 'I don't remember.'

Does the inquiry give an insight into the mindset of the soldiers? Officially they're there as peacekeepers. But they must know they're shooting unarmed people. They must have a callous disregard for the people they're shooting. Does that come out?

It does. Not necessarily out of the Paras' own mouths, because they don't say very much. But the evidence is there. Saville's counsel, Clarke, comes out with a lot of evidence that makes these soldiers look like idiots and liars - but also hyped-up guys. There's also evidence on the Paras who, a week before, had smashed up a demo on a beach near Derry. So they've already come out fighting - they were based in Belfast mainly. Some of the other soldiers and regiments said that they didn't want the Paras [in Derry] because they were gung-ho.

Some of the soldiers are unidentified. One called O27 - and this was what led to the new inquiry - talked to the Belfast Telegraph and Channel 4. He said that these Paras were completely hyped-up beforehand, that they were determined to go in and get people. After all the shooting they were saying, 'Well done, boys,' and conniving how to cover up, swapping false evidence so that each soldier could be seen to fire 'only' two or three rounds of ammunition, whereas one fires 19 rounds, another guy 18, another 17. They lied to the military police in their statements afterwards.

You look back on it now and it seems a catastrophically stupid thing for the British to do. It effectively strangled the last remnants of the civil rights movement and handed the argument to the Provisional IRA that the only way to face these people was with guns.

The first thing of course was internment, which was introduced the year before. Edward Heath gave evidence to the inquiry that he was interested in Europe at the time. I think he delegated - his mind wasn't on the seriousness of the whole thing. To be fair some of the top army guys like Lord Carver, chief of the defence staff, said they were dead against internment. Some of the cops - the RUC as it was then - such as a Catholic guy called Chief Superintendent Lagan, knew this was going to be counterproductive. But Brian Faulkner and the Stormont government were all pushing it, and the Heath government went along with it.

So here you had one of the many demos against internment. Internment picked up all the wrong people, and the army action against the march was the biggest recruiter for the Provos. It was also another notch in the decline of the Officials.

Major General Robert Ford, who was the commander of all the British troops in Northern Ireland, was a particularly nasty piece of work. The cavalry officer, Colonel Derek Wilford, head of the Paras' first battalion, was not only very right wing but deeply old fashioned. He'd been fighting colonial wars - he'd been in Aden not so many years before. And they treated these people on the Bogside as if they were 'natives' in East Africa. There's no evidence of any great conspiracy at Westminster, just an ignorance and an eye off the ball.

If there wasn't a conspiracy before there certainly was afterwards.

Absolutely. The British establishment set up an inquiry under the highest judge, Widgery. Heath then said, 'Look, Lord Chief Justice, this is a propaganda war we're fighting.' He denies that he was trying to give a steer to Widgery, but obviously he was. The army was quite happy that they could hoodwink Widgery, because Widgery was quite happy to be hoodwinked. So that became a whitewash.

When the Saville inquiry was set up he wanted all the rifles that had been used. Some had been dismantled or sold off quite innocently. But one or two were still in the MoD's hands. And these were broken up or 'lost' after Saville asked for them. Geoff Hoon apologised that it was a 'bureaucratic mistake'. So that's a later bit of covering up.

So essentially the cover-up never stops?

That's right, and the dirty tricks too. You get MI5 putting in their unidentified agents and informants. One's called Infliction, who claims that Martin McGuinness confessed to firing the first shot. There's no evidence whatsoever of this - there's no question that this guy is making this up. I'd be astonished if Saville gives any credence to the MI5 guys. They've tried to muddy the waters in a typical British way, as has the MoD.

Will Saville's remit allow him to comment on Widgery?

It should be difficult for him to ignore. I think it's the first time ever that there's been a second public inquiry about the same incident. He's got to comment, however delicately he puts it, on the failings of Widgery. For example, when he talks about the lies or inaccuracies in the original police reports that were given to Widgery, he's got to comment on that.

You mentioned Bernadette McAliskey, who at the time was a huge figure, and who punched home secretary Reginald Maudlin - that wonderful moment in parliament that you wish was televised. How important was her evidence?

She was very reluctant to go there. When she's asked questions that she thinks are not relevant she asks, 'Why have I come here?' She is still seen as a great heroine - she was clapped when she gave evidence. She said how she was on top of this lorry when she heard these shots. There's quite a lot of dramatic stuff there. She is quite interesting about the history of the Republican movement. She describes how it's difficult to put people into slots as Officials or Provos before the split.

She talks about how the whole country was riddled with informers. She says how someone was attempting to persuade armed organisations to do or not do things that day. She says how there is no history from 1972 of armed activity in conjunction with the marches. She says, 'I actually don't think it matters if the entire brigade of the Provisional IRA, aided and abetted by the Official IRA and anybody else they could gather up for the occasion, were conspiring to take on the British army on that day. Even if that, which I do not believe, even if any or all of that were true, it would not justify the army opening fire on the civilian population on that demonstration.'

She also says, 'It is highly arguable that, without Bloody Sunday, where we are today we would have been in 1972, and I cannot forgive the British government for that' - ie, they could have started a peace process.

I'm assuming from what you've said that you're not expecting a whitewash from Saville?

No. He's got to severely criticise individual soldiers and maybe even more their officers for being dishonest, for ill thought out tactics, for encouraging or not discouraging their men from firing. He'll lay into the individual soldiers for lying and for outrageous shooting - some more than others - and the whole operation. He's got to.

But he may slightly dilute it by saying that there were one or two shots from Official IRA members that may have led to or exacerbated the situation. But I think it should be quite a hard-hitting report.

When you look at the Iraq war, one of the things that was pushed was American soldiers bad, British soldiers good - as if Bloody Sunday had never happened.

Yes. The British army have been accused of all sorts of things - abuse, mistreatment and murder of Iraqi civilians. And they say the British army can draw from the experience of Northern Ireland and other colonial situations!

The army is actually in a bit of a crisis about this. Three Paras were charged recently with a murder in Iraq. So you get the echoes of Bloody Sunday showing that the British soldiers are not so wonderfully great, even with their experience.

After the invasion in Iraq, Northern Ireland was constantly being cited. You wouldn't think that the Nationalist population of Derry and Belfast can't wait to see the back of them.

Exactly. As time went on there was a change of tactics by the British army - 'less aggressive'. Although that's not true either, because it became more undercover stuff - SAS, 'shoot to kill', the Force Research Unit. Uniformed soldiers got less involved in street battles, but there were undercover operations that were much more sinister.

How difficult is it to condense something like the Saville inquiry into a drama? Is there a risk that you pick, not necessarily the key bits, but the sexiest bits of drama?

Of course. There's piles of documents a foot high where you're working. But I got lots of advice. I read a hell of a lot during a sabbatical last summer, and I talked to Eamonn McCann. You choose one or two relatives. McAliskey was obvious. So was Bishop Daly. Then there were the generals and some of the worst soldiers. I heard them when they came to London to give evidence. They weren't difficult to choose.

McGuinness didn't read very well as drama. People expect him to because he's a heavyweight figure and he admitted being number two in the Derry Provos - but people know that, in a way. So in the end Eamonn McCann and I left him out.

We got this guy called Reg Tester, a quartermaster in the Officials. He's a British guy, an ex-sailor. He said, 'The Official IRA were mainly disliked in the city. It was an old Catholic thing. They were seen as Marxist, left wing. They were considered to be gangsterish. The Provisionals were much more careful about who was allowed in and were much more disciplined.'

Also he explains how there was pressure on the Provos to pick up their arms - pressure both ways. At the time people were saying, 'For Christ's sake don't do it,' because it would allow the British establishment to blame them. But after the shooting the pressure was on not to let them get away with it. There's no evidence that the Provos fired anything. Three Officials did, in an erratic way.

You have maybe ten or 15 characters in the play. People come in for quite short scenes. There's not much movement - it's mainly people standing up and sitting down.

Another way of doing these things is what Peter Kosminsky's done with The Government Inspector, which can make for very lively drama but comes in for criticism because there's a certain amount of speculation.

Nicholas Kent and I avoided that with our tribunal plays at the Tricycle. Of course, you're open to other kinds of criticism. That you're editing, you're skewing. You try to be balanced. I remember going to see The Colour of Justice with quite a senior cop from Scotland Yard who said it was too nice to the cops.

If you do just have a series of people come in that you make a laughing stock of, it becomes like a music hall. So you've got to be 'balanced' as much as you can. But the risk is that, though you use the words they say, you can be accused of leaving things out, twisting and slanting them, rather than making them up.

Do the cast find it challenging?

Yes, they think it's different. Nick Kent's very good at encouraging them to read about Bloody Sunday. Most of them are quite political animals - to the left, to varying degrees.

Are there plans to take it to Derry?

Northern Ireland BBC want to do something about it. I hope so. The Colour of Justice went to Belfast. On the Lower Ormeau Road there was one mural with Stephen Lawrence and Robert Hamill, who was kicked to death as the RUC looked on - they thought there were parallels.

It's an open book. I don't mind people doing it for free or photocopying it for schools. It was a key and seminal moment in British and Northern Irish history.


Bloody Sunday: Scenes from the Saville Inquiry will be at the Tricycle Theatre from 7 April to 7 May.