A Glittering Career Launched with a Cover-Up

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I wonder if Sir Michael Jackson permitted himself a wry smile about atrocities as he retired last month as Chief of the General Staff.

Stepping down after three years, Jackson's mind may have drifted back to the Bogside and Bloody Sunday - the day he began the rise through the ranks that was to take him to the top.

The exposure of Jackson as the man who masterminded the cover-up of the Derry massacre has never hit the headlines. It appears to have gone unmentioned in any of the biographical pieces which marked his retirement. But it may figure prominently in the long-delayed report of the Bloody Sunday inquiry under Lord Saville. If it doesn't, people in Derry will draw certain conclusions about Saville.

Jackson's evidence was eagerly awaited by the Bloody Sunday families when he was called to testify before Saville in April 2003. Back in January 1972 he'd been a 27 year old captain, formerly an intelligence officer, now second in command of the first battalion of the Parachute Regiment. He told Saville that he could vaguely remember being in the Bogside during the shooting which left 13 unarmed civilians dead and another 14 wounded. But he could remember little of the detail. It had, after all, been 31 years ago.

However, a month later, in June 2003, during evidence from Major Ted Loden, new light was suddenly thrown on Jackson's role. Loden had been the company commander of the group of soldiers which had fired all the fatal shots. It was put to him that a typewritten "shot list" which he agreed he'd drawn up on the evening of Bloody Sunday, was seriously misleading.

The document detailed 14 separate "engagements" in which soldiers had fired on men identified as gunmen, nail-bombers or petrol-bombers. Six-figure map references specified the location of each shot fired and each target aimed at. But none of the map references conformed to the positions of any of the targets specified in other evidence - including in the evidence of the soldiers who'd fired. Some of the shots appeared to have gone through brick buildings.

Towards the end of Loden's evidence, a handwritten version of the list was produced. It turned out not to be in Loden's writing at all - but in Jackson's. Jackson was recalled to testify a second time in October 2003. Now, he said that he had recovered a "vague memory" of drawing up the shot list, although the exact circumstances still eluded him. Other documents emerged in Jackson's handwriting too. These included personal accounts of the Bloody Sunday events by Jackson's immediate superior, Lt Col Derek Wilford, by Loden, by the commanders of the two other para companies deployed in the Bogside, and by the battalion's intelligence officer.

Shot list

This detailed compilation of accounts of the killings had been completed by the morning afterwards. It must have been a lengthy, wearying, painstaking process. But Jackson could recall nothing of it. He agreed that he must have been ordered by someone to carry out this elaborate exercise, but couldn't remember whom. He speculated that "the requirement may have been instigated in London".

In evidence, none of those whose accounts appeared in Jackson's handwriting recalled briefing Jackson on their experiences, or anything of the process by which the documents had been created. None of the soldiers who'd fired recalled a debriefing session when they'd been asked for their locations or the locations of whomever they'd been aiming at.

Jackson's account became the official British story of Bloody Sunday. Two days after the massacre prime minister Edward Heath appointed Lord Chief Justice Widgery to head an inquiry. On the same day British Information Services (BIS) distributed to wire services and broadcasting outlets across the world, and to British embassies and consulates which might have to field questions on the events, a document headed "Northern Ireland: Londonderry".

This pre-empted Widgery, telling that, "Throughout the fighting, the army fired only at identified targets - at attacking gunmen and bombers... The troops came under indiscriminate firing."

The BIS document ended with a list detailing 14 separate shooting incidents which it suggested made up the "fighting". These were the 14 incidents on Jackson's shot list.

Jackson's account also provided the basic template for soldiers' evidence to the Widgery Inquiry, which reported in April 1972 that some of the dead had likely been "firing weapons or handling bombs", and, crucially, that "there is no reason to suppose that the soldiers would have opened fire if they had not been fired on first".

For more than a quarter of a century, until the indomitable campaigning of the Bloody Sunday families forced a second inquiry, the Jackson cover-up stood as the official account. During this period Jackson was promoted to commander of allied troops in Berlin, then to head of 1 Para, and later became Nato second in command and commander of Nato forces in Kosovo before being recalled to take the top post in the British army.

A glittering career, which took off when he proved his worth to the ruling class by his singular success (as they thought) in covering up the massacre of civil rights marchers in Derry 34 years ago.

Eamonn McCann's book The Bloody Sunday Inquiry: The Families Speak Out is available from Bookmarks