Bloody Sunday: A very British atrocity

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Journalist and socialist Eamonn McCann witnessed the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972, when British soldiers killed 14 demonstrators in Derry. He spoke to Judith Orr about the long campaign for justice.

You once wrote that the families of those shot on Bloody Sunday didn't need to be told the truth - they just wanted the truth to be told. What was it like in the Guildhall when they finally saw the Saville inquiry findings?

I arrived about an hour and a half before the report was made public. I bounded up the grand staircase of Guildhall in Derry to the main hall where there were about 200 members of the families assembled, and you didn't have to ask them what they thought of the report. Half of the people there were weeping, half had shining smiles on their faces, and then we were just in a frenzy of hugs and backslapping. It was a highly emotional moment, one of the most intense and emotional experiences in my political life.

I was absolutely 100 percent confident that all the dead and wounded would be exonerated and was being rebuked in the days leading up to the publication of the report by other campaigners for taking too much for granted. My certainty was based quite simply on the evidence given to Saville. It became clear that none of the soldiers were seriously claiming that any of the dead and injured had been handling weapons; their consistent account was that they hit innocent people by accident when firing at terrorists. An obvious cock and bull story.

We didn't have a plan B. As soon as I arrived at the Guildhall I read out to all the families the text of what it was proposed should be said outside. It had been written for days, I had it in my pocket, and we didn't have to change a word. Had Saville found that some of the dead and wounded had been armed or doing something else which "justified" their shooting, we would have been at a complete loss. Everything in our whole presentation, family by family saying "innocent", and all the pictures for the big screen had been prepared. Once or twice on the long nights before we thought, "We better have got this fucking right." But we did. It was great.

How did the family campaign evolve?

The family campaign dates from around 1987. In the aftermath of Bloody Sunday the Civil Rights Association (CRA), which had organised the Bloody Sunday march, organised commemorative marches. By the mid-1970s the CRA had faded from the scene and Sinn Fein started organising the march. But there were families who simply refused to take part either because they disagreed sharply with Sinn Fein or because they didn't want any political party involved. So it was an unsatisfactory situation.

By the mid to late 1980s the feeling developed that there was no point in Republicans marching the route every year demanding a second inquiry - it would have to be a much broader campaign. The organisation that subsequently became the Bloody Sunday Trust emerged and we began to organise the annual march and to look for wider support. Initially we found very little, but we kept fighting and eventually it became part of conventional wisdom that there had to be a second inquiry.

Winning the second inquiry was an enormous achievement.

The scale of the achievement is difficult to exaggerate because there was the Widgery inquiry in 1972 set up under the 1921 Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act. It was conducted by the Lord Chief Justice no less and he pronounced the "official truth". Constitutionally speaking it ought to have been utterly impossible to have a second inquiry under the same act into the same event, and when we started the campaign proper 25 years ago nobody at all gave us any encouragement, even in Derry.

President Mary Robinson refused point blank to meet the families. She only agreed to meet them once some went with placards and picketed her official residence. The Catholic cardinal Cahal Daly refused point blank to meet the families. I went to Dublin with the families to launch a book I wrote for them called Bloody Sunday in Derry: What Really Happened. We invited about 30 members of parliament to it in a hotel literally across the street. Only one turned up, an independent, the late Tony Gregory. There wasn't a single editorial in the Dublin newspapers saying there must be an inquiry until the late 1990s when the thing began to develop a momentum.

After all these years of the struggle for justice can you remember how you felt on Bloody Sunday itself?

On the day it was just like a thunderclap. It took some time after all the killings to quite get it into one's head what had actually just transpired on the streets. Like many others I spent a couple of hours the night of Bloody Sunday walking from one wake house - houses where people had been killed - to another. There was just constant silent movement around the Bogside and the Creggan area. With one exception everybody came from the same relatively small area. Mickey Bridge, who was wounded, had been a friend of mine from school. The older brother of Hugh Gilmour who died had been in the same class as me in school. Jim Wray was shot in the back as he lay wounded in Glenfada Park - Jim's father is also a friend of mine, and he and I were on the committee of the local tenants' association. Willie Nash was killed and his father Alex was wounded on a barricade. I knew the Nash family - everybody in Derry would have known them.

So it was not just the atrocity that had just been committed: these are people you'd be running around with and in and out of their houses as a child. It was a wound inflicted on a whole community.

There is a whole younger generation of activists and trade unionists who will not be familiar with the outpouring of solidarity that came from workers in the following days.

There was a huge reaction immediately afterwards. Dockers blacked British ships on the east coast of the US which caused great consternation. At one point in the week after Bloody Sunday the general secretary of the TUC - Vic Feather - came over and met with Derry trade unionists in a room above a pub to ask them to tell the US dockers that Derry trade unionists didn't want them to strike because it was damaging! The trade union movement disgraced itself in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday.

There was a mass upsurge in solidarity and anger in Southern Ireland, and the highlight of that was the burning of the British embassy in Merrion Square in Dublin. The police stood aside and let it happen because they realised that that was the popular will and had they tried to stop it there would have been incalculable consequences.

The Dublin government was terrified. In the immediate aftermath of the killing a general strike was called. The march that burned the British embassy was called and led by the Dublin Council of Trade Unions, a rank and file trade union group. The strike covered the whole of Southern Ireland. Nothing moved. Every airport was closed, the post was closed, no buses ran, no trains ran, no factories opened, pubs and shops were closed, for two full days.

On the second day of the action government ministers began declaring their support for it and called it a period of mourning. It wasn't mourning - it was a strike - but the politicians wanted to transform it into that.

The victory is that the Saville report shows the dead and injured were innocent. But what does it say about who is to blame?

To get to some of the interesting stuff in Saville you have to get to the main body of the report, and that's a daunting task as it is over 5,000 pages long. But it does reward. Some of Saville's conclusions seem to be unsustainable. It is a highly political and deeply flawed report.

Saville exonerates senior British army officers in defiance of the evidence simply by stating that they're innocent. The main person criticised is Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford, the commander of the first battalion of the Paras on the day. Of course he was a commander and was on the ground, and he deserves all that can be thrown at him, but above him was Major General Robert Ford, who was commander of land forces in the North. It was Ford who decided to bring the Paras from Belfast to send them into Derry. He had written memos in the previous couple of weeks after a visit to Derry talking about the need to go in hard in the Bogside. He was very critical of the garrison regiments in Derry and said they were useless and namby-pamby and that the police chief, Frank Lagan, was far too sympathetic to the Bogside and so forth.

Ford wanted someone to go in and teach the hooligans a lesson. He said that selected ringleaders of the rioters and hooligans in Derry should be shot. Ford says all that on 7 January 1972. He then sends the Paras into Derry.

Saville sees no significance in this, and just takes Ford's word that he had no reason to believe that the Paras were going to behave improperly in Derry. But Ford would have known the reputation of the Paras; he would have known that they killed 11 people in Ballymurphy the previous August. It's just nonsense that he had no idea that the Paras would behave in a reckless and unjustifiable way.

If you go on down the chain of command something terribly interesting happens. Below Ford was Wilford and he gets a kicking from the report. Below Wilford there is Captain Mike Jackson, who subsequently became General Sir Michael Jackson, chief of the general staff and Nato commander in the Balkans. He was number two to Wilford and was on the ground in the Bogside. You would think that if Wilford was responsible for this unacceptable behaviour his underling, Jackson, must share some of the blame. But not at all. You bypass Jackson and come to the people below him, the soldiers on the ground, and they are all attacked by the report.

Jackson wasn't a senior officer at the time, but he was soon to become a very senior officer indeed, and Saville lets him off the hook. Jackson had copied out in his own handwriting the "shot list" - lies purporting to be an account of what had happened. And he is exonerated. There are a number of things like that in the report. It's much less favourable to people on the ground than initial reaction would suggest.

It was obviously much too politically dangerous to have Jackson carry the can at all.

There's Major Ted Loden who prepared this shot list, which is totally inaccurate because some of the shots he describes would have had to go through brick walls to hit their targets. It's nonsense. But in the report, "We are satisfied that Major Loden prepares his list in good faith and not for the purpose of deliberate deception or cover-up to place the army in good light."

Saville talks about the difficult circumstances under which the list was prepared, the cramped and dark quarters, the unavailability of some soldiers, their unfamiliarity with the area. Those may be relevant factors, but at the end of the day he got it completely wrong and those lies were distributed around the world by British information services. The official propaganda unit wired every British embassy and consulate with that shot list. It became the basis of the cover-up and all Saville has got to say is that circumstances were very difficult. Loden passed this shot list on to Jackson, Jackson then wrote it out in the middle of the night. He then had to pass it on to army headquarters in London from where it was disseminated. Jackson then gave evidence in October 2003 in London to the tribunal in which he said he had no memory at all of any of this, couldn't remember a thing.

Jackson was in the Bogside when all this shooting was going on around him and didn't see any of it. Mike Jackson gets off the hook. Such is the nerve of the British ruling class and its military associates that immediately after David Cameron had sat down after announcing the Saville inquiry's findings the BBC had Jackson on, responding and acting as if he was a suitable person and not a contemptible liar.

It would be very cynical to think that the reason for this resounding victory for the families is that the establishment and the ruling class hoped the cheers would drown out any criticism. Though incidentally it was widely reported that it was amazing to hear this nationalist crowd in Derry, if that's how they can be described, cheering a British prime minister up on the big screen. Martin McGuinness, and others who have made their peace with imperialism, went round saying Cameron did a great job.

But the reason people were cheering was because they had forced Cameron to say the things he said. It was a shout of triumph and not applause for Cameron. The biggest cheer of the day was at about 3.20pm when people saw at one of the windows of the Guildhall this little hand with a wristband around it, which identified the person as a member of one of the families, just turning their thumb up.

Part of the black propaganda that went out about the day included the claim that the bodies of the "real terrorists" shot by the Paras had been secretly spirited away.

It's an utterly ludicrous story of course, the idea that their family told the neighbours that "Oh, he's got a job in England" to explain someone's sudden disappearance. It was madness, but it shows how difficult it was to account for what happened.

The cover-up included the destruction of the rifles used on the day, didn't it?

That was much later, yes. The MoD were informed that five rifles which had been identified by Saville's officials as having been used on Bloody Sunday were to be preserved as evidence. They were bagged and directed to be held securely. Nevertheless when Saville came back for them they had disappeared.

There were also ten British army photographers on duty on Bloody Sunday taking pictures, for historical record but also to identify rioters to be arrested later. Not a single photograph survived. If they had a photograph of someone pointing a gun from the crowd that would have been preserved. The reason the photos disappeared was because they would have shown a very extensive record, minute by minute, of what happened and they would not have borne out the British army story. Film taken from a helicopter also disappeared.

The forensic evidence introduced in the original Widgery tribunal was shown by Saville to have been fraudulent - not mistaken, fraudulent. So alongside senior British officers, senior civil servants and politicians you also had forensic scientists involved in the cover-up. The entire establishment came together to tell the world a lie about Bloody Sunday.

Why did they do it? Was it to show they could crush Derry or was it about propping up Stormont?

I think the military were not particularly concerned about shoring up Stormont. I sat day after day waiting for evidence of a memo or some statement to the tribunal which said, "Well, we had to preserve Brian Faulkner's government at Stormont." They didn't say that at all. In fact the attitude of the military people towards the Unionists in Northern Ireland was almost contemptuous. To suggest that Bloody Sunday happened because of a perceived necessity to shore up the Unionist government is to try and put Bloody Sunday into the context of the preferred narrative about the Northern Troubles - with Catholics and Protestants fighting one another and the British army just there to hold the ring between them.

Everything was put down to the internal dynamics of this twisted society of Northern Ireland, but this was a very British atrocity by the British army, with the deliberate support of politicians. One of the strongest things in the minds of British officers, in the memos that have been published and the minutes of the joint security committee meetings, was their outrage at the existence of Free Derry, from which the forces of the state had been excluded. General Ford was quivering with anger that this existed and thought the British army officers on the spot, the garrison regiments in Derry, weren't taking a sufficiently hard line. He felt this was an insult to Britain and its army.

So outrage that working class people had taken control of their lives and cut themselves off from the authority of the state was a major motivation for sending in the Paras.

Where do the families go from here? Do you think there will be prosecutions?

I think it is very unlikely, even when they found that somebody has been shot who was entirely unarmed and innocent, for example Jackie Duddy who was 17 years old and the first person shot dead on Bloody Sunday. He is the young guy whose body is being dragged away in that iconic photograph with the priest waving the handkerchief. We know exactly where he was when he was shot, that he was shot by a bullet fired from the other end of a car park, and that he ran away and was shot in the back. But there were three soldiers shooting in that space. Any one of them could have shot Jackie. So how could you prove within reasonable doubt that it was soldier A rather than soldier B? I'm just being practical about whether you would actually get the case into court. One of the reasons you can't tell who fired the fatal shot is that all three of those soldiers perjured themselves about what they were doing, the shots they did fire and what they were aiming at.

Saville is very clear and quite trenchant about the perjured nature of their evidence. But should they have to bear all the responsibility? You're reminded of Rudyard Kipling writing that the rank and file Tommy Atkins pays the price while senior officers continue with their dinner.

Some of the families do want prosecutions, and present the simple argument that when the state guns down an innocent citizen that's a crime and whoever did it on behalf of the state ought to be charged with murder. If you don't you are putting a cheaper price on the life of that person than would be put on a person who was murdered in any other circumstances. That's a very sound argument. I think myself that the punishment for Bloody Sunday should go a lot higher than the grunts on the ground.

The Saville inquiry was portrayed as part of the Peace Process, as a way to bring "closure".

The Saville report was used in an orchestrated way to try to give the British government a soft landing. The content of Cameron's speech had been signalled to Nationalist politicians in the North of Ireland in advance. On the morning of the report Cameron let Brian Cowen, the Taoiseach in the South, know what was going to be said. So everybody could make their matching statements. Of course this collusion is also what happened during the negotiations of the Peace Process. Then the IRA actually saw statements which were to be made by Tony Blair in the Commons before they were made, and we have the word of Jonathan Powell that on occasion senior British officials, including "security officials", helped to write IRA council statements.

People have called the Saville inquiry a staging post on the way to reconciliation. What are we talking about? If we mean reconciliation between the Catholic and Protestant people that's absolutely grand. Some of us, particularly socialists, have wanted that for a long time. But what politicians really mean is for people to reconcile themselves to authority and to the nature of the state. That's a different sort of reconciliation. To see the Bloody Sunday event as a way of reconciling people to the British political establishment is a wee bit cheeky.

The proper questions we should be asking are, what does the report say about the British army? What does it say about the nature of Britain's role in Northern Ireland? What does it say about Britain's role in Afghanistan? These are the questions that ought to be asked.


Eyewitness to state murder