A week after Bloody Sunday, Field Marshal Michael Carver, chief of the defence staff, met soldiers from 1 Para. He told them they would be supported if they had acted in good faith and if they told the truth at the Widgery tribunal. If they did not, “God help them”, Carver told the soldiers.
They did not tell the truth to Widgery. No disciplinary action was taken against them even though that inquiry, accepted as a whitewash (the secretary to the tribunal said Widgery would “pile up the case against the deceased”, according to declassified documents) concluded that firing by some soldiers “bordered on the reckless”.
Nor did the soldiers tell the truth, years later, to the Saville inquiry. By then they had long since left the army. Most – though not all – fell back on their lawyers’ advice, blocking questions with the refrain “I can’t remember”.
Most of the paras who fired at the unarmed civil rights marchers made it clear they resented being called to give evidence to Saville. Some claimed they were being made scapegoats. Unidentified, and sometimes giving evidence behind screens, the scorn in their voices was palpable.
Take this example. Soldier H told the Saville inquiry that he had fired 19 shots with a self-loading rifle at a frosted window, allegedly at a sniper. A photograph showed just one hole in the window. “It is not of course possible, is it, that having, fired one shot making a hole … that the following 18 shots all went through the same hole?” Soldier H was asked.
“Very, very unlikely, almost impossible, I agree,” replied Soldier H.
When it was suggested he had made up the story to explain why he fired so many shots, he replied: “No, I think if I was making up a story, sir, I think I would have made up a rather better one than that.”
An important thread running through Saville was the falsity of the claims made by the paras to the military police when the shooting was over. They claimed the marchers were armed with guns or nailbombs.
“Those statements were made when I was an 18-year-old soldier on the day of Bloody Sunday,” Soldier S told Saville. “Making a statement to the RMP [Royal Military police] can be quite a frightening affair.”
On Bloody Sunday, British troops killed the largest number of civilians in the United Kingdom since the Peterloo massacre in Manchester more than 150 years earlier, when 15 were killed, against 13 in Derry. When he announced the new Bloody Sunday inquiry under Saville in 1998, Tony Blair said those who died must be regarded as innocent of any allegation that they were shot while handling firearms or explosives, a view echoed strongly by the then Conservative leader, William Hague.
But it was not until the Saville inquiry was well under way that the Ministry of Defence, and lawyers for the soldiers, finally conceded that those who were shot were not armed. However, in a cautious statement they said the soldiers believed they “only” shot at those they believed to be “threatening lethal violence”.
In claims Saville will have to confront, they added that none of the soldiers “did anything which he believed was other than fully and lawfully justified” by violence they claim they encountered. One member of the Official IRA told the inquiry he fired one shot at soldiers after they had opened fire. A second said he fired a pistol after soldiers killed one of the marchers but was quickly told to stop.
It was not only individual soldiers who resented the setting up of the Saville inquiry. The MoD, and the army in particular, was also opposed. The army began to destroy 14 of 29 rifles identified as having been used on Bloody Sunday just three days before Blair announced the fresh inquiry. Ten were sold to private companies. Two of the remaining five rifles were destroyed three months after Saville specifically decreed they should be kept safely for his tribunal.
A further key issue, singled out yesterday by Lord Ramsbotham, Carver’s military assistant at the time, was the way the paras were pumped by their commanding officers. “The Parachute Regiment has a certain ethos, not best suited to the delicate situation [in Derry at the time],” Ramsbotham told the Guardian.
He described the paras as “shock troops”, told to “get in, and get in hard”. “There is no doubt soldiers were treading a more delicate line in Derry than in Belfast,” he added. “Unless you understood the geography you could easily get dragged in.”
The paratrooper, identified only as 027, whose earlier whistleblowing helped persuade Blair of the need for a new inquiry, painted a picture of adrenalin-pumped paras. He spoke at the Saville inquiry of a casual brutality among members of 1 Para, which he described as the army’s “rottweiler”. He said: “I had the distinct impression that this was a case of some soldiers realising this was an opportunity to fire their weapon and they did not want to miss the chance.
“There was no justification for a single shot I saw fired … the only threat was a large assembly of people and we were all experienced soldiers who had been through riot situations before.”
Matters were not helped by the attitude of General Sir Robert Ford, commander of land forces in Northern Ireland, and Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford, commander of 1 Para. Shortly before Bloody Sunday, Ford wrote a paper on the subject of “rioting”. He said he was coming to the conclusion that the minimum force necessary to restore law and order was to “shoot the ringleaders” after giving warnings. Unsurprisingly, his paper proved hugely controversial. Amid argument over whether “shooting” ringleaders really meant killing them, Ford said his paper was a private note and the idea went no further.
Though he said he witnessed the scene on the day, he admitted under questioning by the Saville inquiry that he had no evidence for claiming in a report at the time that the soldiers had been fired upon. “I do not know why I wrote it that way,” he said. “I had only a mental view. I saw nothing.”
Wilford made similar inflammatory claims until, under questioning at the inquiry, he, too, admitted they were untrue. Admitting he had claimed he had seen a man with a carbine on the balcony of a Rossville flat, he was asked: “That was not true, was it?” Wilford replied: “Well, apparently not, no.”
Brigadier Andrew MacLennan, commander of British troops in the Derry region at the time, made it clear he was concerned about the decision to bring in the para “shock troops”. He specifically ordered the paras not to get “sucked into the Bogside”. His orders, those of the most senior British army commander with experience of Derry and its problems, were ignored. MacLennan was caught in a pincer movement by Ford and Wilford leading to a bloody battle that was to lead to hundreds of more deaths in the decades ahead.
Justice Secretary: ‘Inquiry has been a disaster’
The inquiry has been a “disaster in terms of time and expense”, the justice secretary Kenneth Clarke said yesterday. The £190m Saville Report will be published tomorrow, more than 12 years after hearings started. Mr Clarke said the inquiry, led by Lord Saville of Newdigate, had got “ludicrously out of hand” and he was “anxiously considering” how other inquiries should be held. Clarke, a QC, told Sky News: “There’s no doubt that the kind of sums we spend … have vastly exceeded anything we would have contemplated when I was in practice. Really, you have to go back to the beginning and say ‘Why is it costing so much more than it used to? Why is it costing so much more than any other country? What do you need to spend money on?’ And Saville as an inquiry has been a disaster in terms of time and expense.”