After a 38-year struggle for truth and justice campaigners for those killed in Derry on Bloody Sunday tonight celebrated the Saville Report’s exoneration of the victims and the report’s unequivocal conclusion that the shootings were “unjustified”.
The Bloody Sunday tribunal’s repeated use of the term “unjustifiable” throughout the 5,000-page report, and its verdict that soldiers had lied to the inquiry, now opens up the possibility of legal action against former troops involved in the atrocity.
Fourteen unarmed civilians were shot dead by the Parachute Regiment which had been sent into Derry’s Bogside on 30 January 1972. The deaths propelled a generation of nationalists into the Provisional IRA.
Saville’s conclusion that none of the 14 dead was carrying a gun, no warnings were given, no soldiers were under threat and the troops were the first to open fire, marked a final declaration of innocence for the victims of the biggest British military killing of civilians on UK soil since the Peterloo massacre in 1819.
Northern Ireland’s director of public prosecutions confirmed tonight that he was considering whether prosecutions for murder, perjury or perverting the course of justice could arise from the report.
Sir Alasdair Fraser QC will be asked to assess the report to decide whether there is sufficient evidence for “a reasonable prospect for conviction” of paratroopers found to have participated in the killings.
Lord Gifford QC, who represented the family of civil rights marcher Jim Wray who died on Bloody Sunday, said: “There are a number of possible charges arising from this report which has been thorough and even-handed. Murder is of course the obvious one. But the report also found that soldiers deliberately attempted to mislead the inquiry.”
As David Cameron announced the findings and apologised on behalf of the British state, a crowd of up to 10,000 people watching his statement on a television screen in Derry’s Guildhall Square cheered wildly.
“I never want to call into question the behaviour of our soldiers and our army, who I believe to be the finest in the world,” Cameron told the Commons.
“But the conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt, there is nothing equivocal, there are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.”
It was a previous Tory prime minister, Ted Heath, whose troops carried out the massacre in the bloodiest year of the Troubles.
In a measured and dispassionate report Saville, a supreme court judge, concluded there was no justification for shooting at any of those killed or wounded on the banned civil rights march.
“None of the firing by the Support Company (Paratroopers) was aimed at people posing a threat or causing death or serious injury,” he said. “Despite the contrary evidence given by the soldiers, we have concluded that none of them fired in response to attacks or threatened attacks by nail or petrol bombers. No one threw or threatened to throw a nail or petrol bomb at the soldiers on Bloody Sunday.”
A copy of the discredited 1972 report by Lord Widgery, which accused the victims of firing weapons or handling bombs, was torn apart by one of the families’ representatives in Derry . “My brother was running away from the soldiers when he was shot,” Joe Duddy said of his brother, Jackie. “He was posing no threat. [The Widgery report] destroyed our loved ones’ good names. Today we clear them. I’m delighted to say that Jackie was innocent.”
Saville’s 10-volume report also found that some of the paratroopers who gave evidence to the tribunal had lied to it.
It said these soldiers had “knowingly put forward false accounts in order to seek to justify their firing”.
But the report did not find any conspiracy in the government or in the higher echelons of the army to use lethal force against either rioters or demonstrators in Derry. The shootings “were not the result of any plan to shoot selected ringleaders”, the report said.
During the 12-year tribunal a number of players in the peace process testified including Martin McGuinness, who admitted that at the time of Bloody Sunday he was the IRA’s second-in-command in Derry. McGuinness “was probably armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun” but it was insufficient evidence that he actually fired the weapon, Saville said.
Although Republican gunmen from the Official IRA took up firing positions, the report said, it was the soldiers who fired first and the paramilitaries’ presence provided no justification for them doing so.
The report appeared to exonerate the army’s then commander of land forces, in Northern Ireland General Robert Ford, of any blame. He had agreed to deploy the Parachute Regiment in the city against the advice of a senior police officer in Derry.
The report concluded that Ford “neither knew nor had reason to know at any stage that his decision would or was likely to result in soldiers firing unjustifiably on that day”.
There was strong criticism of Lt Colonel Derek Wilford, the officer directly in charge of the paratroopers. Wilford ignored orders from his brigadier that he should not order troops beyond a barrier deeper into the Bogside, the report said.
The operation was “not a justifiable response to a lethal attack by republican paramilitaries but instead soldiers opening fire unjustifiably,” the report said.
Kate Allen, Amnesty’s UK director, said: “The right to redress of the victims and their families is only partly met by establishing the facts about what happened that day; full accountability for any unlawful actions by state agents will also need to be ensured.”
But Stephen Pollard, a solicitor representing soldiers who gave evidence to the inquiry, said Saville did not have any justification for his findings and said he would fight any moves to prosecute the soldiers. “The evidence has been cherry-picked. I think Lord Saville felt under considerable pressure to give very clear findings even when the evidence did not support it,” Pollard said.
How do you measure the impact of a word that was 38 years in coming?
Some have tried to weigh it, noting that the Saville report into Bloody Sunday is a full 20kg on the scales. Or that it contains 5,000 pages in 10 volumes, the fruit of some 30m words of evidence. Others have tried to measure it in time, pointing out that it took 12 full years for the law lord to reach his conclusions. Inevitably, others reach for a financial scale, gulping at the £191m price tag.
But a better measure might be the human one, starting with the cost not of the inquiry but of the episode itself. The cold facts of 30 January 1972 are so well known that for a while they lost their power to shock; we grew numb to them. Thirteen civil rights marchers were shot dead on the streets of Derry by the British army; a fourteenth died later of his injuries.
But when you hear again the lasting, human legacy of those facts, the numbness fades. Not the larger consequences – including the view, expressed to me by a veteran republican, that Bloody Sunday all but created the Provisional IRA, as well as fixing Northern Ireland on a path to mayhem and violence that would endure for decades – but the more intimate impact. The death of 17-year-old Michael Kelly, a trainee sewing machine mechanic, becomes more real when you read that his mother was so broken that her family feared letting her out of the house. One day they found her heading up towards the cemetery clutching a blanket. “I’m going to place it over Michael’s grave to keep him warm,” she said.
For the Kelly family, and all those like them, every penny spent by Saville has been worth it. You could see that, written on their faces as they gathered in the sunshine of the Guildhall Square in Derry yesterday, fresh from getting their first glimpse of the Saville report, fist-pumping the air and declaring, one after another, in a desperately moving ceremony, that those they had loved and lost had been found innocent.
Inevitably, there are complaints that, since 3,700 people lost their lives in Northern Ireland’s Troubles, it’s unjust that 14 victims have been elevated to a higher rung in the hierarchy of suffering, their murders scrutinised by a full legal inquiry denied to the others. The only answer to that lies in the nature of the killers. For those pulling the trigger in Derry were not volunteers for this or that terrorist faction. They were British soldiers acting in the name of the British state, mowing down their fellow citizens. This is what gives Bloody Sunday its singular quality: it represents the biggest single massacre by the British military on UK territory since Peterloo.
If the event itself was one of historic proportions, so is the report. It represents a rare admission by the state that it committed a grave wrong. By conceding that the killings were “unjustified and unjustifiable”, and adding that he was “deeply sorry” for them, David Cameron has told the world that Britain killed innocents and, through the whitewash of the 1972 Widgery report, covered up that truth. The Saville findings and Cameron’s statement will take their place alongside Tony Blair’s apology for British culpability in the Irish potato famine of the 19th century: mocked by some, but a step towards a true reckoning with our imperial past.
Will it be enough? Will it do what Blair hoped when he appointed Saville in January 1998, namely “establish the truth and close this painful chapter once and for all”?
In one immediate way, it will. What always united the Bloody Sunday families was the urge to see the names of their loved ones cleared. The accusation in the immediate aftermath of the massacre that those killed had been armed terrorists represented a kind of double death. Not only had these men, half of them teenagers, been gunned down, they had also had their reputations destroyed. Saville’s declaration that none of them posed any kind of threat delivered the exoneration that these families craved. For most it came too late: all but one of the parents whose sons were killed that day are now themselves dead.
Where the families divide is on the question of what should happen next: should the paratroopers held by Saville to have been out of control and to have lied about their actions afterwards, be prosecuted, either in a criminal case or a private, civil action? Some say they won’t rest till they see the killers in the dock; others believe they have now had their judgment day, thanks to Lord Saville.
The arguments for prosecution are powerful. Murder is murder, no matter who commits the crime. No one is above the law. And, it should be stressed, Saville gave no blanket promise of immunity to the soldiers who came before him.
Some hesitate at the prospect of “putting a bunch of 72-year-olds on trial”. But, as Patrick Nash, whose 19-year-old brother was murdered, puts it: “They still chase Nazi war criminals.” He’s right. There is a principle at stake – one that should be heeded around the world. It says that if you kill innocents, you may run and you may hide, but eventually the law will catch up with you.
And yet there are principles on the other side, too. The squaddies who fired the fatal and fateful bullets are not the ultimate culprits here. Surely the men to be held to account are those who gave the lethal orders, not the young subordinates who carried them out. (Saville points a damning finger at Colonel Derek Wilford, for sending his troops into the Bogside, in defiance of orders.)
That will be too much for those Unionists who believe that, if we’re in the business of prosecuting old crimes, there are plenty of IRA killers who avoided their day in the dock. Unionists add that even those IRA men who were convicted were released from jail early, as part of the Good Friday process.
And this gets to the heart of the matter. You can hanker for justice and you can hanker for peace, but only rarely do you get both. In societies riven by conflict, one is usually traded for the other, victims forced to see perpetrators walk free in the name of “reconciliation”. When the authorities sit down to decide whether to pursue the murderers of Bloody Sunday, this surely will be part of their calculation of the public interest: will peace be jeopardised by prosecutions or is it sufficiently embedded that it can survive the reopening of old wounds?
As it happens, this vexed dilemma could have been avoided. The Saville inquiry might have had a different remit, one less like a legal tribunal and more akin to South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission. The promise of a South African style amnesty would have encouraged the paras to tell the whole truth, rather than putting up the brick wall of “I do not recall” memory failure that greeted Saville. Such an amnesty would have thwarted those relatives bent on prosecutions, but it might have offered an even deeper sense of healing: seeing their loved ones’ killers admit the truth.
It is not too late for such a process in Northern Ireland – not just for Bloody Sunday but for the entire Troubles, for all those killed, whether by the IRA or the RUC, the UVF or the British army. Martin McGuinness called for just such a process today. After Saville, Cameron said there should be no more costly, open-ended inquiries. And yet the need extends beyond those 14 families vindicated at last. It’s all of Northern Ireland that needs to be reconciled with the truth.
Lord Saville’s report covers 5,000 pages and took 12 years to produce. It considered the orders given by commanding officers, whether those killed posed a serious threat, and the role of the IRA and the state
Orders given by commanding officers
• The inquiry expressed surprise that Major General Robert Ford, then Commander of Land Forces in Northern Ireland, should have written in a 1972 memorandum (unrelated to the Derry march) that selected riot ringleaders should be shot after a warning was given. Although Ford decided that 1 Para should be deployed as an arrest force on 30 January 1972 in the event of rioting, Saville concluded “he neither knew nor had reason to know at any stage that his decision would or was likely to result in soldiers firing unjustifiably on that day”.
• Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford did not comply with Brigadier MacLellan’s order to tackle rioters by sending one group of troops into William Street “but not to conduct a running battle down Rossville Street”. Instead, Wilford sent additional soldiers into Bogside. “The effect was that soldiers of Support Company did chase people down Rossville Street,” said Saville. “Some of those people had been rioting but many were peaceful marchers. There was thus no separation between peaceful marchers and those who had been rioting and no means whereby soldiers could identify and arrest only the latter.”
• Wilford either “deliberately disobeyed” MacLellan’s order or “failed for no good reason to appreciate the clear limits on what he had been authorised to do”. He also failed to inform MacLellan of what he had done. “Had he done so, MacLellan might well have called off the arrest operation altogether, on the grounds that this deployment would not have provided sufficient separation between rioters and civil rights marchers.”
• Wilford did not pass on to Major Loden (the commander of Support Company) the brigadier’s instructions not to chase people down Rossville Street, “nor did he impose any limits on how far the soldiers of Support Company should go”.
Did those killed provoke the shooting by British soldiers?
• “None of the casualties shot by soldiers of Support Company was armed with a firearm or (with the probable exception of Gerald Donaghey) a bomb of any description. None was posing any threat of causing death or serious injury. In no case was any warning given before soldiers opened fire,” the report said.
• Evidence from soldiers to the inquiry that they had fired after coming under attack was rejected. “We have concluded that none of them fired in response to attacks or threatened attacks by nail or petrol bombers. No one threw or threatened to throw a nail or petrol bomb at the soldiers on Bloody Sunday.”
• The credibility of the accounts given by the soldiers was “materially undermined” because all soldiers bar one who were responsible for the casualties “insisted that they had shot at gunmen or bombers, which they had not”. Saville said: “Many of these soldiers have knowingly put forward false accounts in order to seek to justify their firing”.
Why did the soldiers open fire?
• The report concluded that officers reacted because of “the mistaken belief among them that republican paramilitaries were responding in force to their arrival in the Bogside”, based on initial shots fired by one of their number, namely, Lieutenant N. “Our overall conclusion is that there was a serious and widespread loss of fire discipline among the soldiers of Support Company”.
• Saville admonished Lieutenant N “not only for firing, but also for failing to realise the effect that his firing would be likely to have on the other soldiers who had come into the Bogside”.
The role of the state
• Saville rejected the contention that the state had authorised the troops to use “unwarranted lethal force” or sanctioned them “with reckless disregard as to whether such force was used”.
• It also rejected the idea that the government had more generally “tolerated, if not encouraged” the use of unjustified lethal force in Northern Ireland, thereby creating the conditions which led to the Bloody Sunday attacks.
What role did the IRA play?
• The report said that republican paramilitaries had been responsible for “some firing” but the scale had been exaggerated by British soldiers and “none of this firing provided any justification for the shooting of the civilian casualties”.
• The report concluded that two Official IRA men had gone to a pre-arranged sniping position and shots had been fired by republican paramilitaries that were not merely in response to the British soldiers opening fire.
• Saville said Martin McGuiness, now the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, “was probably armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun” but said that there was no evidence he fired the weapon and that this provided no justification for the soldiers opening fire.
• It also found evidence of people with nail and petrol bombs and at least one car used to hold weapons in Glenfada Park North. The inquiry said the Official IRA had tried to conceal the whole truth about its activities but that the Glenfada Park North area was clear of weapons when the soldiers arrived.