A journal such as TMT is bound to be considered biased as we are former Service types writing for former Service personnel. But, in fact, it has made us take extra care when writing about Bloody Sunday, as with all such cases where the “truth” can be hard to define.
The events of the 30th January 1972 in the Bogside district of Derry undoubtedly left a deep scar in the minds of the Northern Irish People as well as the Army. We should not forget that it happened at a time when the news in this country was already full of disturbing reports from VietNam, as the US found itself being pushed out of the South. For some, Bloody Sunday seemed to be the confirmation of Britain’s own VietNam: an unending cycle of violence that was never going to bring anything good to anyone.
As time has passed, the awful truth about what happened has also affected many in the rest of the UK who now view the British Army as having descended into a dark period during the Troubles. That perception is probably not wrong, but at the time there were many in the Forces who believed that they were engaged in a struggle to preserve a British way of life that seemed to be under serious threat from not just Irish Nationalists, but a number of international groups that were providing them with active support, not least of which was Noraid in the States.
As with so many such events, the underlying truth was hard to discern, with the result that a particular viewpoint could be received as the “whole truth”, making it difficult for anyone “down the food-chain” to be able to separate themselves from the immediate problems facing them at any specific time or place. In many cases it became a “dog-eat-dog” existence, with young soldiers facing the prospect of being shot-at or bombed with little chance of ever knowing who it was that was trying to kill them. In the circumstance, are we surprised that events sometimes got out of hand?
What became clear in later years was the extent to which criminal interests were riding in on the back of the troubles. It was perhaps this issue that at last provided a glimmer of hope when Peter Brookes tried to get people to understand that the romance of a united Ireland felt by many decent southern Irish people was not the aim of many of those perpetuating the violence. However, this only came about after many were able to overcome years of hatred and division and dared to look forward to a peaceful future without the extremists and criminal gangs.
None of the above in any way allows us to condone the unwarranted and gratuitous killing or wounding of someone who did not pose a direct threat to the security forces, or the civilians they were trying to protect. In fact, to do so would be an insult to all of those soldiers and policemen who conducted themselves with restraint and consideration during their NI tours. It would also be “grist to the mill” of anyone wishing to drag the Army into disrepute, albeit for events that took place almost 50 years ago.
Bloody Sunday occurred because someone somewhere in the chain of command allowed it to be known that a strong response from the Security Forces was needed – and expected. Those involved had been brought up on a history of the UK dealing with riots in various parts of the world which, as the contemporary training manuals explained, could be solved quite simply; after several calls to disperse, a ringleader or two was identified and the order given to shoot one as an incentive for the rest to go home quietly. As is so often the case, the theory and reality rarely shook hands, and so the chaotic circumstances in Derry that afternoon bore little or no resemblance to the sort of situation so easily dealt with in those hypothetical training exercises.
Very soon after the riots, the Widgery Inquiry was set up. It was clear to all that the basis of its findings would necessarily be one sided as there was little likelihood of getting all the evidence from those involved in the riots. In addition, the circumstances on the ground were almost too chaotic for the short-fuse inquiry to sort out. The findings were always going to be contentious, and when they appeared to simply support the Army’s version of events, people were convinced that the whole effort had been a whitewash.
Calls for another inquiry were eventually heeded by Tony Blair when he was PM. In 1998 the Saville Inquiry was instituted and it heard evidence until November 2004. Its findings were published in 2010. It had one great advantage over the Widgery Inquiry in that although it was set up some 26 years after Bloody Sunday, it was now possible for people of all political persuasions to come forward, including Martin McGuinness, who had been on the other side of the line from the Army in 1972 and who many claimed was a leader of the rioters on that day.
The Saville report was fairly damning. In its conclusions it stated:
“The firing by soldiers of 1 PARA on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury.” Above all else, it found that at no point did anyone in the crowd throw any bombs or fire upon the troops, other than one possible incident which occurred after the first people had been shot. The inference was clear: the troops on the ground had reacted with extreme force to what was, understandably, a frightening situation in which they had already assumed they were going to be targeted and shot at.
Of the 28 people shot, 13 were killed that day and one died several months later. A number were shot in the back as they tried to get away: others as they tried to help others already wounded and lying on the ground. The circumstance of each person’s death as recorded in the Saville report makes for grim reading.
The recent announcement made by Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service drew upon the evidence provided in the two Inquiries and looked into the likelihood of bringing a successful prosecution against any of the soldiers involved in the deaths back in 1972. However, a lot of the material considered by those inquiries is not admissible as evidence in a formal prosecution and so much of what was said in them has had to be discounted, whether or not it would support either the prosecution or defence cases.
Of the four soldiers directly reported to have been involved in the shootings, two have since died. One made statements about his part in the events – but no other supporting evidence is available; so he cannot effectively be prosecuted. That leaves only “Soldier F” who has been charged with the murders of James Wray and William McKinney, as well as the attempted murder of four more.
The case is likely to be held in Belfast. Another case to do with a member of the Armed Forces facing charges of murder committed during the troubles is currently under consideration as to whether a jury will be used. It is also not certain whether, if found guilty, Soldier F’s case would fall under the provisions of legislation which reduces sentences for “troubles-related offences”. At the moment, the provisions only affect cases between 1973 and 1998: the indications are that the dates will be shifted – but not specifically for this case. One other major decision to be made as part of the initial hearings will be whether or not to reveal Soldier F’s name which, together with 16 other soldiers and two suspected members of the IRA, have remained secret since Bloody Sunday.
The question of a statute of limitations has been one that has, so far, remained on the table, but it is fiercely resisted by many in Ireland as a whole. Any such time limit would also have to apply to terrorist murderers and extremists who have remained beyond the law for decades – and many cannot accept that as a proposition. They argue that so many more people were killed by terrorists than the security services that a graver injustice would be done by letting them off the hook than by prosecuting the very small numbers of soldiers and policemen who stepped outside the law.
By the standards of modern times, the soldiers in 1973 were ill-equipped and unprepared for, and probably inadequately led into, a riot that left them with little time to make these sorts of life and death decisions. It is possible to see how an initial shot or two could have led to the situation where any knot of rioters could have been seen as a potential threat to the soldiers’ lives.
As always, it is easy to be wise after the events. But it is also hard to escape the fact that many more soldiers did not fire at people – but perhaps they were not at the “sharp end”. As was so graphically demonstrated by the killing of corporals Derek Wood and David Howes in 1988 during the funeral procession, when emotions run high you can take nothing for granted. A soldier rounding a corner without support is still highly vulnerable and the system possibly has to take the blame for having put him in that situation in the first place.
There are still many issues to be resolved about the where’s and when’s of Soldier F’s trial. But everyone, whether military or not, should hope that the truth will emerge and that justice will be seen to be done, both from the point of view of Soldier F as well as the families of those who died in January 1972.