It’s been an eventful day, but for the moment I’ll only make a few brief remarks about the Saville report. It would seem that on the big issue – the innocence of those shot on Bloody Sunday – Saville has been unambiguous. From the reaction of the crowd in Derry, and specifically the families, that is the main thing they were looking for. After not only seeing their loved ones killed, but then seeing them being traduced by the now discredited Widgery report, what they wanted first and foremost was that vindication – the formal acknowledgement that those killed were unarmed civilians whose deaths were unprovoked and unjustified. That is also what’s behind the warm response to David Cameron’s statement – notwithstanding Cameron’s obligatory encomia to the British military, Cameron will get credit for playing this straight, and the frank admission of injustice by a Tory (and unionist) British prime minister means an awful lot, especially since the state took this long to admit any fault whatsoever.
That’s not to say the report has no points that criticism cannot be levelled at. Clearing the Widgery inquiry of a whitewash seems perverse, given that it was noted that soldiers had lied to Widgery on a large scale. Perhaps, since Widgery would have been inclined to believe the military over their detractors, Lord Saville means us to assume that Widgery whitewashed in good faith. Another point is the dismissal of any premeditation on the part of either the Westminster or Stormont governments. Perhaps there is no conclusive proof of a conspiracy, but you have to place what happened in Derry on 30 January 1972 in some sort of political context. The Faulkner government had been gagging for a decisive confrontation; and the military doctrine of the time was one of subjugating the ghetto. As Simon Winchester rightly says in his powerful Guardian piece, this was a colonial operation, aimed at showing the natives who was boss, with Derry being approached in much the same way as Malaya and Aden had been not too many years previously.
In any case, Saville has told us, more or less, what we already knew had happened. And we also know what followed: after Bloody Sunday, it was nearly impossible to find a northern nationalist who openly opposed armed struggle, just as after Omagh it was nearly impossible to find one who openly supported it. As the CPI statement makes plain, this was part of a whole process in 1972 that involved the destruction of the democratic mass movement and a shift towards minority armed insurgency; as far as the state was concerned, the latter could at least be contained if not defeated.
There are a few other points worth making. One is that, not surprisingly, the military lobby have been very quick out of the blocks to muddy the waters. On the other hand, unionist politicians have tended towards the mealy-mouthed rather than the offensive – David Trimble, for instance, showing just why the Israelis consider him a safe pair of hands to be their impartial observer on their internal inquiry into the flotilla massacre. On the other hand, I saw Gregory Campbell doing a Mark Regev on News 24 today, arguing that the march in question was not a peaceful demonstration but a republican attack on the state. One expects Gregory to be sour, but it should be sobering for fans of our new dispensation that senior unionists will still defend to the hilt the state’s right to kill uppity fenians and not be held accountable.
Further, the pinpointing of blame on the military raises the question of whether prosecutions should follow. This is unlikely, to be honest. After 38 years, there are obvious evidential problems in putting forward any case with a reasonable likelihood of conviction. There’s also the tricky matter of the Good Friday Agreement and its special arrangements for crimes committed prior to 1998. In any case, my view is that little would be gained from putting footsoldiers in the dock; the important thing is the chain of command, and it is unlikely in the extreme that surviving military brass or government officials are going to be made accountable.
Finally, Cameron has thrown a bone to the unionists and his own right wing with his implication that there won’t be any further judicial inquiries into state malfeasance in the north. That means, inter alia, that the Ballymurphy inquiry long demanded by relatives won’t happen. Actually, and I don’t mean a slight here to Derry people, this is just as strong a contender if not more so for an inquiry; Bloody Sunday happened in a short space of time and in a chaotic situation, while in the Ballymurphy case it very much seems like we’re dealing with systematic assassinations. But that is something else we will be invited to draw a line under and move on. Again, this will please the unionists who don’t want any raking over the past… except, oddly enough, for the police Historical Enquiries Team. Truth be told, the HET has not been solving unsolved killings by the hundred, but unionists like the idea that there’s a cold case squad looking at what the Provos were doing decades ago, and can even fondly imagine leading republicans having their collars felt.
Yes, the past here is always a political football. That’s why we couldn’t have a South African-style process, because at least in South Africa there was broad agreement about what the past actually was.
In the round, I’ve a lot of sympathy for what Bernie McAliskey says on this matter. But just for the moment, it’s good to see the Bloody Sunday families getting the vindication they’ve wanted and deserved for so long.