Reflecting on Saville
It cannot be easy for a British Prime Minister, in particular a Conservative one, to take the despatch box in parliament in full view of an international audience and apologise on behalf of the government for the actions of British troops that were nothing short of a full blown war crime: the unprovoked slaughter of an unarmed and unsuspecting civilian population as it peacefully protested against other repressive actions by the same government standing behind the murderous regiment on Derry streets that January Sunday afternoon in 1972.
Bloody Sunday is one of those events of such trauma that I can recall exactly where I was on hearing of it. I had just left a youth club in University Street when my friend Fra Rea told me that the Brits had shot five people dead in Derry. As we now know the figures were almost treble that.
With another British regiment it may have been easier to find some mitigation no matter how little. There might even have been a smaller number of victims with a regiment less aggressive. It might have been plausibly said there was a breakdown in discipline. But none of this applies to the Paras. They went in with murderous intent and achieved unmitigated success. As the coroner Hubert O’Neill put it: ‘sheer unadulterated bloody murder.’
While welcoming the Saville verdict of unalloyed innocence I was dismayed by the lack of clarity in relation to the guilty. In the weeks that have passed that sentiment has not weakened. The culpability of the killers was not clearly spelt out. The one republican act during the North’s armed conflict that stands out in terms of comparison with Bloody Sunday was the gunning down of 10 unarmed Protestant civilians in Whitecross four years after the Parachute Regiment set out on its murderous foray. There was no hesitation in the media and British government circles in immediately characterising the attack as mass murder; no need to wait 4 decades for a judicial report to declare the butchered men innocent, which they undoubtedly were. Yet neither Saville nor David Cameron have gone this far. How can the British establishment with ease term one a murderous massacre but not so the other?
Will prosecutions be initiated or, if they are, will they succeed? Although there are enough who think for genuine reasons that prosecutions should result from the Saville findings I am not convinced there is any point in journeying down that path. A crucially damning verdict would be a simple, concise, unequivocal declaration from the British government that the act was mass murder, that the Widgery Report was a whitewash and that the British government behaviour after the event made it, at the very least, an accomplice after the fact, responsible for covering up and perverting the course of justice. That would be much more beneficial than some woolly verdict of unlawful killing or manslaughter which is probably the only outcome from court proceedings.
Bloody Sunday was a defining event in the course of the North’s conflict. It made political violence against the British state seem the most instinctive, natural and just path to follow. It stymied any reformist impulse, breathed life into those most hostile to reform, and created a mindset that violence is the only thing those, whose stock and trade it is, understand. In doing so it contributed greatly to the intensity and longevity of the conflict. Those responsible for it should not escape a just verdict because the British state masks the real culpability of the killers with declarations of fidelity to the killed.