Bloody Sunday Paras & On The Runs

Eamonn McCann responds to a piece in the Derry Journal about a statement he had issued regarding Bloody Sunday.

On July 22nd, the Derry Journal carried a front-page story saying that a number of relatives of the Bloody Sunday victims had reacted angrily to a statement which I’d issued nine days earlier.

Here is the Journal story:

Relatives of those shot dead on Bloody Sunday have rubbished claims that they struck a ‘deal’ not to campaign for the prosecution of soldiers in return for an apology from the British government.

The ‘deal’ assertion was made by Foyle MLA and former Bloody Sunday Trust chairman, Eamonn McCann, who alleged that, in exchange for an apology from the British and an assertion that all of the dead and wounded were innocent, there would be no more Bloody Sunday marches or efforts to push for prosecutions.

The ‘stitch-up,’ he added, only unravelled because some family members weren’t prepared to accept the ‘deal’ and opted, instead, to keep on marching until the original demands of the campaign - including prosecutions - were met.

Now, a number of relatives have issued a statement in which they angrily refute the ‘deal’ claims, branding them ‘fanciful,’ ‘highly misleading’ and ‘deeply offensive.’

Tony Doherty, John Kelly, Gerry Duddy and Jean Hegarty, who all lost relatives in the 1972 massacre, said Mr McCann ‘knows full well’ there was no such deal or any discussion of a deal.

The Bloody Sunday march was never discussed with the NIO or Downing Street.

‘To suggest otherwise is fanciful.

There was no discussion of the issue of prosecutions. How could there be? None of us, Mr. McCann included, knew at that time what was in the Saville Report.'


Here’s my statement of July 13th - the day David Cameron left Downing Street - to which the four family members say they were reacting:

The usual suspect commentators and politicians have been falling over themselves to heap praise on David Cameron for his apology for Bloody Sunday.

In fact, the apology was predicated on no politician or senior military man having been fingered by Lord Saville. Saville blamed one officer and 10 rank and file soldiers for the all the killings and woundings.

If, instead, Saville had followed the evidence and found that members of the top brass – General Michael Jackson, Brigadier Frank Kitson, Major General Robert Ford, Brigadier Patrick MacLellan and half a dozen others – had played key roles in organising, directing and covering up the killings, Cameron wouldn’t have been able to damn the men who had pulled the triggers while at the same time declaring that the reputation of the British army itself wasn’t besmirched in any way.

The Bloody Sunday killers were all rogue soldiers, Cameron argued. Neither the British army nor the government of the day could be held responsible for what they’d done.

Naturally, all of the politicians behind the paras – Edward Heath, Lord Carrington, Reginald Maudling, Alec Douglas-Home etc. - were likewise given a clean bill of health.

MI5, which had been up to its neck in planning Bloody Sunday, wasn’t given even a rap on the knuckles.

This was a perfect example of an official inquiry fulfilling its true purpose - of finding small fry to shoulder all of the blame while enabling the real villains to escape scot-free.

One of the main reasons Cameron’s ‘apology’ worked, at least for a time, is that influential elements in Northern Nationalism had, in effect, already ‘cleared’ his Commons statement. At least one member of Sinn Fein had discussed the terms of the apology with British officials in advance. The deal was that Cameron would acknowledge that all of the dead and wounded had been innocent and would condemn the privates and corporals involved in the massacre in strong terms. But he wouldn’t have to say a bad word about anybody that mattered.

In exchange, there would be no more Bloody Sunday marches – and no attempt to push on for prosecutions. ‘This is as good as it gets,’ the families were systematically told on their doorsteps.

At this time, mid-2010, the British authorities were trying to put together an overall deal by which the past would be put in the past and we’d all ‘move on.’

The stitch-up has unravelled, largely because some Family members - Kate and Linda Nash, Liam Wray, Bubbles Donaghey, Mickey Bridge and others - weren’t prepared to accept the deal and opted instead to keep on marching until the original demands of the Bloody Sunday campaign, including prosecutions, had been met.

Kate, Linda and the others were also conscious of the fact that calling off their campaign would be a kick in the stomach for the bereaved families of other atrocities - Ballymurphy, McGurk’s Bar, Kingsmills, Enniskillen, Birmingham, Loughinisland, etc. – who hadn’t yet reached the stage achieved by the Derry campaign.

In that sense, Cameron’s Commons ploy hasn’t succeeded after all.

The point to keep in mind as Cameron leaves Downing Street to spend more time with his money is that, far from bravely telling the truth about Derry, his Commons statement was just a new and more subtle phase in the efforts of apologists for State violence to escape the verdict of history.

The proper response to Cameron’s departure is - good riddance.”

Thus, it can be seen, the piece was pegged on Cameron’s resignation and on his cynical role in relation to Saville’s report back in June 2010. It was issued after a series of politicians, North and South, in their comments on Cameron’s departure from Downing Street, had referred in glowing terms to his supposedly positive - even “courageous” - Commons apology. I was pointing out that the apology had been grudging, self-serving, meretricious and undeserving of applause.

Nowhere was it said in my statement that members of the Bloody Sunday Families had made a deal about an apology for the massacre or about the Bloody Sunday march. The people I identified as having had discussions with the British authorities on these matters were “influential elements in Northern Nationalism” and “at least one member of Sinn Fein.”

Parts of the statement could have been better worded. But nothing in it could reasonably be interpreted as claiming that the members of the Bloody Sunday Families had struck or discussed a deal with the British government. I have no reason to believe that any such thing happened.

This does not mean that no deal was discussed or that strenuous efforts weren’t made to cajole or persuade family members to get behind these discussions and their outcome.

The British Government’s efforts to “settle” the Bloody Sunday issue go back a long way. It is the incident from our past which most unnerves them. They cannot fit Bloody Sunday into their preferred narrative of the Troubles, of two ethnic groups at one another’s throats, saved from annihilating one another only by British forces standing between them, holding the ring for peace and democracy and encouraging the various factions to learn to live with one another.

Bloody Sunday was daylight mass-murder not by purported representatives of one community or the other but by uniformed representatives of the State. The killing-spree showed the British Army in the same moral category as terrorist organisations. The British State cannot allow that categorisation to go unchallenged. It subverts the basis of their conception of themselves as natural-born rulers. If they allow themselves to be seen as no better than marauding brigands, they cannot expect to command respect, much less obedience. So they first try to smother the issue under cover of a phoney inquiry – Widgery – and then, when that doesn’t work, they keep on trying by any means they think necessary.

John Major made an offer in 1992 when he said that the dead and wounded of Bloody Sunday “should be regarded as innocent of any allegation that they were shot whilst handling firearms or explosives.” Right on cue, the SDLP leadership of the time contacted Family members and tried to persuade them to accept Major’s formulation as the final word. They were given short shrift. Sinn Fein, with strong support from many others, roundly attacked the SDLP for urging acceptance of such a low bid.

And so it has continued, the persistence of campaigners matched by the British authorities’ adamant refusal to concede that what had happened in Derry was murder and that those behind it were murderers. In the meantime, local parties manoeuvred in search of advantage.

In January 1998, the Blair government agreed to a second Bloody Sunday Inquiry. This came in the context of the all-party talks then under way which were to lead to the Good Friday Agreement three months later.

Presiding over the second inquiry, Lord Saville of Newdigate took a long time to complete the task, then, in June 2010, published a report which went significantly further than Widgery in acknowledging the wrong done in Derry - but didn’t cross the line into territory which British political chiefs and military top brass wanted kept off limits. Among Bloody Sunday campaigners and supporters, disagreement arose between, on the one hand, those who reckoned that everything which could be achieved had now been achieved and the campaign could honourably rest on its laurels and, on the other hand, those set on continuing to pursue the outstanding demand of the three originally advanced by the campaign - that the killers be prosecuted for murder. (The other demands were for repudiation of Widgery and acknowledgement of the innocence of the dead and wounded.)

The disagreement about prosecutions quickly became entangled with the issue of “on the run” members of the IRA given “letters of comfort” guaranteeing that they wouldn’t be imprisoned if they now returned home. This arrangement became the subject of another bout of barbed exchanges between the SDLP and Sinn Fein. In March 2013, the Londonderry Sentinel reported:

The war of words between Sinn Fein and the SDLP over the ‘On the Run’s’ (OTRs) issue has continued in the city with Foyle MP Mark Durkan accusing the republican party of ‘dishonesty’ over the political debacle.

The latest twist in the debate between both parties came after the Sentinel spoke to relatives of the Bloody Sunday victims who contended that back in 2005 that (sic.) some of the families met with Sinn Fein representatives and that their support was sought by the party for OTR legislation and in return they would have to drop their desire to see members of the Parachute Regiment prosecuted for the killings on January 30, 1972.

This claim has been flatly denied by Sinn Fein who in response to questions on the matter released a statement from party Justice spokesman, Raymond McCartney MLA which said: “Sinn Fein have always supported the families of those killed by the British army on Bloody Sunday. Some of those families wish to seek prosecution against those responsible for the death of their loved ones.”

Sinn Fein also said that at no point did they agree to a “trade off” between amnesty for British soldiers and “on the runs...”

In response to the Sinn Fein comments, the SDLP MP told the Sentinel: “Sinn Fein’s dishonesty in of all this has related to their primary interest in getting their on the runs back with no questions asked – ie, it has not been about the victims…

Mr Durkan provided the Sentinel with a SDLP document compiled in November and December 2005, the time at which the legislation was presented at Westminster.

The 2005 document said: “Sinn Fein not only accepted that loyalists get skip jail cards, but also state killers. In return for the greater advantage of getting their on the runs back with no questions asked, Sinn Fein sold out the victims of collusion they claimed to fight for. They let state killers and loyalists totally off the hook - without even securing the truth…

“On November 10 (2005), Martin McGuinness was interviewed on Hearts and Minds. He called our (the SDLP’s) objections about state killers ‘naïve’ and said that he did ‘not envisage that any of the people who were involved in the murders of ever going to be brought before a court in this day and age.’ Compare that to what he says now: ‘We support the families of victims in their pursuit of justice and truth.’”

The SDLP document continued by stating that during the Hearts and Minds interview Mr McGuinness “admitted that state killers would be able to get the benefit of the legislation but said that the people who would “gain most advantage from this are those nationalists and republicans who are on the run for over 30 year.”

“It was two whole weeks after the legislation was published before Gerry Adams said he was opposed to state killers being included. Sinn Fein in their side deal, signed up to state killers getting away with it. So Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams are just not telling the truth when they now say: ‘Sinn Fein did not support, propose, discuss or accept that members of the British state forces should be part of the process.’”

In the transcript of the Hearts and Minds interview from 2005, journalist Noel Thompson asked the Deputy First Minister: “Let’s start with OTRs first. Mark Durkan says you entered into an alliance of sleaze with the government which has delivered, secured an amnesty for the security forces. Are you proud of that?”

Mr McGuinness replied: “When this began its life it was on the basis of On the Runs and On the Runs specifically referred to nationalists and republicans who found themselves in difficult circumstances for over 30 years. How many RUC men/UDR men or British soldiers could have been described as On the Runs? None. Why was that? Simply because they were fortunate in having an undeclared amnesty bestowed upon them by successive British Governments.”

Noel Thompson then asked: “And now you have that written on paper.”

Mr McGuinness stated: “Well how many of them will come forward to avail of that situation? The people who will gain most advantage from this are those nationalists and republicans who are on the run for over 30 years. I don’t envisage that any people who were involved in the murders of nationalists, and Mark knows this better than I do, is ever going to be brought before a court in this day and age.”

Noel Thompson: “But you’ve taken that possibility away from victims?”

Mr McGuinness: “Victims and relatives know, for example in the case of Bloody Sunday families, the British Army was effectively marched up to Buckingham Palace and were decorated by the British Queen for their activities in Derry that day. So what’s the likelihood of those people being brought before a court...?

Noel Thompson: “Mark Durkan is pointing out that it is you who are putting them in that position by giving an amnesty to security forces. He wants their voices to be heard.

Mr McGuinness: “Well, Mark is very naïve then if that is the case. because these people have effectively had an undeclared amnesty for over 30 years. Successive British Governments have stood over the murderous activities of some elements of British intelligence services-UDR, RUC and British Army and that’s a fact and people in nationalist and republican areas know that…How many soldiers or RUC men have appeared before court for murders of 100s of Catholics and nationalists that have taken place over the years? Few and far between.”

Noel Thompson: “And now they never will?”

Mr McGuinness: “They never would in my opinion. Anyone from the broad nationalist/republican constituency knows that the State always defends its service people. Those people who were involved, even in the importation of arms from South Africa - what possibility is there that these people would ever stand before a court - I think there is no possibility whatsoever. I am not as naive as Mark appears to be…”

The disagreement over Bloody Sunday between the two Nationalist parties has rumbled in the background ever since. The Bloody Sunday issue is more or less automatically revisited every time talks on patching up or consolidating the Good Friday settlement are started or restarted. This came through in a Derry Journal report on October 6th, 2015:

The ‘Derry Journal’ has obtained a copy of the strand of the Stormont House Agreement dealing with the legacy of the Northern Ireland conflict.

The ‘Journal’ understands that the parties involved in the current negotiations received the legislation on September 29. It is also understood that the legislation is due to be placed before Westminster as early as next week with October 12 being the most likely date.

Previously, a Freedom of Information request seeking to view the details of the proposed bill was refused on the grounds that releasing such information was ‘likely to prejudice development and subsequent implementation and could allow targeted lobbying by certain groups that could inhibit objective decisions being made….’

Kate and Linda Nash whose brother was shot dead on Bloody Sunday and whose father was seriously wounded on the same day have been scathing of the arrangements and of the fact that they have been denied sight of the legislation.

Kate Nash said: “Forty-three years on from the murder of our loved ones and we are no further forward in our quest for justice. The police, military and some politicians know who fired the shots. If this was happening in any other country in the world, the outcry from the international community, including the British government, would be deafening. For us, justice being delayed is justice being denied.

Theresa Villiers also recently stated that the five (sic) political parties in the Stormont Executive - DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance, as well as the British and Irish Governments - all agreed to the proposals last December as part of the SHA negotiations.

Some relatives of people shot dead in Derry had long held suspicions that a deal (had been agreed) allowing perpetrators of killings to make a confession and walk away with assurances of immunity from prosecution. And, despite this being denied by political parties and the Northern Ireland Office, the assertions were subsequently confirmed by the Northern Ireland Secretary of State.”

The disagreement between Sinn Fein and the SDLP over what SF agreed to in 2005 in relation to legislation which would have given an amnesty both to Republican OTRs and State forces accused of crimes has continued to the present. Light may be cast on the controversy by the account of the OTR legislation published in the Sinn Fein ‘paper An Phoblacht on November 10 2005:

British Government publishes OTR legislation

Legislation dealing with the issue of 'On The Runs' (OTRs) has been published by the British Government and has been broadly welcomed by Sinn Féin.

The proposals cover around 150 people 'on the run' since the introduction of Internment in the 1970s. Since the Good Friday Agreement the British Government has continued to refuse to let many people return to the North without facing imprisonment.

The new legislation would allow men and women to have their cases heard by a special tribunal. If found guilty, they would be freed on licence.

The 26-County Government also announced on Wednesday that it would be setting up an 'Eligibility Body' to deal with the issue.

Speaking from London on Wednesday 9 November, the day the British legislation was published, Sinn Féin MP Conor Murphy said it was past time for both Governments to address the matter.

"This is an outstanding issue, an anomaly from the Good Friday Agreement," he told An Phoblacht. "These people would have been freed as part of the early release scheme, so it makes no sense for them to still be sought by the authorities. The British Government has had this very publicly on its agenda for some time now. We believe that in many of these cases, there isn't even sufficient evidence for convictions.

"In any conflict resolution process there are from time to time issues like this which quite clearly need to be tackled and addressed in a sensible fashion if we are to build confidence in the future," he added.

There was no suggestion in the An Phoblact account that SF might reject or have problems with the legislation because it would apply to British soldiers, including the Bloody Sunday shooters, as well as to Republican OTRs.

The bottom line is that there was never a question of the Bloody Sunday Families doing a deal with the British authorities but of political parties doing deals with the British which undermine the efforts of the Families to find full justice for their loved one at last and then using the Families as a shield when the flak starts to fly.

There is an honourable explanation of SF giving the issue of on-the-runs its highest priority and regarding any knock-on effects with regard to other forces in the conflict as less crucial and less urgent. When a war - and that’s how Republicans characterised the conflict - comes to an end, it is the first duty of the leaders of any set of combatants to ensure that their soldiers are brought safely home.

The problem is that that’s not the way others see it. To most people of most political persuasions it seems fair that if one side in the Northern conflict enjoys an amnesty, the same should apply to the others. If the IRA is amnestied, then British soldiers, too, including the Bloody Sunday paras, should be amnestied.

Thus, when Republican leaders go into negotiations on behalf of on-the-runs, they are opening the door to demands for no prosecution of the men who did murder in Derry on January 30th 44 years ago.

This contradiction has generated much of the confusion surrounding the Bloody Sunday issue, including the confusion which arose in reaction to my statement of July 13th.


  1. "MI5, which had been up to its neck in planning Bloody Sunday, wasn’t given even a rap on the knuckles."

    How does Eammon know this? I mean, I have encountered Paras before and can well believe that a squad of them went berzerk and murdered a bunch of people off their own bat, without the need for MI5 to plan anything.

  2. talking about on the runs - i hope everyone who has ever visited belfast Zoo or lived in its precincts will enjoy