mural showing 14 faces Bogside mural depicting the 14 murdered civilians. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The barbarity of British imperialism must not be brushed under the carpet, argues Chris Bambery

“I do not believe what I said, that is not my view”. That was how Secretary of State for Northern Ireland tried to wriggle out the wave of criticism that came after she told the House of Commons that killings carried out by the security forces during the Troubles “were not crimes” but actions of people “fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way“.

It came just as relatives of the 13 unarmed civil rights marchers killed by the British Army in Derry on Bloody Sunday, in January 1972, are nearing success in their quest for justice by securing the prosecution of four Paratroopers who shot dead their loved ones.

One of those soldiers roused anger when he told the BBC the operation was “a job well done.”

Aside from Bradley other Tories have defended the Army’s actions and the soldiers involved. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said the possibility of these now elderly veterans being dragged to court ‘completely turns the stomach of the British people’.

He insisted the Government had to ‘do something to make sure our soldiers and veterans have the protection they deserve’ and described the court cases brought by relatives of those killed as a “witch hunt.”

This week at Prime Minister’s Question Theresa May expressed her concerns telling MPs that the prosecutions of soldiers over deaths in Northern Ireland decades ago was “not working well”.

All of this was supposed to have been swept under the carpet by the Saville Inquiry, one of the longest and most expensive such official inquiries in British legal history. Lord Saville found the Bloody Sunday killings to be ‘unjustified and unjustifiable’ but he explained them by saying the Paratroops had “lost control.”

The idea that British soldiers “lost control” has been used to excuse every military atrocity from the slaughter of the wounded and prisoners after the Battle of Culloden, the 1919 Amritsar Massacre in India and beyond.

But the British Army has always been a closely disciplined force, structured to reflect the class nature of Britain, and certainly not permitted to go off the leash unless their officers chose to let them.

The prosecution of the four former Paratroopers is a victory for the relatives but they themselves are very clear that those responsible for the actions of the Paratroopers that day have escaped prosecution. They include Frank Kitson, the British Army Commander in Belfast, Robert Ford, Commander of Land Forces in Northern Ireland and Michael Jackson, second-in-command in Derry on the day. Relatives accuse Jackson of committing perjury in his evidence to the Saville Inquiry.

Beyond them it was clear that the deployment of the 2nd Paratroop Regiment to Derry that weekend was sanctioned by the government of Sir Edward Heath.

What was the idea behind that operation? In January 1972 the British Army was struggling to contain the guerrilla war launched by the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Derry was one of its strongholds. It had received a massive boost from the introduction of internment without trial in August 1971. British troops swept into Catholic areas of Northern Ireland to cart away men, many of whom had no connection to the IRA.

In Ballymurphy in West Belfast rioting broke out and British soldiers opened fire killing ten civilians.

By January 1972 the British Army wanted to draw out the IRA in Derry into an open gun battle where their greater fire power and technology would prevail. The crack Paratroops were chosen for this mission but first they had to draw out the IRA. It had decided to withdraw from Derry on the afternoon of a civil rights march against internment, not wanting it to be overshadowed by violence.

Senior officers in the British Army believed that the IRA could not but engage if the march came under attack. The shootings that followed, including of those already wounded or with their hands in the air, were not a result of soldiers losing control they were the result of an operation designed at the highest level of the British Army and approved in Whitehall.

It has been a long fight for justice by relatives unsatisfied by the Saville Inquiry or by faux apologies from Downing Street. Even if the four former Paratroopers are prosecuted justice requires that this goes much higher to those responsible for planning and ordering those killings.

Bloody Sunday should be held up as another bloody chapter in the long bloody history of British imperialism. We should never let it be forgotten.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.