Lindsey German on how the Saville inquiry not only vindicates the innocence of those murdered by the army but raises the question of holding those responsible to account.
The events in Derry yesterday, as the long suffering families of the 14 killed on Bloody Sunday in January 1972 finally received a vindication of their loved ones’ innocence, brought tears to many people’s eyes. To see these now middle aged or elderly men and women finally clearing the names of their brothers, fathers and sons was a moving and dignified experience.
While the great and the good of British broadcasting queued up to interview them in the centre of Derry (or Londonderry as the BBC insists on calling it), there was a great deal of talk about closure and justice. Many of those closely involved clearly feel that this is the case.
But as Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, at the time a young Northern Ireland MP, said today in the Guardian, that with the greatest respect to those involved in campaigning, this is not only about grieving families but also about pinning responsibility for what happened 38 years ago on those who were to blame.
Let’s just remember a few facts. The civil rights demonstrations which took place throughout the previous weeks leading up to the killings on Bloody Sunday had been triggered by the British government policy of internment, introduced a few months earlier, in August 1971.
Hundreds of men were arrested in dawn swoops and held without trial. It followed months of conflict between the army and the local Catholic community, including the killing of two young men, Seumus Cusack and Desmond Beattie, falsely accused of carrying weapons. The Provisional IRA began to grow rapidly.
The British Tory government bowed to Unionist pressures and introduced internment, further escalating fighting between army and Republicans in Derry and Belfast. It also opened up a period of rent strikes and demonstrations, showing the mass opposition of the Catholic population. Marches were banned, but continued. In January 1972 there were nine, culminating in the Derry one on 30 January.
The impact of Bloody Sunday on the movement was palpable. Bernadette Devlin MP crossed the floor of the House of Commons and hit Tory Home Secretary Reginald Maudling as he lied about events that day. An angry crowd set light to the British embassy in Dublin. Republicanism grew, as more and more young people drew the conclusion that they would have to fight the British and the Orange state in Northern Ireland.
Just two months after Bloody Sunday, the local Orange dominated parliament was suspended and Britain imposed direct rule from Westminster.
The government announced an inquiry into Bloody Sunday by Lord Chief Justice Widgery. The families yesterday amid cheers tore up the Widgery Report, and it is widely discredited. The report is a shameful lie carried out on behalf of an establishment which didn’t dare acknowledge the truth.
But that wasn’t widely said at the time. Widgery was the highest judge in the land, and his blatant smearing of the victims turned them into armed gunmen and terrorists in the eyes of many. Successive governments repeatedly justified Widgery and his arguments mindlessly reiterated by media who failed to look at any alternative evidence.
The Saville inquiry marks the end of an era, and the end of a search for justice for at least some of those involved. But McAliskey is right that this is about the present and the future, not just the past.
Only today, the Independent reported that the ‘government has paid off more than 1000 innocent Iraqis hit by botched British military operations that resulted in deaths, injuries and major damage to property.’ The most famous of these is Baha Mousa, killed in army custody in 2003. Army and air strikes have killed many Afghan civilians.
Fourteen civilians were killed by US troops in Fallujah in 2003. The usual official and military response, at least initially, is that these people are ‘terrorists’ and ‘extremists’, just as it was in 1972.
The truth is that any occupation teaches its army to treat the local population as a hostile force. The atmosphere is such that they are trained to regard the people demonstrating or protesting or in any other way resisting as part of the problem.
That’s what led the Paras to be deployed with increasing brutality in Derry and elsewhere in the early 1970s, and led some of them to believe they were justified in shooting unarmed civilians in the back.
The people responsible for this are the governments who commit troops to these situations, and who continue to defend these actions in the face of incontrovertible evidence over the passing years.
As for inquiries: the Israeli inquiry into its commandos’ shooting of nine protestors on the aid flotilla to Gaza has permitted only two international observers. One is a Canadian general, the other Orangeman and Ulster Unionist David Trimble. No worries there then.
How heartening then to see a Palestinian flag among the crowd in Derry on Monday. Because learning the lessons of what happened in Derry on Bloody Sunday and subsequent events are essential to those fighting imperialism and colonialism today.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- This government wants to follow the money, not the science – weekly briefing
- Herd today, gone tomorrow? – weekly briefing
- A failed government in a failed system – weekly briefing
- World War 2: we weren’t all in it together
- Government and opposition: all in it together? – weekly briefing
- Lockdown? This government should be locked up – weekly briefing
- Coronavirus is showing that war has never been about security