Exoneration of victims delivers almost all the demands of families

Wed, Jun 16, 2010, 01:00

Derry rejoiced but the issue of responsibility for the military operation was sidestepped, writes DICK GROGAN

THE JUDGE has danced a delicate dance between the possible and the likely, employing plenty of “either” and “or”, and seems to have left his audience dazzled by his footwork, for the moment at least.

But his report, however exuberantly received in Derry yesterday, may prove to have similar characteristics to those frequently attributed to a Chinese meal – satisfying at the time of eating, but leading to renewed hunger pangs a short time later.

It may seem churlish to cavil at aspects of a report that – on the strength of its 60-page summary – appears to have delivered almost all of the primary demands of the families of Bloody Sunday victims.

Those basic demands were, of course, for the unequivocal exoneration of their loved ones from any hint or suspicion of blame or guilt – and for the outright repudiation of the Widgery report.

Lord Saville has delivered the first of these in reasonably plain words; but he has addressed the second demand only by inference.

Perhaps no more could be expected of him. Certainly, if his report had been issued in place of Widgery’s version at the time, Bloody Sunday might have become a painful but dissolving memory, instead of festering and fuelling more bloody armed conflict for 30 years in the North.

Yet his careful pirouette around the issues of higher-level responsibility for the disastrous military operation on Bloody Sunday could leave one considering the remark of George Bernard Shaw that: “Truth-telling is not compatible with the defence of the realm.”

To go any further must await an examination of the full 5,000- page report – the devil is always in the detail.

Is it enough to say – as he appears to in his summary conclusions – that the civil and military authorities could not have foreseen what was likely to happen when an aggressive frontline combat unit was unleashed into the Bogside? One’s reflex answer is: No, it is not enough.

Yet again we are left wanting more supportive or corroborating evidence when Saville says he accepts Gen Sir Robert Ford’s denial that the army plan on Bloody Sunday was to cause a confrontation with the IRA. Saville’s summary conclusions state: “We are sure that there was no such plan.” “Sure” is not, of course, “certain” – but it is close enough, and the justification for it must be winkled out of the full report if it is in there somewhere.

Gen Ford was, as Saville points out, responsible for deciding that “in the likely event of rioting” the parachute regiment units should be employed as an arrest force. We know, however, from the documents adduced to the inquiry, that the arrest operation involving the paras was discussed and cleared at the highest political level in London and Stormont.

We must trawl the full report for more on this, but, as a first reaction, did nobody really think of possible terrible consequences if this trigger-happy regiment breached firing discipline?

Other findings of the inquiry run baldly and directly counter to the whitewash perpetrated by Lord Widgery 38 years ago. Saville specifically exonerates the organisers of the civil rights march from any responsibility for the deaths and injuries on Bloody Sunday; Widgery in his primary conclusion implied that they were hugely to blame.

Saville, most significantly, finds that the soldiers fired first in the Bogside that day; Widgery had said the opposite, asserting: “There is no reason to suppose that the soldiers would have opened fire if they had not been fired upon first.”

Widgery declared that there was no general breakdown in discipline; Saville says there was “a serious and widespread loss of fire discipline” among the soldiers of support company.

Widgery had lauded the soldiers for their “steadiness” and declared that, in his opinion, the accounts they gave of their firing were in general truthful. Saville now as good as accuses some of them of falsifying their accounts.

Without even mentioning Widgery, this present-day law lord has effectively buried most of his predecessor’s report.

Most but not all, one should hasten to add. Both Widgery and Saville exonerate Gen Ford and both seem to clear Brig MacLellan who – they concur – gave the order for the arrest operation.

As many observers had predicted over the years, the “fall guy” turned out to be the commanding officer of 1Para, Col Derek Wilford, who is bluntly accused of not complying with his orders. Was it really all as simple as this: the fault of one colonel and a handful of “loose cannon” squaddies? If so, could we not have determined this years ago and at much less cost and effort?

Dick Grogan was the main reporter for The Irish Timeson Bloody Sunday in Derry