David Cameron had only been prime minister for a month in June 2010 when the 10-volume, 5,000-page Saville Report arrived in Downing Street. It was the outcome of an inquiry into Bloody Sunday commissioned by Tony Blair's government in 1998, and it concluded that all of those killed were unarmed, that soldiers had lost their self-control, and that nothing could justify the shootings.
Cameron had already decided that if the report was damning, he would make a statement to the House of Commons and make an unqualified apology.
“I was conscious that my statement would be simultaneously appearing on a big screen in Derry, just half a mile from where the shootings had taken place. I thought of the victims’ families, many now elderly, who had waited 38 years for the truth. Of the reaction in the pubs that fly the Irish Tricolour and the homes covered in murals of the fallen,” he wrote in his memoir, For the Record.
“I thought too of the wider reaction – on the streets in unionist areas where the kerbs are painted red, white and blue; on the roads where the Orangemen march; in the homes of the police officers, soldiers and Protestants who were murdered by the IRA and whose families would never see justice.”
In his statement, Cameron described what happened on Bloody Sunday as “both unjustified and unjustifiable”, adding that “you do not defend the British army by defending the indefensible”. It was met in Derry with cheers and applause. But if the families of those who died thought the Saville Report and Cameron’s apology marked a turning point on the path towards justice, they were wrong.
Cameron's successors in Downing Street have sought to shield British soldiers who served in Northern Ireland from prosecution for Troubles-related crimes. Boris Johnson has proposed a blanket ban on prosecutions, investigations and civil litigation for all Troubles-related crimes, whether they were committed by the British security forces or paramilitary groups.
Former veterans' minister Johnny Mercer called last week (January 13th) for a public inquiry into the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland, accusing "extremists" of using the levers of the state to rewrite the history of the Troubles.
“It is also a fact that when the Good Friday agreement was entered into, it was decided that the price worth paying for peace in Northern Ireland was to permit those who had previously led and directed that terrorist activity to enter government. This applied equally across the board. Thus the leaders of the IRA and loyalist groups entered politics, exercising control over the Executive and, crucially, permitting these extremists and their associates to use the powers of the state to prolong their grievances — and while doing that, of course, concealing their own murderous behaviour. They seek to prosecute the very security forces that fought them and thereby won the peace,” he told the House of Commons.
Edward Burke is associate professor in international relations at Nottingham University and the author of An Army of Tribes: British Army Cohesion, Deviancy and Murder in Northern Ireland. He says that Mercer's comments reflect a wider view among those who seek to defend veterans but may actually be damaging the reputation of the British army.
"There is still a widespread view not only within the veterans' community, but in my experience also among some officers in the British army today that the PSNI and the Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland are engaged in a witch hunt against veterans of Northern Ireland. For the British army, for the British military community, for a large part of it, to essentially lose faith in the British justice system or the justice system in part of the United Kingdom is self-evidently damaging.
“The fact that the military community, led by people such as the former minister for veteran affairs Johnny Mercer, are so contemptuous and so critical of the British police or the police in part of the United Kingdom, and the justice system in part of their own country is damaging. They see that as simply defending veterans’ rights, but for other parts of British society, or society in the UK, that has a very negative effect upon the image of the British army and its commitment to transparency, accountability and justice,” he said.
He said the British army’s immediate reaction to Bloody Sunday was defensive, partly because senior military and political figures were implicated in it.
The commander of Land Forces, Northern Ireland, Gen Robert Ford, was in Derry on the day of the shootings, and some senior politicians in government had been pushing the armed forces to be more aggressive.
Burke, who has taught at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell*, said there is still an inability to learn the lessons of Bloody Sunday in a strategic, operational and tactical sense.
“In terms of the British army killing its own citizens in such an unjustified and unjustifiable way, you would think that the British army should reflect upon this and that when it comes to teaching ethics and when it comes to teaching in terms of clear warnings, in terms of military deviance this is one of the most salient lessons that the British army has from its recent past.
“And the fact that it cannot take on board, it cannot put this into its central curriculum or put this into its DNA in terms of getting some lessons out of this shows that the British army hasn’t got over this. Bloody Sunday is still damaging the British Army. And that’s a choice that the British army continues to make,” he said.
“The British army is, of course, an emotional institution. So, because the military community, including serving soldiers, still feel very emotional about this and because this view has not been corrected, this sense of conspiracy against the British army that the government have added fuel to instead of dampening means that the British army cannot approach this in a rational away. It is not approaching this signal failure in its past and taking the opportunity to learn from it.”
*This article was amended on January 22nd, 2022