Policeman who tried to contain Bloody Sunday


Frank Lagan: Frank Lagan, who has died aged 88, was the RUC's chief superintendent in Derry at the time of the Bloody Sunday march in 1972.

He worked hard to gain and keep the trust of the Catholic community as police commander in the city, but as a result was viewed sceptically at the time of the march by senior British army officers and some officers under his own command.

He proposed that the marchers of January 1972 be allowed through to their planned destination of Guildhall Square, and in the following years stuck to his belief that violence on the day could have been "relatively contained" if the Civil Rights march had been allowed to proceed on that basis.

In the event, soldiers of the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment shot dead 13 civilians and wounded at least 15, one of whom died later, when they launched an "arrest operation" into the Bogside on the afternoon of January 30th, 1972.

Lagan was born in December 1916, one of seven children of Francis and Bridget (née O'Donnell) Lagan at Lisnamuck, a townland in south Derry near the foot of the Glenshane Pass.

His parents taught in Lisnamuck Primary School. After education there, he spent four years as a boarder in St Columb's College, Derry.

There were few jobs in the North in the depressed 1930s, particularly for Catholics, so in December 1936 he joined the RUC, an unusual step for a young Catholic from a republican area such as south Derry.

Policing was, however, in the family: his O'Donnell grandfather, a Donegal man, had served in the old Royal Irish Constabulary.

Unusually for an RUC member, he was a GAA fan: while the GAA forbade RUC men from membership, some clubs quietly ignored the ban.

He served in Belfast and Cos Tyrone and Armagh before going to Derry in 1970.

There he found the city's Catholic community alienated from the RUC, and set to building links with community leaders, some of whom would later remember him as a man of integrity who found himself ploughing a lonely furrow.

He was responsible for listening to representations from elected representatives, and many were satisfactorily resolved. He visited community leaders in their homes, travelling in his own car and - significantly - without an escort.

He was viewed as a fair man, who delivered on deals struck with community leaders.

After Bloody Sunday Lagan gave evidence to the Widgery inquiry, but was too ill to attend the more recent Saville inquiry. He did, however, supply a written statement to Saville, in which he reaffirmed his belief that violence on the day could have been "relatively contained" if the march had been allowed to proceed.

His statement said that at the time it seemed to him that ongoing confrontations between the Protestant and Catholic populations might be triggered if the march was stopped.

He felt that by allowing the marchers to proceed to their destination, the police and army could identify many of the marchers by sight and, using photographers, they could be prosecuted later.

His statement also reasserted his belief that the British army commander on the day, Brig Pat MacLellan, accepted his (Lagan's) view that the paratroopers ought to be held back until there was a clear separation between the Civil Rights marchers and a smaller group of rioters.

He repeated that, as he told the Widgery inquiry in 1972, Brig MacLellan said to him at one point: "The Paras want to go in", and he had replied: "For heaven's sake, hold them until we're satisfied the marchers and the rioters are well separated".

Lagan said Brig MacLellan then left the room and returned after a short interval and said: "I'm sorry, the Paras have gone in".

Six weeks after Bloody Sunday, Brig MacLellan wrote to his senior officer, Gen Ford, saying the discussion with Lagan actually centred on stopping the march and the consequences of that.

Our discussion centred around the probable consequences of stopping the march, in order that we could anticipate the steps that we should have to take.

"The question of whether the march should or should not be stopped was academic," MacLellan wrote.

He added: "As you well know Lagan's sympathies . . . lie entirely with the Catholic community. His proposal that the march should be allowed to proceed was patently a gesture, or `umbrella', to maintain his position with his own people."

Lower down the RUC ranks, Lagan faced rebellion from some of his police officers, and this was reflected in political criticism.

The Bloody Sunday Inquiry heard in 2002 that the Rev Ian Paisley, speaking in a Stormont debate, had said: "The loyalist police in Londonderry have no confidence whatsoever in their police officer, Mr Lagan . . . I say that from this dispatch box today with great strength.

"This is a man who actually hindered his officers being allowed to take their guns out of police stations and who hindered them in every way possible from taking their arms out on duty."

But the inquiry was also told by one of Lagan's former colleagues that Lagan's stratagem in that respect was based on the fact that the police had been unarmed.

And, although armed activity was beginning to take place, he had hoped that by not responding in kind and by keeping guns away from his officers, that might be taken as a gesture of goodwill on the part of the police.

By the time he retired in 1976, with the rank of assistant chief constable, Lagan had served 40 years with the force.

He lived on Derry's overwhelmingly Catholic city side till his death, with his phone number in the book.

He is survived by his wife, Margaret, and four children.

Frank Lagan: born December 11th, 1916; died June 9th, 2005