Thousands of people will march into the centre of Derry today along the route that a civil rights march planned to take on 30 January 1972. This time they will be marking the publication of the Saville report into the cold-blooded shooting dead of 14 people by British paratroopers on what became Bloody Sunday.
It was Wilson’s Labour government who had sent the troops into northern Ireland in August 1969. This action was followed by internment and direct rule from Westminster to suppress those who had upset the status quo by demanding their rights.
Against the will of the British army and police chiefs, former prime minister Blair gave in to pressure from Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in agreeing to the Saville inquiry back in 1998. Blair was anxious to appease nationalist leaders in the north of Ireland to achieve the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998. The original 38-page inquiry, published in 1974 under Lord Widgery, appointed by Tory prime minister Edward Heath, had cleared the British troops of any wrongdoing and was clearly a whitewash.
This time around – after an inquiry last 12 years and at the cost of £191 million –the report contains 5,000 pages. Its findings will suggest that allegations that the victims were carrying arms were unfounded. Even former senior army General Sir Michael Rose has admitted that eye-witnesses “testified that the killed and injured were unarmed, that some were shot in the back, that civilian protestors were injured when Army vehicles ran over them”.
Soldier 027 has had to come under Scotland Yard protection since his fellow paras want to wreak revenge on him for spilling the beans on how innocent demonstrators were gunned down. A 19-year-old radio operator with the Support Company of 1 Para in January 1972, he told the inquiry in October 2002 that demonstrators were not carrying arms, or anything that justified opening fire. "I had the distinct impression that this was a case of some soldiers realising this was an opportunity to fire their weapon and they didn't want to miss the chance."
The witness added: “Lance Corporal F, who gave evidence, and Soldier G, who has since died – appeared to be operating according to a plan. I have always been satisfied in my own mind that Lance Corporal F and Soldier G probably shot eight or 10 people that day. I thought it was their aggressive, positive actions which incited a few other loonies to join in. Unspeakable acts took place on Bloody Sunday. There was no justification for a single shot I saw fired."
No wonder there is an orchestrated campaign going on in the pro-army and pro-Tory media to rubbish the inquiry. Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke has called the 12-year inquiry a “disaster” that had got “ludicrously out of hand”. “Brave British soldiers”, cries the Daily Mail, “are about to be branded as criminals”.
The notion that the British state will prosecute its own soldiers for murder 38 years after the event, especially under these conditions, is unlikely. The authorities are even now hoping that an apology will be enough. But there is an undoubted nervousness about the publication of the report.
Cameron is going out of his way to keep the British army “onside”. In anticipation of the Saville report’s findings, he spent an inordinate amount of time in Afghanistan last week, doubling soldiers’ operational allowances to loud cheers from assembled troops.
He told them he wanted the armed forces to “be front and centre” of British life. It is also clear that the government wants the troops out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. It would, of course, be a mistake to read anything sinister into any of these manoeuvres as deep cuts in public spending, pensions, wages and services are being made ready.
A World to Win secretary