From Socialist Voice, August 2010

The Saville Inquiry and the defence of the realm


Did the report of the Saville Inquiry disprove Shaw’s dictum that “truth telling is not compatible with the defence of the realm”?
     Certainly Brian Cowen thought it had and announced on the day of publication of the report that “today is the day when the truth has been set free in the city of Derry.”
     This pronouncement was unlikely to have been made on the basis of a familiarity with the 5,000-page report, given that notoriously during the first Lisbon referendum campaign all Cowen’s claims about the treaty were made without his having read what was a significantly shorter document.
     Dick Grogan, an Irish Times journalist who (unlike the twelve-year-old Cowen) was in Derry on Bloody Sunday, made a more circumspect and realistic response. True, the report “exonerated” the victims, “but the issue of responsibility for the military operation was sidestepped.”
     Widgery had made no attempt to reconcile Shaw’s incompatibles. “Defence of the realm” was the overriding priority. His lead-off finding had been stark. “There would have been no deaths in Londonderry on 30th January if those who organised the illegal march had not thereby created a highly dangerous situation in which a clash between demonstrators and the security forces was almost inevitable.” So blame for the deaths rested with the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.
     It is thus very revealing, given Widgery’s apportionment of blame for the Bloody Sunday deaths and injuries, that Saville was resistant to granting representation to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association during the inquiry and granted the association representation only for limited portions.
     Widgery had found in the body of his report that, except for a couple of instances, armed soldiers fired on unarmed civilians in the honest belief that it was necessary to shoot to protect their lives or the lives of their comrades from threatened hostile action by armed gunmen or bombers. The most that he would accept was that sometimes that belief was mistaken.
     Over the years it had become quite clear that the evidence that Widgery had heard, along with evidence that had been made available to him at the time of his inquiry thirty-eight years ago, completely contradicted and discredited most of his finding that the soldiers had acted in good faith.
     Saville was tasked with finding a fall-back version. He quotes approvingly the former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson to describe a continuing process in relation to events in Northern Ireland: “Matters had reached a point when what mattered was not the truth but what people believed.” So what could the people be persuaded to believe? That neither the British government of the time nor, if possible, the Stormont regime, which was its puppet, could be held responsible, either directly or indirectly, for the deaths and injuries of Bloody Sunday.
     The key chapter is chapter 4 of volume 1 of the report, “The question of responsibility for the deaths and injuries on Bloody Sunday”—a mere six pages but containing the “defence of the realm” justification for all the millions spent on the inquiry, the delays in publication, and the ridicule and scorn from sections of the British media.
     Saville is forced to acknowledge that “the immediate responsibility for the deaths and injuries lies with those members of Support Company whose unjustifiable firing was the cause of the deaths and injuries.”
     But what about further up the chain? The reality of Bloody Sunday is that the military plans and strategy approved in advance for dealing with the NICRA march of 30 January 1972 were exposing thousands of peaceful citizens to a high risk of death or serious bodily injury. The best that can be said for the authorities is that they were reckless about the lives and well-being of those taking part in the NICRA demonstration.
     Saville sidesteps this by claiming that his inquiry established that what happened was neither “planned” nor “foreseen”—despite the fact that the inquiry had before it a memorandum prepared by the overall military commander on that day, Major-General Robert Ford, for a NICRA march announced for earlier in the month but that didn’t go ahead and in which he had suggested shooting selected ringleaders of rioters after warnings.
     In addition, the same Ford felt that the army should adopt a more aggressive approach to the security situation in Derry. And it was Ford who decided to deploy the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment in Derry on Bloody Sunday.
     Nor does Saville adequately deal with the fact that those in command decided to accept a high risk of civilian deaths and injuries, despite the warning of Chief Superintendent Frank Lagan of the RUC and his strong recommendation that the march be permitted to take place without any military interference. He had much greater experience of Derry than any of the military commanders who ignored him, had informed the senior officers that the marchers would be non-violent, with the possible exception of a fringe element made up of teenagers, who he suggested could be photographed if they rioted and dealt with at a later time.
     Despite this obvious example of the army overriding local police advice, Saville still rejects any suggestion that the army in effect had taken over control of policing of the security situation from the police. To accept such a suggestion would have exposed the London dimension of Bloody Sunday to a much greater degree.
     Shaw’s dictum is still bang on the nail.
[CMK]

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