Bloody Sunday in Derry: What really happened 
by Eamonn McCann, Maureen Shiels and Bridie Hannigan.
Brandon, 254 pp., £5.99, January 1992, 0 86322 139 4
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‘If today,’ writes Eamonn McCann, ‘the Lord Chief Justice were appointed as a one-person tribunal to inquire into a major political problem affecting Ireland, there would be a rattle of empty laughter throughout the land.’ That, he says, is a ‘measure of how far the British judiciary has fallen in esteem over the last twenty years’. There was absolutely no laughter twenty years ago when Lord Chief Justice Widgery was appointed to investigate the killings by the British Army of 13 demonstrators on the streets of Derry on Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972. Most people in Derry probably regarded the appointment of the very top judge as a sign of respect. They were impatient with sceptical references to the fact that Widgery was a former Army officer, not to say a Freemason, that he arrived in Derry in an Army helicopter and stayed in Army barracks. He was, to all appearances, a kindly old gentleman, well-versed in the law, listening courteously to the civilian witnesses who flocked to tell him their story. The analysis and narrative in this, Eamonn McCann’s second book, is interweaved with interviews with relatives of the Bloody Sunday dead. But the book’s central thrust is a clinical and almost embarrassing demolition of Lord Justice Widgery’s report.

Widgery’s central conclusion was that the soldiers opened fire on the demonstrators after being fired on themselves. He arrives at that conclusion by the ancient judicial device of believing the soldiers and disbelieving the civilian witnesses. Some of the results are remarkable. In the Rossville flats courtyard, where soldiers, according to Widgery, came under fire, not a single soldier was hit. The large vehicle which drove them to the courtyard wasn’t hit either. Jack Duddy, 17, was shot in the back as he ran away from his killer. Lord Widgery says that the bullet which got him was probably meant for someone else. But the soldier who fired the shot expressly told the inquiry that he shot the man he aimed at, and watched him fall. Patrick Doherty was shot in the back as he crawled away on his hands and knees. The bullet entered his buttock and went straight through his heart. Someone had filmed the young man’s death, so there was no doubt about what he was doing. Widgery concluded that the bullet which got him must have been intended for someone else. The likelihood, suggested by the evidence and by what happened everywhere else, that Doherty had been shot in the back deliberately was not even considered by Lord Widgery.

The dying Gerald Donaghey, one of four unarmed men gunned down as they tried to avoid the soldiers’ fire in Glenfada Park, was carried into a house. In a sustained effort to find out who he was, all his pockets were carefully inspected. There was nothing in them. Neither the doctor, nor the people who lived in the house, nor even the reporter from the Belfast Telegraph who was sheltering there, saw anything on the body. Donaghey, still alive, was carried to a car and rushed off to hospital. The car was stopped by soldiers. Donaghey was hauled out and taken to an Army medical centre, where he was pronounced dead. A reporter from the Times was then summoned to look at the body, which by then had a huge nail-bomb sticking out grotesquely from a jeans pocket. A police photographer took a picture of it – clear evidence that at least one dead man was armed to the teeth. Even Lord Widgery had to accept that the young man wasn’t carrying the bomb when he was killed. So how did it get there? Could it have been planted by the Army? Out of the question, concluded the Lord Chief Justice. Or, in his own words: ‘The alternative explanation of a plant is pure speculation.’

McCann demolishes the Widgery report most effectively when he compares its own evidence with its conclusions. He counts the shots fired by the Army which Widgery himself considered unjustified – like those in Glenfada Park, delightfully described by Widgery as ‘bordering on the reckless’; or the 12 shots fired by Soldier S in the Rossville flats (‘unjustifiably dangerous for people round about’). On Widgery’s own reckoning, 61 of the 108 shots ought not to have been fired. Yet Widgery concluded that the soldiers fired only at identified gunmen and nail-bombers.

McCann is scrupulously fair in working out what happened. He concludes that there was one weapon carried by a demonstrator: a hand gun by an Official IRA member, which was fired three times in response to the first shootings, and without hitting any target. That was all. Otherwise what happened in Derry that day was that 13 unarmed demonstrators were shot dead in cold blood; that each of the killings was witnessed by scores of people, some of whom told Widgery what happened; and that the Lord Chief Justice concluded that all the killings were entirely justifiable and that not one of the killers or their commanders had any liability in law.

How and why did this happen? Eamonn McCann takes us back through the tumultuous events which shook the town in the months before January 1972. He describes the shooting of Seamus Cusack and Desmond Beattie – both unarmed – by British troops in the Bogside in July 1971; the horror of the following 9 August when police and troops screamed into the Bogside at dawn to arrest 23 young people and intern them indefinitely without explanation or trial; the mounting protest against internment, leading to the march on the Magilligan internment camp a few days before the massacre. He describes the increasing fury of the Loyalists as tens of thousands of Catholic citizens in Derry declared that they were no longer prepared to submit to ‘a Protestant state for a Protestant people’.

The authorities, McCann argues, plainly planned a counter-attack. The anti-internment march on Sunday 30 January was to be a testing ground for the security forces. Would they at last teach the cheeky croppies from Derry a lesson? Had not John Taylor, Northern Ireland’s Home Affairs Minister, declared, after the shooting of Cusack and Beattie: ‘I feel that it may be necessary to shoot even more in the forthcoming months’? Had not the newly-formed extremist Democratic Unionist Party announced on the day before the march that they were prepared to give the Government ‘a final opportunity’ to prove their promises to the Protestant cause? The plan, McCann concludes after a close study of the orders sent out to the troops that Sunday, was to shoot a couple of demonstrators at random, hoping to ‘flush out’ the IRA for a battle royal. In the event, the IRA were not flushed out. Either they were wary, or, more likely, they were unprepared. The plan for blood went ahead anyway. This was no accident, no indiscipline on the part of a few rowdy or scared troops, as some television reconstructions have recently pretended. It was planned all the way through – from the first warning to the Widgery treatment.

Eamonn McCann then throws the story forward – to the great judicial disasters of the Seventies and Eighties – the cases of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Maguires. He argues that before 1972 – at least in the Fifties and Sixties – there had grown up a tradition of judicial independence. He cites the devastating attack on the colonial administration in Kenya by an official government report into the murders at Hola concentration camp (1958) and Devlin’s assault on the ‘state of emergency’ in what was then Nyasaland (1959). In both, the judiciary and magistracy showed a certain objectivity. They kept their distance from the Government. McCann could have taken the argument further, and nearer home. The Loyalists of the North reacted to the civil rights upheavals of 1968 and 1969 in the traditional way – they went out and killed Catholics at will. Two judicial inquiries were set up by the Labour Government under famous judges, Scarman and Cameron. These reports are of quite different quality from Widgery’s. Painstaking and even-handed, they provided a legal springboard for a bold political initiative on the part of the Government: a declaration that fifty years of a sectarian state founded on religious discrimination and maintained in repression was enough, that Britain had finally wiped its hands of that state and was determined to withdraw the military might which kept it going.

Neither of the two governments, Labour or Tory, in 1969 to 1971, made the slightest move in that direction. They dithered and expostulated while the steam went out of the civil rights movement and the old sectarian battle-lines were redrawn. Their only policy was not to have a policy. The result was that by the time of Bloody Sunday and Widgery, official objectivity had been thrown out of the window. The policy now was that the Orange state had to be preserved at all costs. Any mass resistance to it had to be put down, however violently, and the forces responsible for the violence had to be publicly praised by the highest judicial authority.

Widgery’s method was followed to the letter by the ambitious and able Mr Justice Bridge three years later, when six Irishmen came up in front of him at Lancaster Castle, charged with pub bombings in Birmingham. Bridge threw himself into the case like a football supporter, alternately cheering and booing the evidence according to whether or not it helped to convict the men he presumed were guilty. In his summing-up, he told the jury that he rejected the idea that judges should sum up evidence neutrally. It was his duty, he said, to tell them where he thought the evidence pointed. The men were plainly guilty, not just on forensics (as rotten as the paraffin tests which convinced Widgery that four of the Bloody Sunday dead had been carrying weapons), nor just on confessions (like the confessions which the Army pretended on the evening of Bloody Sunday had been made by two of the dead before they died – that they had been armed when they hadn’t been), but because the alternative was too terrible to contemplate.

This reluctance even to investigate the reality was laid down by Widgery and followed by his successors. Of Bloody Sunday, Widgery said: ‘There is no reason to suppose that the soldiers would have opened fire if they had not been fired on first.’ In the Birmingham Six case, Bridge said that if he were to believe the defence, ‘I would have to suppose that a team of some fifteen officers had conspired among themselves to use violence on the prisoners and to fabricate evidence.’ Denning, Master of the Rolls, said in the same case five years later: ‘If the six men win, it will mean that the Police were guilty of perjury, that they were guilty of violence and threats, that the confessions were involuntary and were improperly admitted in evidence and that the convictions were erroneous. That would mean the Home Secretary would either have to recommend they be pardoned or he would have to remit the case to the Court of Appeal. That is such an appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say: “It cannot be right that these actions should go further.” ’ All of these judges had grown up with the belief that they must be seen to be fair and impartial when reviewing evidence. What prompted them to give full voice to such preposterous prejudice?

The answer is Ireland. In all these cases, the defendants represented an enemy: a people with whom Britain was at war. In such circumstances, even the pretence of fairness could safely be abandoned.

The same process has repeated itself in a thousand different ways during the twenty years since Bloody Sunday. When John Stalker tried to apply ordinary standards of police investigation and behaviour to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a smear campaign, orchestrated by MI5, and enthusiastically joined by government ministers and other top policemen, had him hounded out of office. When John Stevens, another luckless Deputy Chief Constable sent to Northern Ireland to investigate contacts between the security forces and terrorists, arrested Brian Nelson, a Protestant paramilitary, Nelson told him he had killed four Catholics because they were Catholics and had a part in the killing of at least thirteen others. Stevens insisted that Nelson be prosecuted – even though Nelson revealed that he was an agent for the British Army. Two years later, the murder charges were dropped. An anonymous Army colonel came to court to tell the judge that Nelson was a brave, compassionate and loyal man who murdered Catholics for his country. Nelson got ten years, but no one believes that he will serve half that time. When Colin Wallace, an Army Intelligence Officer, told his Intelligence bosses that he wanted no more part in smearing elected politicians, he was abruptly thrown out of the Army. When he appealed, the appeal board members – people at the very apex of the good old impartial British Civil Service – were nobbled by two MI5 officers. Fifteen years later, Wallace got £30,000 compensation, but the nobblers of justice have not even been questioned, let alone named.

When in 1988 three unarmed IRA members were shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar, every single newspaper reported as fact that they had planted a bomb in a car. There was no such bomb. Representatives of Sinn Fein, a legal organisation which returns MPs, cannot be heard on radio or television. Every week, hundreds of people are arrested at ports because they are Irish or travelling to or from Ireland. Some of them are thrown into prison without cause or access to lawyers and held without charge for up to a week under a law passed and sustained almost unanimously in the House of Commons. The awful war-dance of Northern Ireland never abates. Already this year, six building workers, guilty of nothing except going to work for one of the few big employers in the region, have been blown to pieces on their way home; a lunatic ‘anti-terrorist’ copper charged into an advice centre and shot three people dead and, the following day, a masked gang burst into a bookies’ shop and massacred five people because they could be presumed to be Roman Catholics.

It is seventy years since Lloyd George presided over what was called at the time ‘a great act of statesmanship’ – the partition of Ireland. The treaty which imposed partition was recently celebrated in an enormous ITV drama documentary, superbly acted, expensively produced and totally lacking in political explanation or understanding. The tragedy of the treaty – entirely missed by the television presentation – was that five of the six men who represented the new independent Ireland did not really care about the North (the sixth, Erskine Childers, was skilfully removed from the negotiating team when the British realised the depth of his commitment to a united Ireland). Arthur Griffiths and Michael Collins believed the exclusion of the North was a minor matter, which could be dealt with later. They did not believe a six-county state could survive for long.

So they sat round the table and argued interminably about petty matters of legality and form: the oath of allegiance, the availability of ports to the British Navy, Dominion status and so on. The British toyed with them, ‘reluctantly’ conceded the trivial points one by one, and hung onto the North. Even when the team went back to Ireland and the new independent country cut itself to pieces in a civil war, the issue was not the North – only a tiny fragment of the Dail debate on the treaty dealt with the North – but comparatively trifling matters affecting allegiance, patriotic rhetoric and personal pride. Yet the full horror of what would happen in a divided Ireland had been anticipated and written down in the sharpest language by the greatest of all the fighters for Irish independence.

As soon as he realised that partition was being plotted by the Irish Nationalist leaders in the British Parliament, James Connolly unleashed a stream of protest articles in whatever newspaper or magazine would publish them. His theme was that the division of Ireland would perpetuate the sectarian strife which had torn the island apart under British rule; that the new ‘national democracy’ of Ulster depended entirely on the two feuding religions coming together in a unitary, secular state; that both sides of the Border would suffer, and that therefore it was better not to accept any independence than to settle for a bogus independence ‘with Ulster or part of Ulster left out’. Connolly was the only one of the leaders of the 1916 Uprising to declare not just for independence but for socialism. He saw the growing Irish Labour movement as the healer of his country’s sectarian wounds. He detested the notion of partition precisely because of the permanent damage it would inflict on Irish labour. In a justly celebrated passage he warned: ‘Such a scheme ... the betrayal of the national democracy of industrial Ulster, would mean a carnival of reaction North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish Labour movement, and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured.’

The carnival of reaction continues on both sides of the border. In the South you can see it in the ridiculous politicking between two major parties which have nothing to represent and therefore nothing to say; in the grotesque corruption which recently brought down a prime minister whose only noticeable expertise was in intrigue and scheming; and in the suffocating authoritarianism of the Roman Catholic Church. In the North, the carnival never stops. Blood is followed by despair, despair by blood. British politicians send in the Paras one day and deplore violence the next. Secretary of State Brooke could have gone on for ever singing ‘Oh, my darling Clementine’. It would have done every bit as much good as his ‘new initiatives’ to ‘get talks going’ between three-fifths of a community that wants to preserve a sectarian state and two-fifths that doesn’t.

The absurdly racist, divided state in Northern Ireland is like a vast boil on our society. The pus from the boil leaks all the time into the body politic, infecting and corrupting all of us. There are some (including political leaders of all three parties) who say: ‘better to tolerate the boil for ever than to suffer the intense pain of lancing it.’ Most people in Britain and in Ireland, however, think otherwise. They point to all the mounting horrors since Bloody Sunday and want an end to them.

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