Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

Why we must not step into that dark abyss ever again

It’s over. If ever anyone needed to understand why a supposedly civilised people on the edge of Europe engaged in bloody conflict, the events of the past week should tell them.

Lord Saville’s judgment brought it all back for every one of us. Not just the Bloody Sunday families, but everyone.

I have to admit that I shed a tear or two as I watched Mark Durkan and William McCrea addressing the House of Commons last week and recalling the dark days we have so mercifully left behind.

The Saville judgment gave the new Prime Minister David Cameron his finest hour. Seldom has a British politician been so assured and statesmanlike about matters Irish.

I was not at the march on January 30, 1972, but the following morning I headed over the Glenshane Pass to report on the aftermath. What I witnessed has never left my mind.

When the news of the dead and injured broke that Sunday evening, I was detailed to go to Londonderry before daybreak next morning. The Saville judgment prompted me to look back in the old newspaper files of the Belfast Telegraph library to see what I had reported all those years ago.

Derry was freezing cold that morning. I stood at Rossville Flats and surveyed the wreckage of the day before. A small knot of Bogsiders were gathered around a gable wall, placing bouquets of flowers at the spot where one of the victims fell.

“I heard the solemn vengeful voice and felt the pain of Londonderry’s Bogside this January day. By noon the ice had not yet melted on rubble-strewn William Street. The bitterness was frozen solid. Some wore black armbands and some drew down their window blinds — a final curtain on relations with the Army.

“At 9am I walked through the corridors of Altnagelvin Hospital. They were cleaning out the casualty rooms and the operating theatre’s door was open. Most of the relatives of the dead had gone home and a trio of soldiers could not take their eyes off the headlines in the morning papers at the hospital’s inquiry desk.

“A television man, bending under the weight of his camera, hurried to the Bogside. ‘Are there any good shots?’ he asked. ‘The blood-stained banner isn’t bad,’ replied a reporter. ‘Damn,’ said the cameramen. ‘I’ve only got black and white film.’

“The streets of Derry were eerily silent and virtually deserted. Soldiers looked down from the ancient walls to the Bogside below. There was nothing left to say. In the minds of the people down there, by their new-found shrines, the divorce was complete,”

That afternoon, I drove back to Belfast knowing that Derry and Northern Ireland would never be the same again.

I had interviewed Major-General Robert Ford, the Army’s commanding officer in Northern Ireland, before Bloody Sunday, and also the then Stormont Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner.

Both were under pressure to take a tougher line against increasingly unruly street protests. The unionist community was growing impatient with Faulkner. Ian Paisley was in full uncompromising flow. The RUC and Army on Bloody Sunday would have known the mood.

That does not excuse what happened, but it is important to place the events of 38 years ago in their true perspective. I am not saying that anyone actually cheered the paratroopers’ actions on Bloody Sunday, but there were certainly many who thought a heavier hand from the security forces would bring protesters to their senses and closure to the conflict.

How wrong that proved to be and we have lived with the |terrible consequences ever since. The relatives of Bloody Sunday lost so much, but so also has every one of us.

We have our diverse memories of the past. Somehow, though it pains us to do so, we must accept that there were wrongs on all sides. Bloody Sunday was one dark abyss and there were many, many more.

Now, in 2010, we are in a better place. By no means perfect and yet a far cry from what I witnessed on on that icy January day in 1972.

The message of Saville goes far beyond Bloody Sunday. It encompasses our entire conflict.

He singles out the paratroopers, but no side has a monopoly on right or wrong. This generation must ensure that Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday or any of so many other terrible days in the 20th century are memories — events never to be repeated. We must not step into the abyss again.

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