Belfast Telegraph

Alan Simpson was a rookie cop on Bloody Sunday... if the soldiers that day are charged with murder this week, he fears some may die before the verdicts are returned

The future RUC Detective Superintendent missed a murdered colleague's funeral to be in Londonderry on fateful 1972 day

A victim is carried from the scene on Bloody Sunday
A victim is carried from the scene on Bloody Sunday
Constable Raymond Carroll
Retired policeman Alan Simpson

We are just days away from learning the critical decision by the Public Prosecution Service as to whether or not the paratroops involved in the terrible events of Bloody Sunday are to be prosecuted.

I can sense a degree of apprehension in the air which I have not felt since the dreadful years of the Troubles. I'm certain I'm not the only one in that situation, most particularly the relatives of those killed on that fateful day. It's not a pleasant feeling and serves to resurrect so many other bad memories.

I'm a retired RUC CID Detective Superintendent who served at the coalface of the Troubles and, as with most of my colleagues, I unstintingly faced terrorists of all hues, from Martin Meehan of the IRA to Lenny Murphy, leader of the Shankill Butchers gang.

However, in relation to Bloody Sunday, I'm in the somewhat unique position of having been on duty in Londonderry on that day.

I was a probationer constable at the time, stationed in Tennent Street in north Belfast with less than two years service under my belt. Of the 3,600 killings of the Troubles, 700 of these took place in north Belfast. Death and destruction were, therefore, my daily companions.

On the Friday immediately preceding Bloody Sunday, one of my closest friends and colleagues, Constable Raymond Carroll, was off duty and working on his rally car in a garage on the Oldpark Road. An IRA sympathiser spotted him and headed straight for the nearby Ardoyne, where he conveyed the intelligence to a notorious member of the IRA. He armed himself with an M1 carbine and went to the garage where he pumped 10 bullets into Raymond.

His funeral was scheduled to take place on Sunday and I had hoped to be honoured by being a pallbearer.

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It was not to be, as RUC HQ had sent out a directive to all stations that a certain number of men were to be sent to Derry that day. I was one of 12 men despatched from Tennent Street and Oldpark.

On arrival we were briefed and Sergeant Dan O'Connor and I, together with another constable, were detailed for duty on top of Shipquay Gate, overlooking Guildhall Square.

I was very much aware of the geography of the city as I grew up there and attended the little St Augustine's church, which is situated on the Walls and overlooking the Bogside.

In 1969, my family was forced to move from the Cityside.

Our policing point was not considered critical enough to be issued with a radio, which were in short supply, so throughout that bitterly cold afternoon we were oblivious to the horror unfolding in the Bogside.

At around 7pm we received word to return to the old Victoria RUC barracks, and we were shocked beyond belief to learn that 13 people were dead and that others were in hospital with serious injuries.

We were eventually released from duty at 9pm, and all were in a sombre mood as we made our way back over the Glenshane Pass to Belfast and Tennent Street.

Before retreating to my bedroom in the station I spoke to some who had been at Raymond's funeral in Enniskillen and was told there had been a huge turnout of mourners.

In the days which followed, the killings in the Bogside were never far from my mind, but I was soon overtaken by the continuing violence in north Belfast.

When the Widgery Inquiry ended in April 1972 and the findings made public, I, too, felt that it was not unbiased and realised it was merely a sop intended to placate the relatives of the victims of Bloody Sunday.

In June 1974, my colleagues and I suffered another blow when Sergeant O'Connor was shot dead by the IRA while on lone foot patrol on the Crumlin Road in Belfast.

On that occasion I was honoured to be a pallbearer at his funeral in Ballycastle and at the service held in the local Catholic church.

We then progressed on to the Lord Saville Inquiry, which began in 1998 and lasted 12 years. Lord Saville exonerated all of the victims shot that day and apportioned blame on the paratroops, who, he said, had lost control of themselves.

The costs of this inquiry were initially put at £200m, but subsequent leaks from those close to the Government put the true cost at closer to £400m.

There followed a criminal investigation by the PSNI into the actions of the soldiers on that day and voluminous files of evidence were placed with a select group of senior lawyers to decide whether or not to prosecute the soldiers. Theirs was not an easy task and the disclosure of their findings is imminent.

They would have had to consider many things and the least difficult would have been deciding if there is sufficient evidence to bring charges against the former soldiers.

The more problematic question to answer is would the prosecution of the soldiers be in the public interest?

This a highly sensitive one to deal with, taking into account the "comfort letters" issued to 200 republican terrorists on the authority of Tony Blair.

I follow the national news avidly and many people living in the UK are confused and angry as they can't quite get to grips with the reasoning behind possibly prosecuting the former soldiers and the amnesty given to a large number of terrorists.

If the prosecution is to go ahead, then this presents a huge logistical nightmare for the PSNI.

Firstly, all 18 soldiers liable to be charged will have to be securely brought to Northern Ireland.

It's quite likely that they would be granted bail, as the points to be considered by a judge are the risk of further offending and a possibility of interference with witnesses. Also, will the defendants turn up for their trial?

The defendants should be able to satisfy all of these conditions.

They will then have to go through committal proceedings, chaired by a district judge and more often than not these go through on the nod.

The big problem begins when the trial starts, perhaps in a year from now.

It would then most likely last a year and the security of the defendants will be a major issue. They will have to be accommodated each night; this may be inside somewhere such as Palace Barracks in Holywood.

We wouldn't expect them to be kept from their families at weekends, so each Friday afternoon they would have to be flown back to England only to return on Monday mornings.

Meanwhile, Father Time will continue to march on. I'm in the same age group as the ex-soldiers and all too aware of my own mortality. It's therefore quite likely that, if a trial ensues, some of the defendants will become ill, or even pass away due to age before it is concluded.

At an early stage in my life, I was determined to become a detective and one of my role models, as I was growing up in Derry in the 1950s and 1960s, was Detective Sergeant Phil Coulter, father of the famous songwriter and composer of the same name.

We lived not too far apart and I envied Coulter Snr as he rode about town on his black bicycle. I'm therefore very fond of Phil Coulter's famous song, The Town I Love So Well.

At this time, one of the lines from the song which resonates in my head is, "What's done is done and what's won is won".

I hope his words come to fruition in the coming days.

  • Retired RUC Detective Superintendent Alan Simpson is the author of Duplicity and Deception (Dingle: Brandon Books 2010)

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