It’s a matter of historical record that British paras opened fire and killed innocent people, the only thing missing is prosecution, writes author Malachi O’Doherty
The British paratroopers sent into action on Bloody Sunday had a responsibility to protect the lives of civilians in danger. From their perspective, the people who had joined the illegal civil rights march were British citizens, even if some might have said they weren’t.
Though none of the soldiers now is to be prosecuted following the dropping of the case against Lance Corporal F on Friday, no one is in any doubt that he fired the shots that killed some of the 14 who died.
No one any longer believes that those who died were armed or posed any threat to him or to the other soldiers. The clear facts that will go on the historical record are that British paratroopers opened fire on and killed innocent people.
That has been affirmed by the Saville Report.
Indeed, even the reviled Widgery report of 1972 said that the shooting was ‘bordering on the reckless’ and that there was no evidence that any of the dead were armed.
The march itself was retrospectively declared legal by the first Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, in April 1972.
The British were outraged at first that anyone would impugn the good name of their soldiers.
That entire defence of them has fallen apart.
The only thing that is missing is prosecution and that prospect ended on Friday.
That’s not because F might conceivably be thought not to have gunned down innocent people but because the legal process by which he might be convicted can’t cope with the fact that he was not under caution when he made statements which incriminate him.
The PPS has apparently failed to recognise a public interest in putting the man in the dock anyway.
That public interest would be an affirmation that the state has some concern for the families of those its own soldiers slaughtered.
It was the apparent lack of concern for those same people that made Bloody Sunday a turning point in the Troubles.
It persuaded too many people that their real enemy was the one identified by the IRA, the British state.
Bloody Sunday was not the first or last time that paratroopers killed innocent people but it produced an outrage which the earlier incidents had not. And that takes some explaining.
The Taoiseach, Jack Lynch met the British Prime Minister Edward Heath in a summit in Chequers just weeks after killings by the Army in internment week.
A concentration of those killings in Ballymurphy got bundled into one campaign and inquest but nine others were killed by soldiers in dubious circumstances in the same three days.
Lynch did not raise any complaint about those killings and this was probably because the Irish government and SDLP strategy of the time was to persuade the British government to move against the unionists, not to blame Britain for the actual problem.
Bloody Sunday changed that.
Gerry Fitt MP said in Parliament: “The political solution that would have been acceptable last Saturday is not acceptable today … There is a national fervour throughout the 32 counties of Ireland that has not existed since the years 1916 and 1921.” Bloody Sunday was shocking for the deaths but also for the sense it generated that Britain simply did not understand Ireland, had treated the people there as if they did not actually have full citizenship when the entire British case against the republican agenda was that they did.
Scoffed at by Nicholas Winterton, Fitt said: “Never did I realise more in my life … that I am an Irishman and the honourable gentleman is an Englishman.
“That is where the difference lies. The honourable gentleman has no sympathy, no understanding, no conscience for the people who live in Derry.”
In effect, this was the moment at which the British had lost the prospect of working with nationalists who opposed the IRA and it had to persuade them that it was genuinely interested in a political solution.
John Hume’s famous remark that for a lot of people now “it’s a united Ireland or nothing”, was just a plain statement of the reality that murdering civilians in Derry changed the whole frame in which most of the Catholic population saw the problem, with Britain itself now being a bigger problem than the unionists.
Hence we got the Widgery inquiry and direct rule. We even got assurances to the Irish government that the Parachute Regiment would be held back at the following week’s mass protest in Newry.
British parliamentarians and the media had their moment of feigned outrage that anyone would accuse their fine soldiers of murder but the entire conduct of the Troubles by the British changed almost immediately.
Heath recognised the damage done and must have been privately furious that his own army had made such a hash of things.
Soldier F may rest content that he is not going to jail but his place in history is as an embarrassment to his country.
Malachi O’Doherty’s fuller account of Bloody Sunday is contained in his book, The Year of Chaos, Northern Ireland on the Brink of Civil War 1971/72, to be published by Atlantic Books in September.