Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: As with Peterloo 153 years earlier, the Government learned nothing from events of Bloody Sunday

Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary, may have broken law with remarks about the DPP, says Alban Maginness

Intervention: Gavin Williamson
Intervention: Gavin Williamson

Probably the best film produced in 2018 was Peterloo. It dealt very powerfully and accurately with the massacre by the British military of 18 working-class protesters at St Peter's Field in Manchester in 1819. The slaughter and wounding of many innocent peaceful demonstrators became widely known as Peterloo by the people at the time, the battle of Waterloo having taken place only four years previously.

Indeed, it was the unsettling economic impact brought about by the victory over Napoleon that caused the English working class to become radicalised and to demand elementary civil rights, such as the right for everyone to vote in parliamentary elections.

The film's faithful history highlighted the way in which the British Establishment ruthlessly dealt with social agitation by repressing the demonstration with military might and imprisoning the organisers and failing to discipline or prosecute the soldiers, or indeed their officers, who were guilty of carrying out the appalling atrocity.

Today the British Labour movement still commemorates Peterloo and honours its dead as martyrs for the cause of labour.

One hundred and fifty-three years later, in January 1972, with Bloody Sunday, people could rightly have asked: what has changed?

Although the parallels between Peterloo and Bloody Sunday are not precise, nonetheless they are similar enough to illustrate how the British political and military Establishment protects itself in times of crisis.

With Peterloo, there was absolutely no question of a public inquiry, nor military prosecutions, although the horrors of the event could not be concealed as it was widely reported in the new phenomenon of national newspapers.

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What has been lost in the controversy surrounding the decision to prosecute 'Soldier F' for two murders and four attempted murders is the real historic significance of Bloody Sunday.

Bloody Sunday was a huge propaganda win for the IRA and, in the immediate aftermath, hundreds of young people outraged by the massacre joined the IRA or, having been radicalised by the event, switched support to it.

It was the greatest recruiting agent for the IRA, which was probably at its lowest ebb militarily after the highly damaging impact of internment without trial in August 1971.

In this one outrageous incident the British military gifted the IRA a political capacity that it had never previously enjoyed.

Not only was Bloody Sunday an enormous moral and political outrage that besmirched the reputation and moral standing of Britain throughout the world, it was a huge strategic mistake that set back the Army's attempt to contain the IRA.

It also radically changed the dynamics of our politics by weakening the democratic nationalist argument in favour of peaceful change, and gave a huge boost to the cause of the armed struggle as advocated by the Provisionals.

Nor should we neglect the specific political aftermath of Bloody Sunday, which saw the unionist government stripped of its security powers by Westminster.

The then Stormont Prime Minister Brian Faulkner objected to that move and, along with his government, resigned in March 1972 with the result that direct rule was established, thus bringing an end to 50 years of continuous one-party unionist rule.

It was, in political terms, a momentous, historic event, bringing about an absolute end to the unionist monopoly of power.

It is remarkable that British politicians, who have clumsily and stupidly been critical of the Director of Public Prosecutions' decision to prosecute Soldier F, fail to realise the enormous damage that their provocative comments are to the rule of law.

Their jingoistic defence of the unjustified and unjustifiable actions of the Army, after all that has been revealed by Lord Justice Saville's insightful and definitive report, beggars belief.

But the most appalling of all was the intervention of Conservative Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, who said in the context of the Bloody Sunday decision to prosecute: "We need to give protection to service personnel... to ensure we don't have spurious prosecutions."

The clear implication is that the Bloody Sunday prosecution is a spurious one.

Is the holder of the high office of Defence Secretary seriously impugning the professional independence and integrity of the Director of Public Prosecutions?

If so, then he could well be in contempt.

Quite properly the Bloody Sunday families have asked the Attorney General to investigate these unwarranted remarks to determine whether they are in contempt of the current judicial proceedings.

His comments - and those of other Tory MPs - are simply outrageous and extremely hurtful to the victims' long-suffering and dignified families.

They expose a gross insensitivity to the ordinary people of Derry, whose legitimate objective was to get some form of justice for their innocent loved ones.

Perhaps again, as at Peterloo, the British political and military Establishment have learnt nothing, except to protect themselves.

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