There is an old joke that as a plane lands in Belfast the captain says ‘and for those of you who want to adjust your watches, put them back 200 years.’ For now we are looking at 38 years ago, although the origins of the matter lie further back, and the resentment will last into the future.
The Bloody Sunday enquiry, investigating the deaths of 14 civilians in a riot in 1972, must leave non-British observers in confusion. There was an investigation by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, immediately afterwards which said the soldiers’ behaviour ‘bordered on the reckless’.
Then in 1998 the new Prime Minister Tony Blair instigated a new enquiry, headed by Lord Savile. That enquiry has now been completed. It took 12 years and cost a bit short of £200 million.
The principal finding of the Savile enquiry seems to be that none of the rioters were armed.
But someone was.
In an article in the Daily Mail, General Sir Michael Rose, who as a junior officer was on the scene that day, says
‘It was the IRA who started firing with the Thompson sub-machine gun..
..There was no doubt that the IRA gunmen were firing from their positions on the galleries of the flats opposite..’
Six of one and half a dozen of the other? Not really. The paras were wrong to shoot at unarmed civilians (but right to shoot at armed gunmen) and we simply cannot have our armed forces killing unarmed people without the most rigorous scrutiny of their actions. I find the oft quoted cost of the Enquiry irrelevant; if truth is expensive we still have to have it.
But here I think the matter should end. These were young soldiers, following unwise orders to tear down the barricade and attack the rioters (who were throwing nail bombs by the way). Martin McGuiness, now Deputy Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, has admitted he was No.2 in the IRA in Derry at the time. The Savile Report says he might well have been there, holding that sub-machine gun. In what other area of politics could a man admit to having been a terrorist, responsible for the deaths of innocent people, and not resign? Nowhere but Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is different.
Tony Blair ordered this enquiry because he had been told by the Irish Prime Minister that it was necessary for the Peace Process. Perhaps it was. I hope it has satisfied some grievances, lit up some dark areas. But it should stop there.