Category: Archive

A View North A gripping new book recalls Bloody Sunday

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

In the spring 1998, journalist and author Peter Pringle received a call at his Manhattan loft from the Saville Enquiry, to which the British government has given the weighty task of uncovering the truth about Bloody Sunday. Twenty-six years earlier, Pringle, as a member of the London Sunday Times’ Insight Team, had spent the better part of a winter pacing the dreary streets of the Bogside and Creggan, along with colleague Philip Jacobson, talking to witnesses of the shootings, relatives of the 14 dead, the wounded, members of the IRA (Provisional and Official), as well as the police and army, endeavoring to get at the truth about that day which changed Irish history. A solicitor for the new enquiry told him that they had some material belonging to him and Jacobson, thanks to the Sunday Times, and would he liked to help.

Pringle flew to London a few months later to meet with a member of the enquiry. It was then that he saw that the material donated by the Sunday Times consisted of seven boxes of notebooks, tapes, and photographs from the Insight Team’s investigations in the winter of 1972.

He and Jacobson had once spoken of the idea of putting their material to use by turning it into a book. But time past and they went on to other things and other places, as correspondents for a variety of different newspapers, including the Times, the Sunday Telegraph, the Observer and the Independent.

When Pringle looked at the boxes, containing 500 interviews and about the same number of photographs, the idea was resurrected. Three years later, the result is "Those Bullets Are Real: Bloody Sunday, Derry, 1972." The book is due out in the U.S. this week.

It is a meticulous and gripping, almost minute-by-minute re-creation of that day’s events, with the kind of attention to detail that made the Insight Team renowned for investigative journalism.

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Pringle, now 60, lives with his wife, Eleanor, his daughter Victoria and his very fluffy Siberian wild cat Agatha — a quite tame souvenir of his days as the Independent’s Moscow bureau chief — in a loft near Union Square, Manhattan.

A few days ago, he turned his mind back to the grimmest year of the Northern Ireland conflict.

He joined the Insight Team in late 1971. Its reporters had already made a name for themselves covering Northern Ireland, and produced a book, "Ulster," which has since become something of a classic. Within weeks, he was dispatched to Derry, where he arrived the day after the massacre.

"The thing I really remember was the smoke from the chimneys," he said of his first impression, conjuring up a wintry scene from almost 30 years ago. "It was a depressing place to the eye but uplifting to the soul. I found an incredibly downtrodden place, but the people had a superb spirit. A bomb went off every day and they went about their business."

As a member of the Insight Team, he was in a privileged position. In the morning he could speak with the army, and in the afternoon, with the IRA. For 10 weeks, he and Jacobson plodded the streets, gathering facts. They never did find the order that might have proven that the army had been ordered to adopt a "shoot-to-kill" tactic, though the memo from Major-General Robert Ford came close. In it, he considered ordering soldiers to "shoot selected ringleaders" among rioters "after clear warnings had been issued." But Ford was concerned about the "devastating effect" the army’s rifle, the SLR, would have, "killing more than the person aimed at." He was also aware of the "watchful media and the proliferation of human rights groups."

"The Ford memo stops short" of proving a "shoot-to-kill" policy, said Pringle. And he didn’t think the Saville Enquiry will do much better at nailing that down.

"I’d be very surprised if anyone comes up with the line ‘shoot-to-kill,’ " in any order, he mused.

"The most important decision on that day," he continued, "was to use the Paras. The Paras don’t look at the Yellow Card [rules governing when a soldier is permitted to open fire on civilians]. It made bloodshed almost inevitable."

Doing his research, Pringle got to know the local IRA, one or two of whom have since made a name for themselves in politics. But in 1972, said Pringle, "they were just young kids with guns." Ironically enough, "Those Are Real Bullets" shows that it was not the IRA that the security forces were concerned about in Derry in 1972, but the Derry Young Hooligans, as the diehard rioters liked to call themselves. The army and police appeared powerless to stop them from inflicting increasing havoc on the city’s commercial life. But in the end, it was the Provisionals who benefited from the events of Jan. 30. According the Pringle, before Bloody Sunday the Derry Provisionals were not too much of a threat. One story is that they were so short of weaponry that they had to resort to using the barrel of a gun from a World War II bomber, which though it didn’t actually have a firing mechanism, looked intimidating.

Bloody Sunday changed that.

"The impact of Bloody Sunday was enormous," according to Pringle. "It was a turning point for the armed struggle, the civil rights movement, and the army." It established the Provisionals as a serious threat to the security forces, and brought about the downfall of Stormont, securing almost the complete alienation of the nationalist population from the state authorities.

Pringle went back to Northern Ireland in September 1998.

"What was amazing to me was that the army had disappeared," he said. "And then you came across this monstrous green thing — one of their bases en route to Derry. No soldiers about anywhere, nor policemen. But they’re in there, and you’re on army television right now." He said that he feels as if the security forces have turned the whole of Northern Ireland into a "strategic hamlet, as in South Vietnam back in the 1960s." However, he is optimistic about the peace process.

Pringle is not surprised at all to return Derry and find that Martin McGuinness, the man he first met in 1972, is now in government.

"Northern Ireland is the last British colony," he said. "The leader of the uprising always becomes president, or whatever."

("Those Are Real Bullets: Bloody Sunday, Derry, 1972," by Peter Pringle and Philip Jacobson, is published by Grove Press. $25.)

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