By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — The British government knew more than 25 years ago that it could not make a strong legal case defending the shooting of at least four of the men killed by British soldiers in Derry on Bloody Sunday, Jan. 30, 1972.
According to Derry journalist and author Eamon McCann, one year after the shootings, the British Ministry of Defense was advised by its senior legal officer, the then attorney general, that the Crown would have “no prospect of a successful defense” against actions for damages.
The four men named were James Wray, Gerald McKinney, Gerard Donaghy and William McKinney, all shot in an enclosed courtyard. Forensic reports for the new Lord Saville Inquiry published last week suggest that Wray, 22, was “most likely” lying on the ground when he was shot twice at a range of about three feet.
The new evidence suggests a bullet that struck another of these four dead, Gerard Donaghy, had passed through the pocket of his denim jacket. This refutes an allegation, accepted by the Widgery Tribunal that investigated the shootings and absolved the paratroopers of wrongdoing, that he had been carrying nail-bombs in his jacket pockets.
In three other cases — Jackie Duddy, Patrick Doherty and Bernard McGuigan — the attorney general said in 1973 that it was “highly unlikely that the Crown could be successful in a defense.”
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The new forensic evidence suggests that McGuigan, 41, a father of six, may have been shot through the back of the head by a dum-dum bullet, illegally tampered with to make it fragment and thus cause maximum injury.
The counsel advised that in two other cases — Kevin McElhinney and Hugh Gilmore — “the Crown’s position is not strong.” He believed th best hope of success lay in the cases of John Young, Michael McDaid, William Nash and Michael Kelly.
Even in these cases, however, he said there was only “a reasonable chance of defeating the claims.” In 1974, on the advice of their lawyers, these four families settled their lawsuits.
Tony Doherty, son of Patrick Doherty, said: “What all this shows is that the British government, at the very highest levels, has known almost from the beginning that they were defending the indefensible in standing by the Widgery findings.”
The attitude of the RUC to Bloody Sunday was expressed in a British television documentary when a Para sergeant major said, “One thing that really surprised me when we arrived . . . was that the RUC actually were clapping and cheering, waving their hats.” He added, “The RUC were actually quite pleased that we’d done what we’d done.”
Documents in the hands of inquiry lawyers also throw new light on the thinking of senior Army officers about the security situation in Derry before Bloody Sunday, and on the response of British prime minister, Edward Heath.
The commander of British troops in the North, Gen. Robert Ford, said in a letter to Lt. Gen. Sir Harry Tuzo that he was coming to the conclusion that “the minimum force necessary to achieve a restoration of law and order is to shoot selected ring leaders . . . after clear warnings have been issued.”
Light is shed on the political response to the massacre in the transcript of a telephone conversation between Heath and Taoiseach Jack Lynch, just hours after the shooting.
It suggests Heath’s instinct was to reject suggestions that British soldiers might have acted wrongly. At no time did Heath express any regrets about the killings.
The telephone call was initiated by Lynch, who begins by apologizing for ringing: “I am sorry to ring you at this hour but you will probably have heard the unfortunate news about Derry this afternoon.” Lynch then warns that “there will be a very serious reaction in our country tomorrow. . . . I hate to think what could happen.”
He urges “serious political action” on Heath’s part and suggests Westminster takes control of security policy away from the unionist regime at Stormont.
Heath seems brusque in reply, insisting the shooting “arose out of a march which was against the law.”
He said that the organizers carried “a very heavy responsibility for any damage which ensued.” Lynch contributes around 70 percent of the conversation. Heath repeatedly ascribes culpability to nationalists and civil rights organizers.
Heath, on five occasions, rejects Lynch’s more tentative censures of the British Army as prejudicing the issue. Lynch tells Heath what, in general terms, he proposes to say publicly about their conversation.
Heath does not reciprocate, but aggressively challenges the point Lynch promises to report that he has made — that London should take over control of security. He then turns the implied accusation back toward the civil rights demonstrators: “Well, you tell me how taking over security . . . is going to make people obey the law.”
Heath responds to Lynch’s suggestion that “the whole thing arises as a result of the Stormont regime . . . ” by interrupting, “It arises out of the IRA trying to take over the country.”
At a number of other points, it seems to be Lynch, not Heath, who is under reprimand. If Lynch had denounced the Derry march in advance, Heath suggests, the killings might never have happened.
At no stage does Heath express personal regret for the deaths. The closest he comes is an acknowledgment that “there will be . . . feelings of regret” in Britain. This is only conceded, however, in the context of the “very strong feeling” which, he says, is likely against the organizers of the march.
Neither man mentions the plight of the families of the dead or the condition of the wounded.