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Policy or provocation? Saville Inquiry sifts through the evidence

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Peter Pringle

In the weeks before Bloody Sunday, the British army had lost control of Derry. Each afternoon a gang of young hooligans would gather at “aggro corner,” at the entrance to the Catholic ghetto of the Bogside, and hurl anything they could lay their hands on — stones, bottles, iron bars, home-made petrol bombs or nail bombs — at British troops on patrol. Entrance to the Bogside was barred by crude barricades of oil drums, garbage and old cars, controlled by young IRA recruits armed with ancient rifles, their faces hidden by black ski masks. Inside the enclave, law and order, such as it was, was administered by the IRA, often by a pistol shot to the kneecap.

In London, the Conservative prime minister, Ted Heath, demanded that the army restore the queen’s writ. The orders for the civil rights march on Jan. 30, 1972 were to “scoop up” the young rioters and put them behind bars. The paratroopers, among the toughest in the army, had been chosen for this task, says the official version, because they were the only troops available at the time. The suspicion has lingered, however, that the real reason was to teach the people of Derry a lesson they would never forget, even, perhaps, to shoot ringleaders of the stone-throwing hooligans. That 13 unarmed Catholics were killed and 14 wounded in under 20 minutes of unjustified violence by British paratroopers is not disputed, even by the British government. What remains murky 30 years on is the political decision to put civilians at risk and the military decision to use the paratroopers.

A public inquiry into Bloody Sunday under Lord Saville has been seeking the truth. Already in existence for two years — at a cost of more than $75 million — it is expected to last another two. Most of the witnesses so far have been civilians from Derry who have described in horrific detail the events of the day from the marchers’ viewpoint. But Saville is about to turn to the police and the army, and this is where the origins of the military response will be investigated.

That the army had something more than arrests in mind is strongly suggested in a secret memo unearthed by Saville from Major-General Robert Ford, the commander of the British Land Forces in Northern Ireland. In the countdown to Bloody Sunday, Ford thought that the army’s main problem in Derry was not IRA gunmen, of whom there was only a handful, but the stone-throwing hooligans. The “yobbos,” as the army dubbed them, could not be controlled by the “minimum force” of batons, rubber bullets, or even CS riot gas, and were often used as a cover for IRA snipers.

Rules of engagement

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Ford concluded that the level of force now required was to “shoot selected ringleaders” among the hooligans. Such action would have represented a drastic change in the rules of engagement in Northern Ireland. Never before had a senior officer suggested that unarmed civilians could, in certain circumstances, be shot. Existing regulations in the “yellow card” permitted soldiers to shoot to kill only when they could identify a target that immediately threatened their own life — a nail bomber throwing a bomb, for example. In most cases, this order was rigorously applied.

Ford considered that soldiers would be fully justified in opening fire with their high-velocity 7.62mm rifles, then the army’s standard infantry weapon. But the rifle was so powerful that it could penetrate an iron railroad line at short range, and had been known to travel three miles; the killing field of Bloody Sunday was not much bigger than a football pitch. In a mass demonstration, such as was expected in the Bogside that Sunday, a single bullet could tear through a rioter and then kill an innocent bystander. Ford was worried about “collateral damage.” He proposed adapting some 7.62 rifles to take a smaller, slower .22 bullet.

In early January 1972, Ford arranged for 30 of these modified rifles to be sent to the Derry arsenal for training purposes. Were they part of a wider plan to kill civilians? And, if so, were they ever used, either in training or in action?

Saville’s task of unraveling this issue is complicated because the army destroyed some of the modified rifles and “with deep regret” sold the rest — shortly after Lord Saville had asked for them to be produced in evidence. Did they do this deliberately, or out of incompetence? Who did it?

Also requiring resolution is the issue of whether the Paras launched the arrest operation without orders. Radio messages recorded by a ham radio operator in the Bogside suggest that the Paras were having difficulty in reaching their commanders, either because of a faulty radio, or because they weren’t listening, or because they simply didn’t want to hear. It is clear from the messages that the Paras wanted to go in before their commanders were ready to send them. And this leads to yet another unresolved question: who fired first?

Before the Paras could shoot hooligans, or at least be prepared to shoot them, they had to meet the requirements of the “yellow card.” Did they set up the circumstances?

A few moments before the Paras launched the arrest operation, they were at “aggro corner” watching the march come down into the Bogside and they claim that they were attacked by two nail bombers. They fired three rounds. An unarmed youth of 15 and an unarmed man of 59 were wounded, becoming the first casualties of the day. Civilian eyewitnesses say neither had nail bombs — and, in fact, no one on the march saw a nail bomb explode that day, either at “aggro corner,” where those first shots were fired, or anywhere else in the Bogside.

After that incident, a single shot was fired back at the soldiers. IRA volunteers had been told not to shoot at the British troops because of the risk of starting a firefight in which many could be killed. However, the record shows, an unauthorized IRA volunteer took a pot shot with an ancient hunting rifle at the paratroopers who had wounded the man and the boy. He missed. According to the civilian evidence, this single shot was the first of more than a dozen recorded shots fired by the IRA. All but perhaps three of those shots, according to the civilian evidence, were fired after the killings.

In trying to find the truth, Lord Saville has set himself a near-impossible task, but the British government has committed an open budget. A big share of the money is going highly paid lawyers, flown in from London, and the public is already wondering if they money could have been more wisely spent. The lawyers are using a computerized virtual reconstruction of the killing field because many of the buildings have since been torn down. More than a hundred bullets were fired by the army and in anonymous testimony (which was allowed under protest by Lord Saville to protect the soldiers against reprisals) soldiers “A”, “B” or “C” will be asked to explain each bullet he fired and trace it to a target. This could be done with some accuracy, given the known positions of the soldiers and of the dead bodies. But none of the soldiers is likely to admit to having fired the bullets that ended up in four marchers’ backs as they were running or crawling away, or to have shot a man in the back of the head who was waving a white handkerchief. And the soldier who said he fired 19 rounds into a bathroom window that was not broken will most likely claim amnesia. Clearly the bullets were aimed elsewhere. But where?

Witnesses whose memories should be more acute because they are backed up by documentary evidence include the British army’s commanding officers, intelligence officers, government officials and politicians in London. They could undoubtedly still throw some light on the key question: Was the unwritten plan to get some kills, or did the paratroopers simply run amok?

(Peter Pringle is co-author with Philip Jacobson of “Those Are Real Bullets,

Bloody Sunday, Derry, January 30, 1972,” published by Grove Press, New York.)

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