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Robert Fisk: 'We didn't care about the Irish -- Catholics or Protestants'

WE KNEW the First Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. "Tough" was the word we reporters used if the soldiers were beating up rioters. "Brutal" was the word we should have used. But sometime towards the end of 1971, I think we all realised that the Paras were being prepared for some pretty nasty confrontations.

Shortly before Bloody Sunday, I'd seen them confronting a crowd of angry Protestants just off the Shankill Road. The 'Prods' had blocked the street, set fire to some tyres; they were protesting at the lack of security. So the local British battalion in Ardoyne called up the reserves and the first thing we saw was an Army 'Pig' -- a big armoured vehicle had come roaring round the corner, knocking a youth clean off the road on to the pavement. It drove straight into the burning tyres and the paratroopers jumped out of the back with wooden cudgels and got to work on the street lads.

There were howls of rage and curses from the Brits and eventually the Prods cleared off and the soldiers of 1 Para stood in the street, looking bored. Then a door opened and out came a man in his 50s.

A Belfast Protestant, hair greying, he sort of hobbled on to the street as if he'd been hurt badly years ago and he walked right up to a group of Paras and plunged his hand into his pocket. He brought out an old army red beret with a metal badge of parachute wings fixed to it and a tatty old regimental tie.

The soldiers watched him, bemused. Then he began to tear the beret to pieces and ripped up the tie. The man was shouting: "Bastards, bastards," and then he shouted at the soldiers: "I was at Arnhem."

What had happened to the Parachute Regiment? A week before Bloody Sunday, John Hume, the MP for Foyle, encountered a far more disturbing demonstration of power by the same regiment.

There was a nationalist demonstration on the beaches of north Derry and the Paras had turned up and beaten the demonstrators and a Para officer walked up to Hume and -- in a very English public school accent -- threatened him.

"I realised something new was happening," Hume told me years later. "Some decision had been taken by the military.

"These were hard men. There was no negotiating with them."

Could we have guessed what this meant? Or the libels that British journalism was to commit against the dead of Bloody Sunday in the coming weeks?

As usual -- and for Derry, read Fallujah, Gaza or any Afghan village where civilians get in the way -- the innocent became the guilty and the guilty became the innocent.

"Bordering on the reckless" -- Widgery's whining description of the British Army rabble that fatally shot 14 Catholics in the Bogside -- was the only real half-truth to emerge from his disgracefully short and lazy report.

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They are old now, those soldiers. I was on 'The Times' and not in Derry on that day. But for years, I went there as I still go back to the scene of Middle Eastern massacres.

In 1997, home from Beirut, I was again in Derry. In the wall of a ground-floor apartment in Glenfada flats, I found two bullet holes from Bloody Sunday to remind the Catholics of the Bogside of the power of a self-loading rifle.

The most dramatic of Derry's memorials is a simple granite cross erected to the memory of the 14 "murdered by British paratroopers on Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972". Beside it, back in 1979, someone had scribbled a note: "All we need is the truth to help heal the wounds."

Did we get it yesterday? Was it enough? Certainly it is more than the Palestinians will ever get for the 1982 Sabra and Chatila massacre.

Lord Widgery was not so brave. Of 500 eyewitness testimonies given to him, he bothered to read only 15. Was he merely idle? Or was he a weak, morally enfeebled man, more fearful of condemning his country's armed forces than he was of concealing the truth?

Or did we British journalists have something to answer for in our slavish adherence to the notion of the British army's integrity? I don't think we cared about the Irish -- Catholics or Protestants. I don't think we cared about Ireland. I don't think the British Army cared.

At last, I suppose, the Saville Report has answered that scribbled note I found outside the Glenfada flats 13 years ago. (© Independent News Service)

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