Tuesday 19 March 2019

Martina Devlin: 'Britain is struggling to come to terms with its legacy of atrocities like Bloody Sunday - and that blinkered intransigence stops the healing that so many still crave'

Fr Edward Daly waves a white handkerchief as he tries to escort 17-year-old Jackie Duddy away after being shot on Bloody Sunday. Duddy died of his injuries soon after and Daly administered the last rites
Fr Edward Daly waves a white handkerchief as he tries to escort 17-year-old Jackie Duddy away after being shot on Bloody Sunday. Duddy died of his injuries soon after and Daly administered the last rites
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Bloody Sunday is a wound that has never healed, the symbol of a society damaged not just by the Troubles but the times when the rule of law was suspended during them. That day when the Paras charged into the Bogside, guns blazing, produced an iconic image of a priest waving his blood-spattered handkerchief in an improvised flag of truce - behind him, a group of men attempting to evacuate a wounded teenager.

Even 47 years on it remains distressing footage, unforgettable once viewed. Fr Edward Daly, later Bishop of Derry, was the priest - he's dead now. As for the youth, he was 17-year-old Jackie Duddy, a textile worker shot in the back whose lifeblood was draining away even as the cameras rolled.

In it, the soldiers can be seen eyeballing the men staggering along under their human burden, automatic rifles at the ready, bullets powerful enough to penetrate the walls of a house. The civilians' eyes keep swivelling to the military personnel - it's clear they believe there's a strong risk of fire being opened.

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That evening, I remember my parents, grave-faced, tuning in to every news bulletin. Young though I was, I knew something dreadful had happened. Fr Daly was interviewed, insisting the shot teenager had been running away. No, he wasn't firing at the army. No, he didn't pose a threat. He was only a kid. He wasn't doing anything, said the priest.

In Derry, as in other cities, towns and villages across the island of Ireland, people burned with a shared sense of injustice at the Bloody Sunday violence - and in Northern Ireland, with a fear that similar, state-supported carnage might be repeated. A sense of threat hung in the air.

The message received was that soldiers were dangerous, could act with impunity and might shoot at random. Bear in mind that soldiers were a commonplace sight by this stage - always with weapons, often travelling in Saracens (armoured fighting vehicles equipped with machine guns).

Bloody Sunday lingers in the memory because it was an act of blatant injustice by the British state against people it claimed as its own citizens. A civil society campaign to change a discriminatory state had met not with reform, but the Paras - an elite fighting force implementing British policy in the North.

Arguably, that massacre of 14 people in Derry on January 30, 1972, prolonged the conflict by acting as a recruiting agent for the IRA which did not have widespread community backing at the time. At the very least, it led to passive support for the Provos among nationalists.

A national day of mourning was held in the Irish Republic and the Irish government also withdrew its ambassador to London, while the British embassy in Dublin was set ablaze.

Meanwhile, Lord Widgery, a former army brigadier, was appointed to investigate Bloody Sunday.

Sitting alone, he exonerated the armed forces and blamed the tragedy on the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association for organising an illegal march.

Widgery's report claimed there was a "strong suspicion" that the victims had either fired weapons or handled bombs - a judgment which angered nationalists because there was no evidence to back it up, whereas independent eyewitness accounts indicated the opposite. Widgery also accepted the soldiers' accounts that they had only returned fire.

The inquiry was counterproductive. It settled nothing because it was an institutional cover-up. No British soldier had reported injuries, nor were any nail bombs recovered. Indeed, it inflamed the sense of injustice among nationalists because not only were state killings whitewashed but innocent victims were demonised as bombers.

After Bloody Sunday, any doubts about British armed forces as the neutral peacekeepers they claimed to be were well and truly banished, and nationalist hostility towards them increased. Meanwhile, I had a teacher who'd wag the finger when any classmate offered up an untruth. "Don't tell Widgeries," we were warned.

It took almost 40 years before the lie was recognised officially. Lord Saville was appointed by then-prime minister Tony Blair to conduct an independent investigation, which finally concluded in 2010 that all who died were innocent. Soldiers had lied under oath. No warnings were given before they fired on unarmed civilians. David Cameron, as prime minister of Britain, made a formal state apology.

We have yet to hear if perjury charges will be laid against the surviving soldiers. However, Soldier F is to be charged with two murders and four attempted murders.

Britain is paying for his defence. I'm curious to know how he fared in the armed forces after Bloody Sunday. Were medals pinned to his chest, was he promoted, did he go on to use his gun elsewhere in the world? He wasn't the only man to pull a trigger. Where are the senior officers who gave the command to fire and what of their political masters?

The Bloody Sunday families, while disappointed about just one prosecution, say justice for one is justice for all. Their dignity and persistence have been admirable.

Elsewhere, some hoped Saville would be a line in the sand. In recent weeks, views have been advanced that undue attention is paid to Bloody Sunday while paramilitaries walked free thanks to the Good Friday Agreement. There is talk in senior circles of Theresa May's administration about a change in the law, with a 10-year statute of limitations on military prosecutions. (There is no statute of limitations on murder.)

Boris Johnson has written in the 'Daily Telegraph' about "our brave armed forces" and the lack of balance as he sees it in seeking to make them answerable. In the 'Spectator', the writer Lionel Shriver suggests families who lost relatives to terrorism "just had to suck it up".

"In which case, sorry to be so brutal, but the families of Bloody Sunday's victims should have to suck it up, too."

However, at least paramilitaries served a certain period of time in jail, their actions treated as crimes. And the reality is that while prisoner release is indigestible to some, without it the Good Friday Agreement would never have flown.

The Troubles tend to be laid exclusively at the IRA's door and, indeed, there is no possible defence for the thousands of deaths its members committed. But the behaviour of British authorities cannot be glossed over and legacy issues must be addressed if healing is to happen. State agents, on occasion, took actions which can only be described as repugnant.

More than half of those killed on that day in Derry had bullet wounds in their backs, while others were shot in the head, often as they attempted to crawl away. An army must be held accountable for its actions. But the question is whether Britain is capable of coming to terms with its imperial history.

Its Brexit convulsions suggest difficulties in that direction.

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