One Day in Derry
Bloody Sunday: Truths, Lies and the Saville Inquiry
By Douglas Murray (Biteback 338pp £20)
Irish nationalists reacted warily to the news that Douglas Murray was writing a book about Bloody Sunday. Murray is well known to be a vigorous opponent of terrorism and the ideologies that support it. Irish Nationalists suspected that his book was likely to be an exculpation of the British Army and its role in the events of Bloody Sunday in Derry in January 1972, the worst massacre of British citizens by British troops since Peterloo in 1819. In fact, precisely because Murray is so sceptical of Irish Republican mythology, the book is a devastating indictment of the Army's handling of this event.
Murray, for example, understands that the Widgery Report of 1972, so widely seen by Nationalists as a pure whitewash, in fact notes that the British Army killed innocent people on the day and that this was the work of a small number of soldiers. As Murray notes, the language used is restrained to say the least but it remains the case that the army command knew, post-Widgery, that British soldiers had killed innocent civilians. This raises the most important question: why did these soldiers continue to serve, enjoy promotion and suffer no consequences for their actions? This is by far the most serious indictment of the British state over Bloody Sunday and Murray does not flinch from making it.
In 1999 I was asked to be a historical adviser to the Bloody Sunday Tribunal. I immediately asked for access to a range of sensitive documents and was pleasantly surprised to find that most of these were delivered within weeks. The most important lacuna was the material relating to the quality of intelligence coming out of the Bogside in the days before Bloody Sunday, although in later years the Tribunal tracked down this material and effectively put it into the public domain. The early release of documents demonstrated, however, that shortly before Bloody Sunday the British Cabinet had a serious discussion of the military situation in Derry. In particular there was a feeling that the IRA was on the run in Belfast but very strong in Derry. The Prime Minister, Edward Heath, rejected any decision to take decisive military action there until after the point when the Catholic community had been won over by a new political initiative. This was precisely what was to happen several months later when the British Army's Operation Motorman followed the implementation of Direct Rule and the destruction by London of the Unionist-dominated Stormont Parliament. As far as the British Cabinet was concerned there was no case for an escalation of military activity, even though Irish Republicans have always insisted that Bloody Sunday was the product of a government decision to bring about such an escalation.
Insofar as Heath had any sympathies on the Irish Question, they were pro-Catholic. He responded warmly to Garret FitzGerald's complaints about the treatment of Catholics in Belfast City government but would never have thought to ask about the treatment of Protestants in the same sphere in Dublin. He visited the Province before the Troubles began to stay with Robin Chichester-Clark, the Ulster Unionist MP for Londonderry, but this does not seem to have influenced him in a pro-Unionist direction. He was proud of his decision to abolish Stormont in 1972 and to force Ulster Unionist Brian Faulkner into accepting a very green-tinted power-sharing deal with an Irish dimension in 1974. Yet, as Murray points out, he was subjected to eight days in the witness box on the basis that 'Heath was guilty until proven innocent'. Sir Edward's incomprehension is almost comic to contemplate but there remains the obvious question as to what public interest was served by eight days of 'grandstanding', in Murray's words, when the truth had already been established by the release of documents. The Saville Inquiry eventually reached a bill of £200 million but very substantial elements of its conclusion were available, at a tiny fraction of that cost, in 2000.
Murray has made himself the chronicler par excellence of the public hearings. Nobody has handled the dramatis personae with the same sensitivity and insight. Soldier 027, the alleged whistleblower, Colonel Wilford of the Paras, Bernadette Devlin and Martin McGuinness - nobody has a better eye than Murray for the mythic qualities of public evidence. The tragic and gruesome story of Barney McGuigan's murder is complemented by the fate of his eyelid, of which no fewer than twenty competing versions were given. Bernadette Devlin's claim - that if there had been IRA gunmen active on the day, the people of Derry would have exposed them - is shown to be particularly ludicrous in Murray's discussion of Red Mickey Doherty, who died in 2003, some years into the life of the Tribunal. Murray writes:
And so Red Mickey was celebrated instead of questioned. He had been shot while he was firing a gun, had been covered up by an entire city and at the last, having evaded the truth, was memorialised not as a gunman but as a victim - and a hero.
Murray includes a particularly interesting discussion of 'Infliction', the British agent who claimed that Martin McGuinness had admitted that he had personally fired the shot from a Thompson sub-machine gun from the Bogside that had precipitated the Bloody Sunday events. I have never known precisely how to respond to this claim. When I received the document in 1999 I decided to omit any discussion of it in my analysis of the other Cabinet and military documents that had been made available because I could not be sure of its provenance. In fact it became clear that 'Infliction' really does exist, but there are very difficult issues of interpretation and, at this point, Murray gives us decidedly the most sensible, if agnostic, commentary available until now.
On the day of the publication of Lord Saville's report, I took part in a 'pre-read' of the report made specially available to parliamentarians. The conditions of a 'pre-read' are that one is not able to communicate or receive signals from the world outside the palace of Westminster until the relevant parliamentary statement is completed in the afternoon. Emerging from seclusion in this way I was a little surprised by the reaction that I encountered. The Prime Minister's apology had been rapidly embraced by the Sinn Féin leadership in Derry, and it was widely considered that Saville had been accepted and that the issue had been put to bed. In fact Saville rejected all the conspiracy theories at the level of the British state, which had been a staple of Irish Republican rhetoric for the last three decades. Even the most intelligent and subtle Nationalist writers, such as Eamonn McCann and Niall O'Dochartaigh, had argued that it was wrong to stop the allocation of criticism in the British Army with Colonel Wilford, as Saville did, and go no higher. The outbreak of an era of good feelings seemed a little odd in such a context but, as always with Bloody Sunday, politics was in command and the actual details mattered rather less. Douglas Murray's brilliant and politically sophisticated book never loses sight of this important fact. Nonetheless, for those who are interested in the actual facts - as well as the political reworkings of the story of Bloody Sunday - this is an indispensable guide.
Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!
Paul Bew is Professor of Irish Politics at Queens University Belfast and an independent cross-bench peer.