Workers Hammer No. 211
The defining story of the British Army in Northern Ireland
The relatives and supporters of the 14 civil rights marchers who were gunned down by the British Army on 30 January 1972 cheered when British prime minister David Cameron officially admitted on 15 June that the killings were “unjustified and unjustifiable”. Cameron’s speech revealed to the public the results of the twelve-year-long inquiry into Bloody Sunday by Lord Saville, which has been a bone of contention since it was established in 1998. For the oppressed Catholics of Northern Ireland, the Saville Inquiry represented the hope that the hated Widgery Report of 1972, which cast suspicion that some of the dead “had been firing weapons or handling bombs”, would be removed from history. For the military top brass, the inquiry represented a potential threat that army personnel might actually face charges for killing with impunity.
When Saville’s findings were revealed, the relatives felt vindicated, not least when they heard a British prime minister say that those who were slain on Bloody Sunday were innocent. At the same time, contrary to the orchestrated complaints about Saville by the military, the report did not recommend that a single soldier should be prosecuted and it carefully avoided describing the killings as “unlawful”. Saville fell far short of the truth about Bloody Sunday, which was stated clearly by Derry coroner Hubert O’Neill at the time of the 1973 inquest: “It was sheer, bloody unadulterated murder.”
“My brother was running away from the soldiers when he was shot,” said Joe Duddy, speaking about Jackie Duddy who was shot from behind as he tried to escape from the paratroopers. The Widgery Report “destroyed our loved ones’ good names”, he added. “Today we clear them.” Tony Doherty, whose father Patrick was shot as he tried to crawl to safety, addressed the thousands-strong crowd in Derry saying: “It can now be proclaimed to the world that the dead and the wounded of Bloody Sunday, civil rights marchers, one and all, were innocent, one and all, gunned down on their own streets by soldiers who had been given to believe that they could kill with perfect impunity” (Guardian, 16 June).
Heaping praise on the British Army for its “courage and professionalism in upholding democracy and the rule of law in Northern Ireland”, Cameron sanctimoniously declared that “Bloody Sunday is not the defining story of the service the British Army gave in Northern Ireland from 1969-2007”. This is a blatant attempt to bury the memory of British Army brutality in Northern Ireland once and for all. The theme about the need to “move on”, to erase the memory of Bloody Sunday from history, is echoed ad nauseam in the British capitalist press. By portraying Bloody Sunday as an exceptional incident within an otherwise impeccable record, the Saville Report is being used to refurbish the credentials of the imperialist forces who today shoot-to-kill with impunity in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Announced by Tony Blair’s Labour government as a prelude to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the Saville Inquiry was designed in part to give the Dublin government some credibility with the Northern Ireland Catholics whom it has long treated with disdain, including over Bloody Sunday. Bertie Ahern, who was Irish Taoiseach at the time, spoke recently of the Bloody Sunday inquiry’s centrality to the “peace” process. “I had to put a lot of pressure on Tony Blair. All the advice he was getting from securicrats was to not go into a full judicial inquiry”, said Ahern, who added that the Dublin government had “a lot at stake in building up nationalist confidence that we would be able to work with the British government and work with Tony Blair” (Guardian, 15 June). Talking in Blair’s other ear, David Trimble, then Unionist leader, warned in 1998 that if the inquiry moved “one millimetre” from the Widgery Report, there was a risk of soldiers facing charges “of manslaughter, if not murder”. “I pointed out to Blair that we would see soldiers in the dock”, said Trimble (Guardian, 10 June). Indeed the Saville Report, at 5000 pages and a cost of £192 million, did not recommend putting any of the killers in the dock. Some soldiers may be charged with perjury, for having made “knowingly untrue” statements to the inquiry (Guardian, 16 June). Seemingly a “crime” against the process itself is more serious in the eyes of the good Lord Saville than gunning down Catholic protesters.
Saville cleared Major General Ford, the commander of land forces in Northern Ireland in 1972, of responsibility for the deaths, saying he “neither knew nor should have known at any stage that his decision [to deploy 1 Para] would or was likely to result in soldiers firing unjustifiably on Bloody Sunday” (Saville Report, Volume III). Never mind that three weeks before Bloody Sunday Ford had advocated shooting “rioters” in Derry, or that on Bloody Sunday he was heard to say: “Go and get them and good luck” as the Paras entered the Catholic Bogside where the massacre took place. Saville concluded that Martin McGuinness, an adjutant in the IRA in Derry at the time, was “probably armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun” on the day, a claim which McGuinness says “has no foundation or substance”. A glaring illustration of the “impartiality” of British justice is the case of Gerald Donaghy, who served a six-month sentence for throwing stones at the police in 1971. On Bloody Sunday, five weeks after his release, he was shot dead by the British Army, but no one is likely to spend a day behind bars for his killing. The Saville Report upheld the army’s claim that Donaghy was carrying a nail bomb when he was killed. This is contrary to reports by witnesses, including “soldier 138”, a medical officer who pronounced Donaghy dead and conducted an examination of his body, that they saw nothing in his pockets. The armed forces are widely suspected of having planted the nail bomb which was visible in police photographs taken after Donaghy’s death.
The Saville Inquiry has bolstered illusions in public inquiries, based on the myth that the armed forces of the capitalist state can be made accountable to the oppressed peoples and classes they maraud over. The capitalist state is an executive arm of the ruling class and cannot be made accountable to the working class and oppressed. It must be shattered in the course of workers revolution, led by a revolutionary workers party, and replaced with a new state power of the working class. Marxists understand that imperialist “democracy” is the velvet glove to disguise the mailed fist of capitalist class rule. Events such as Bloody Sunday are not some aberration, but part and parcel of the normal workings of the armed forces of the capitalist state.
Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, one of the leaders of the civil rights movement who was at the Bloody Sunday demonstration, noted that Saville let the British government off the hook, saying: “It is the British government, not their anonymous and brutalised soldiers of their alphabet army who should be in the dock, at the international court of justice at The Hague. If Saville has closed that route to truth and justice, the British government will consider it worth every penny” (guardian.co.uk, 15 June). The idea that the capitalist rulers can be held to account is bogus, but not inconsistent for Devlin McAliskey who supported the British Army being sent to Northern Ireland in 1969. In a 1970 interview she gave to Workers Press, paper of the Socialist Labour League, she is quoted as saying:
“The saving of lives, the necessity of saving lives in that circumstance, was brought around by the whole system and therefore you cannot simply say take the troops out of Ulster. Because the people will say you cannot take the troops out because if you do the people will die.”
— Workers Press, 18 June 1970
Eamonn McCann, another leading figure in the civil rights movement in Derry, and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) supported the Labour government of the day sending in British troops. Shamelessly peddling illusions in British imperialism as a force for “peace”, the SWP declared: “The breathing space provided by the presence of British troops is short but vital. Those who call for the immediate withdrawal of the troops before the men behind the barricades can defend themselves are inviting a pogrom which will hit first and hardest at socialists” (Socialist Worker, 11 September 1969).
Bloody Sunday is the defining story of the British Army in Northern Ireland, but it is hardly a unique atrocity. According to the Pat Finucane Centre, more than 150 killings by the army between 1970 and 1973 were not even investigated by the police. During the period 9-11 August 1971, when the British introduced internment without trial, paratroopers shot dead eleven civilians in Belfast’s Ballymurphy area in a remarkably similar operation to Bloody Sunday. Relatives of those killed are now calling for an “independent international inquiry” into the shootings. But no one should be fooled into having illusions in public inquiries. Tony Blair introduced the 2005 Public Inquiries Act specifically to curtail what can be made public in any “public” inquiry. This legislation was a kick in the teeth to the family of Pat Finucane, a Belfast Catholic lawyer who defended Bobby Sands and other Irish hunger strikers, who was gunned down in front of his family by the Loyalist UDA in 1989. Finucane was targeted by Brian Nelson, an agent of the British Army and intelligence chief of the UDA, which means that his case would be a devastating exposure of British imperialist collusion with the Loyalist paramilitary killers.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement gave a facelift to the sectarian Orange state of Northern Ireland, allowing for the entry of Sinn Fein into Stormont and making some cosmetic changes to policing. But the fundamental nature of the Orange state as it was created by the British at the time of partition, based on the subjugation of the oppressed Catholics, remains unchanged. The “peace process” brought no peace to those who try to expose to the outside world the British state’s murderous role. In 1999, Rosemary Nelson, a prominent Catholic lawyer who reported to the UN that she received death threats from the RUC, was murdered by a Loyalist bomb. In June 2007 Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service announced that no police officer or soldier will face prosecution for the murder of Pat Finucane.
British “democracy” was never much in evidence in Ireland, which was a testing ground for state repression to be used elsewhere. The treatment routinely dished out to Irish Catholics, who were once indiscriminately targeted as “terrorist suspects”, is now being applied to Britain’s Muslims and to any perceived opponent of British imperialism. Internment without trial and the shoot-to-kill policy, practised for years on the streets of Northern Ireland, have been brought to the streets of London as seen in the brutal execution of Brazilian immigrant Jean Charles de Menezes who was labelled a “terrorism suspect” in July 2005.
An internal report entitled “Operation Banner — An Analysis of Military Operations in Northern Ireland” issued by the British Army in August 2007, when its military campaign in Northern Ireland officially ended, boasts that this was “one of the very few ever brought to a successful conclusion by the armed forces of a developed nation against an irregular force”. The report’s foreword is written by none other than General Sir Michael Jackson, former head of the British Army during the Iraq invasion and former Chief of the General Staff. Jackson was in Derry on Bloody Sunday and as adjutant to the Parachute Regiment he has responsibility for false reporting of what happened — his handwritten “shot list” indicated that those killed included “nail bombers, gunmen or snipers” (Guardian, 16 June).
Despite the much-trumpeted end of military operations there, the British Army maintains troops and bases in Northern Ireland, as back up to the 9000-strong heavily armed Police Service of Northern Ireland/Royal Ulster Constabulary (PSNI/RUC). We have uniquely warned that, within the framework of capitalism, there is no democratic solution to the oppression of the Catholic minority, in a situation where they are geographically interpenetrated with the Protestants, who are a distinct community.
We demand all British troops and bases out of Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq! Together with the US military, the British Army is one of the most powerful forces for terrorism in the world. There is no way to end the oppression, brutality and subjugation perpetrated by the British Army short of a workers revolution to overthrow this brutal ruling class which has committed atrocities against its colonial subjects for centuries. We seek to build revolutionary parties dedicated to mobilising the proletariat on both sides of the Irish border, and both sides of the Irish Sea, in a struggle for a workers republic in Ireland, part of a voluntary federation of workers republics in the British Isles.