Saville Inquiry: The reinvestigation of “Bloody Sunday”

The report of the inquiry conducted by the Rt Hon the Lord Saville of Newdigate, a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, into the events in Londonderry on 30 January 1972, was published on 15 June 2010. This is the second report into the tragic events that saw 13 civilians shot dead by the British Army while 14 others were wounded, one of them dying later. It has taken twelve years to complete, at the cost of £195 million. The first report was issued following an inquiry shortly after the event, led by the Rt Hon Lord Widgery, OBE, TD and the Lord Chief Justice of England that was published on 18 April 1972.

The new inquiry into the events of “Bloody Sunday” was announced by Prime Minister Tony Blair MP to the House of Commons on 29 January 1998. He justified his decision by stating that Lord Widgery had issued his report within a relatively short space of time, which meant that he had not been able to take into account all the evidence that might have been available at the time. All the material available was to be weighed in the course of a full-scale judicial inquiry into “Bloody Sunday”. The decision to open this new investigation was understood to be part of the negotiations that would eventually lead to the approval of the Belfast Agreement by IRA/Sinn Fein.

It should be noted that “Bloody Sunday” was not the bloodiest day of the terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland over the past 40 years. Other terrorists attacks caused many more victims such as those of 21 July 1972, called “Bloody Friday”, when the IRA exploded 26 bombs in Belfast, killing 11 people and injuring 130 others, or on 15 August 1998 when the Real IRA detonated a 500 lb bomb in Omagh, killing 28 people and injuring 310 others. For these murders and many others resulting from terrorist activities there have never been inquiries running into millions of pounds to establish the truth and identify those responsible.

One of the principal objectives pursued by those requesting a fresh inquiry was to get an acknowledgement that their loved ones were innocent from engaging in violence at the time they were shot. The outcome of the Saville inquiry has certainly given them satisfaction on that point. However, the context within which the shootings happened needs to be taken into account.

Lord Widgery concluded his report by stating that no deaths would have occurred on 30 January 1972 if those who had organised an illegal march had not thereby created a highly dangerous situation in which a clash between demonstrators and the security forces was almost inevitable. Lord Widgery stated that the nature of the operation carried out by the Army, which was to arrest rioters, changed when the soldiers came under fire. They then engaged with the assailants. He noted the difference in attitude between the soldiers who opened fire, with some showing more restraint in opening fire than others. At one end of the scale some soldiers showed a high degree of responsibility while at the other, notably in Glenfada Park, firing bordered on the reckless. However, none of the soldiers were found to have breached the Instructions by the Director of Operations for Opening Fire in Northern Ireland, previously called the Yellow Card.

Concerning the victims, the Widgery Report was unambiguous: “none of the deceased or wounded is proved to have been shot whilst handling a firearm or bomb. Some are wholly acquitted of complicity in such action; but there is a strong suspicion that some others had been firing weapons or handling bombs in the course of the afternoon and that yet others had been closely supporting them.” Lord Widgery was clear that none of the victims were killed while engaging in violence that would have put at risk the life of the soldiers.

Lord Saville came to the same conclusion but sought to put the blame squarely on the British Army, particularly General Sir Robert Ford and Colonel Derek Wilford. The Report criticizes the decision of General Ford, second in charge of the Army in Northern Ireland, for deploying soldiers to arrest rioters. It is noted that Brigadier Pat MacLellan who had the overall control of the Army’s operation on “Bloody Sunday” conceded that he may have sent the Parachute Regiment into the Bogside at the wrong time. The Report stated that Colonel Wilford, the officer commanding the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, should have refrained from launching an incursion into the Bogside, knowing that there was a serious risk of attack from Republican paramilitaries. Colonel Wilford was adamant that his soldiers used rubber bullets until paramilitaries fired at the soldiers over 150 rounds. Only then did they make use of live ammunition.

The soldiers explained that they shot at people who were petrol bombers, nail-bombers or had a weapon. It is a fact that only one of the 13 killed, Gerald Donaghy, was found with four nail-bombs in his pocket. Saville acknowledges that he was in possession of the nail-bombs but states that at the time he was shot he was not preparing or attempting to throw a nail bomb. All the other victims were exonerated from taking part in violent activities at the time they were shot and justifications given by soldiers were all dismissed.

Although mistakes may have been made by the Army, it cannot be denied that those who engaged in terrorist activities in the Bogside area of Londonderry had, over a number of months preceding Bloody Sunday, created an intolerable situation for the authorities that had to be dealt with at some point. The issue at stake was the use of legitimate and legal force by the police and Army against violence by terrorists and those associated with them or supporting them. Unfortunately, it would appear that those who resorted to terrorism and who caused the authorities to take measures resulting in a number of civilian victims, have found yet another opportunity to blame the British Army. One of them, Martin McGuinness, who was said to be in the Bogside on 30 January 1972, probably armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun, publicly rejoiced with the families of the victims on the day of the publication of the Saville Report.

The public at large cannot help but wonder whether that was the main goal – to satisfy the demands of Sinn Fein/IRA – so as to obtain their political complicity, at the expense of the reputation of a few military figures and soldiers who were defending the country. Surely the spotlight should be turned on those who, firing provokingly from the shadows, were the real culprits of “Bloody Sunday”.