On the fringes of Bloody Sunday

Preamble 

Today in the light of so much glaring hindsight, it’s very hard to recapture the general experience of the time.  It was the job of us local reporters to chronicle a least half a dozen incidents a day. Although of course there were exceptions, we had settled down to a new normal that was far from normal. I wouldn’t say I was case hardened. But the regular rhythm of events had run the gamut from exciting through appalling and tragic to grisly routine. In the days of film before live video and mobile phones, it took considerable effort to get stories on air and on time to meet deadlines. The worst that could happen wasn’t usually the scene being recorded, but that the film got fogged.

Looking ahead to 30th January  

I was a young BBC reporter in 1972. I was in Derry on Bloody Sunday but didn’t go near the Bogside. I was on a well deserved day off visiting my family.  The BBC was well covered for a big anti internment march. There was a lot of foreboding, but I took a different line. I thought the presence of lots of grownups might blunt the impact of the usual Sunday matinee of rioting in that little street theatre of chaos in and around Rossville St.  The local police chief Frank Lagan, a Derry man and a Catholic to boot, even advised no military presence for the march.

It had been a tough week.  Two policemen had been shot dead in Derry on the Tuesday.  Who remembers that now? On the previous Saturday I had covered the baton charging and CS gassing of the demonstrators at Magilligan internment camp by the same I Para. The camp was well protected by barbed wire, yet the paras emerged on the run to attack. Cracked heads and blood on the sand and on the pools of salt water were filmed by Cyril Cave the key cameraman the following Sunday. Such aggression seemed pointless, even puzzling. I repaired to the City Hotel later to be bombed to destruction, to meet John Hume to discuss an interview. He was worried about the future but he hadn’t been there. There was no interview and – well – we kept on drinking for a bit.

On the afternoon from about 4 o’clock on day itself, driving back to Belfast I had the car radio on  for Pick of the Pops when the news  started to break in dribs and drabs of fatal shootings. To his credit the DJ Alan Freeman declared  in exasperation, “this programme can’t go on. “   I went straight to the BBC to see if I could help run messages.  Although  the  terrible truth had been pretty obvious in real time,  no one could be certain about what went on round the corner or behind a wall.  So the army version was given due weight with a snatched interview with the Commander Land Forces General Ford who was present as an observer. But what really happened in plain sight in open ground was clear enough, captured by Cyril Cave. There were no discussions with London bosses about balance or supposed political sensitivities. The instruction for an extended Sunday TV news programme was to “give it what it’s worth.” And so they did.

 Funerals

The first funerals which were held in St Mary’s Creggan were of course traumatic and to me, surreal.  Inside the church, a row of five coffins almost blocked the entrance to the sanctuary. On one side Cardinal Conway and the outgoing bishop Neil Farren were concelebrating requiem mass. On the other I was crammed alongside my cameramen and other reporters. Behind us competing with the clergy was the stentorian voice of the live RTE radio commentary from Seán Mac Réamoinn.   I have a recurrent nightmare of being pushed down from the crowded altar and falling on top of the coffins that burst open.  As we followed the  long cortege  down Fanad Drive, Frank Curran the esteemed editor of Derry Journal  and a regular reporter  of weekend  rioting  observed to me, “ these people  will never go back into the northern state again”. “ “Where will they go Frank?” was all I could think of in reply.

Widgery

It fell to me to me to be the reporter of the Widgery Tribunal for BBC NI and national BBC Radio News. The hearings were held in the new County Hall in Coleraine. Widgery delivered his report six weeks later, from a lofty perch in a Dickensian courtroom in the Law Courts on the Strand in London.

In advance I welcomed the prospect of England’s leading judge carrying out a quick inquiry on a clear brief to cover what had happened on the day. The Scarman Inquiry into the events of 1969 had been thorough but had been overtaken by events. Scarman  failed to register much  impact. As the Widgery hearings unfolded I was convinced – and remain convinced – that here was plenty of evidence to merit further inquiry.  They seemed like a first step, an interim inquiry, not an exercise that could bring about closure. But the approach was seriously flawed. From 15 out of 500 eyewitness statements available, only 15 were selected. Even these Widgery thought were designed to embarrass him because he saw them late on, as we later learned.  His brief was narrow, on whether the army opening fire was justified; so the witness statements he felt had little to add. Manifestly, as was argued for decades later and confirmed by Saville, this was a fundamental error. Lurking behind it was the prejudice against local eyewitnesses:  they would say that wouldn’t they?  But the fundamental error of judgement was that he readily believed the soldiers who as we know told a pack of self justifying lies.    All corrected over 12 years by the Saville Inquiry.

Even so in his report Widgery caught none of those shot dead bang to rights. One by one these are typical verdicts.

 

There is no evidence that he used a weapon…..

 he had been in close proximity to someone who had fired..

I think it more consistent with his having been in close proximity to someone firing..

 . No weapon was found but there was sufficient opportunity for this to be removed by others…..

 In general Widgery took the paras at their word, despite the huge gaps between their claims and his own findings against any conclusive guilt of the victims.

.…in general the accounts given by the soldiers of the circumstances in which they fired and the reasons why they did so were, in my opinion, truthful

. Their training made them aggressive and quick in decision and some showed more restraint in opening fire than others. At one end of the scale some soldiers showed a high degree of responsibility; at the other, notably in Glenfada Park, firing bordered on the reckless..

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.

Who were they then?  He hinted at reasons. They might have been hustled away or spirited across the border, the cunning devils.

Wider significance 

Was Bloody Sunday the watershed that doomed us to another 25 years of Troubles? Sure as eggs as we knew fatalistically at the time, it would hugely boost IRA recruitment, savagery and fund raising. It produced one side of a massive escalation.  There is a legend growing up among millennials that it marked the beginning of the Troubles in earnest. This is nonsense. The phase of demos and had ended a good two years previously.  In 1971, 180 were killed, many of them in the upsurge after internment in August, 480 were killed in 1972. The death toll mounted…

Major events after Bloody Sunday 30 January…

March

IRA bomb Abercorn bar. 2killed 130 injured

Official IRA bomb Aldershot barracks 7 killed

IRA kill 7 in Donegall St

May

Official IRA call off their campaign

June

IRA ceasefire leading to abortive Cheyne Walk talks with British ministers

July

Bloody Friday 11 IRA bombs kill 11, injure scores

 

Operation Motorman

December

Loyalist bomb in Dublin kills  2.

Derry aftermath

Bloody Sunday had been the nightmare waiting to happen as a result of repeated almost ritual rioting in the Bogside, accompanied by attempts to destroy businesses in the city centre. The collapse of Stormont in March produced a massive escalation of the ill named “Protestant backlash,” misleading because they often got their retaliation in first.

The fierce protests of the ladies of the Bogside Inn against the murder of one of their own Ranger Best in May, contributed to the decision of the Officials to call off their campaign. Bloody Sunday put paid to any faint hope of  anything similar happening with the Provos.

In May the army went back into the Bogside in Operation Motorman, headed by a tank with the gun reversed to mount the barricades . One regiment occupied the old St Columb’s College to survey the area from the heights above. Invited in to observe, I felt compelled  to rebuke the colonel for displaying the regimental silver on the college’s high table like an army of occupation. As we spoke, three bombs went off without warning in Claudy 10 miles away, killing 8.

What of politics?

In just over a year, it seemed for a moment that lessons had been learned.  The local parties agreed to form a voluntary cross community coalition.  Less than a year after the British embassy in Dublin was burned to the ground as the Gardai looked on, the British and Irish governments agreed to begin forming a new partnership. I recall the hopes and the nervousness as they all emerged for interview. But the early collapse of the Sunningdale agreement taught me that attempts to solve the basic political  problems were doomed to failure for as long as paramilitaries believed there was mileage in continuing their campaigns.  Stormont ‘s abolition  produced no increase in trust  among the Catholic community. Widgery had been the UK government ‘s man and he had queered their pitch.

Today in the Bogside, the theatre of carnage and riot has become a temple of commemoration. The Rossville flats have long gone.  Beside the site, the dignified Bloody Sunday memorial and  Free Derry corner preserved as  heritage. Over the scene loom huge photo blow up murals of Bloody Sunday, implying continuing anger and still unfinished business. I offer one reflection. Do not impose more weight on the memories of Bloody Sunday than human nature today can bear.

Photo  courtesy ABC News Australia

 

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