Socialist Worker

Bloody Sunday inquiry: murder exposed

Issue No. 1691

Bloody Sunday inquiry: murder exposed

'Shoot selected ringleaders'

  • General Robert Ford, commander of land forces in Northern Ireland, January 1972

THE PUBLIC inquiry into Bloody Sunday opened last week. It has already exposed shocking facts about what happened on 30 January 1972 in Derry, Northern Ireland. On that day British Paratroopers shot dead 13 people taking part in a 10,000-strong march against the government's decision to lock up people without trial. A 14th person died later. EAMONN McCANN, who was on the march that day, spoke to Socialist Worker about the inquiry.

THE INQUIRY is revealing some of the manoeuvres and discussions at the very centre of the ruling class about policy in Northern Ireland. It shows how behind all the talk of democracy and making peace, the ministers, army chiefs and top policemen were ready to "shoot unarmed civilians". In 1972 the Ulster Unionist Party prime minister in Northern Ireland, Brian Faulkner, was under tremendous pressure.

Four years earlier the civil rights movement had begun to protest about discrimination against Catholics. It was met with the most brutal repression. But the revolt continued to grow. In the city of Derry the people of the Bogside rose against the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Loyalist mobs. The British government sent in troops. But resistance did not go away, and so the British government introduced internment without trial in August 1971-simply locking up anyone the Unionist authorities decided was dangerous. In response to internment, barricades went up in the Bogside and the Creggan in Derry. An area of more than 30,000 people was shut off to the forces of the state.

The existence of this "no-go area" sparked immense Unionist outrage and was a source of simmering frustration for senior British army officers. The Derry situation was on the agenda of practically every meeting of the Joint Security Committee thereafter. This was the body which brought together Northern Ireland politicians and chiefs of the security forces. During this period pressure on Faulkner from Unionists unhappy with the Derry situation was steadily mounting. Some of the Ulster Unionist Party backbenchers supported a motion submitted by Ian Paisley to Stormont, the Northern Ireland parliament. It censured Faulkner for the alleged failure of his security policy.

The former home affairs minister William Craig announced a series of anti-Faulkner rallies, to culminate in a "monster rally" in Belfast city centre. The British government did not, of course, consider dismantling the sectarian state in Northern Ireland. They believed that the only alternatives were Faulkner or someone further to the right who might destabilise everything. The documents revealed to the inquiry last week show that in October 1971 the British Tory prime minister, Edward Heath, told his cabinet Northern Ireland committee, "The crisis in Northern Ireland continues to overshadow the work of the government in many fields, and threatened to jeopardise the success of the economic and defence policies, and the approach to Europe."

A military solution

The government believed that "Mr Faulkner embodied the last prospect of maintaining an independent government in Stormont. If he fell, direct rule would be a virtual certainty and in the worst case the transfer to direct rule could take place in a situation in which the machinery of administration had virtually collapsed. The first priority should be the defeat of the gunmen using military means, and in achieving this we should have to accept whatever political penalties were inevitable."

In December home secretary Reginald Maudling was briefed by two top British army leaders. They were the General Officer Commanding in Northern Ireland, General Harry Tuzo, and his number two, the Commander of Land Forces in Northern Ireland, General Robert Ford. Tuzo said that "a choice had to be made between accepting that Creggan and Bogside were areas where the army were not able to go, or to mount a major operation which would involve, at some stage, shooting at unarmed civilians." Maudling is not recorded expressing shock or dismay at the possibility of soldiers "shooting at unarmed civilians".

A document by Ford, "Future Military Policy for Londonderry", dated the same day, ponders a number of possible courses before identifying a direct assault on the Bogside and Creggan as the "correct military solution". However, it warns, "Apart from gunmen or bombers, so called unarmed rioters, possibly teenagers, are certain to be shot in the initial phases. Much will be made of the invasion of Derry and of the slaughter of the innocent."

A political decision

GENERAL Ford concludes that this course, although militarily correct, would carry "political drawbacks such that it shouldn't be implemented in the present circumstances". Right up to Bloody Sunday there was a section of British military opinion that was against sending the Paras into Derry. They thought it would cause mayhem and would be ineffective. There was clearly one section of the British ruling class arguing with another section about the right way to put down the rebels.

In the end it was a political decision after a political campaign-and the documents released to the inquiry show this. At a Joint Security Committee meeting on 6 January 1972 Faulkner claimed that Derry businessmen were increasing the pressure for early action against the "no-go area". The following day his number two, Ford, went to Derry and met with a number of groups, including the Strand Road Traders Association. This was a set-up. The chairman of the traders, Robert Ferris, was a leading member of the Ulster Unionist Party and a close associate of the City of Derry Unionist MP Commander Albert Anderson.

Outside the law

So these supposedly "unpolitical businessmen" were really Unionists who could be used to help the politicians justify their next move. The meeting worked. In an updated assessment of Derry written the same day, Ford declares himself "disturbed" at the attitude of army and police chiefs in the city and quotes the traders' association as demanding new measures including "curfews and shooting on sight".

Ford says, "I am coming to the conclusion that the minimum force necessary is to shoot selected ringleaders among the Derry Young Hooligans. In other words, we would be reverting to the methods of IS [internal security] found successful on many occasions overseas." At Downing Street four days later Prime Minister Heath told a cabinet committee that, "As to Londonderry, to re-impose law and order would be a major operation necessarily involving numerous civilian casualties."

There is no indication that anyone present-they included home secretary Maudling, defence minister Lord Carrington, foreign minister Douglas-Home, future Northern Ireland secretaries William Whitelaw and Francis Pym, the Chief of the General Staff and a number of senior civil servants-expressed surprise or concern at the mention of "numerous civilian casualties". At a Joint Security Committee meeting at Stormont two days later, Tuzo reported that "following a meeting with businessmen in Londonderry, certain measures were in mind with a view to putting down the troublesome hooligan element there. It was, of course, a very difficult problem to solve within the law." Nobody present seems to have reacted to the implicit suggestion of a solution not "within the law". It was against this background in the last week of January that Ford ordered 1 Para to Derry.

The commander of the Royal Anglian Regiment, which had been in Derry for some time and knew the situation, objected to the Paras acting as the "scoop up" regiment, the ones to make the arrests. He was told it was a waste of time objecting because the decision had been "taken at the highest level".

The Paras were deployed to inflict a major defeat on the Republican forces and thereby shatter the resistance of the Derry no-go area. At the same time Britain wanted to teach the anti-internment marchers a lesson they would remember for a long time. Bloody Sunday was the coming together of colonial contempt for the "lower orders", sectarian hatred of Catholics, commercial hysteria and the British government's support for the Unionists.

Britain regarded the young people of the Bogside as a combination of beasts and geniuses, cunning animals who had to be crushed. The truth about Bloody Sunday reveals so much about British policy in Ireland. That is why it was covered up immediately afterwards by the Widgery inquiry. Widgery was a conscious liar who slandered the Paras' victims and whitewashed the British state.

Now the new inquiry is opening up the issue again, just as David Trimble is under pressure from even more hardline Unionists. There are eerie political similarities with the period of Bloody Sunday. It is good the reality of what happened on that day is becoming better known. Everything the families of the victims have been saying for 25 years is being confirmed. The old lies and smears will not suffice.


"As to Londonderry, to reimpose law and order would be a major operation necessarily involving numerous civilian casualties."

  • TED HEATH, Tory prime minister, speaking to a cabinet committee, January 1972

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Sat 8 Apr 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1691
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