Will “Soldier J” Be the British Establishment’s Bloody Sunday Fall-Guy?

A mural in Derry's Bogside depicting the 14 Bloody Sunday victims (Vintagekits; CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

A mural in Derry’s Bogside depicting the 14 Bloody Sunday victims (Vintagekits; CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

Detectives from the PSNI’s Legacy Investigation Branch have arrested one of the paratroopers involved in Bloody Sunday. The arrest comes a belated 44 years on from the tragic and unsettling events of the day.

On the day itself – the 30th of January, 1972 – 26 unarmed civilians, who had been part of a large, 15,000-strong civil rights and anti-internment demonstration were shot by British paratroopers on the streets of the Bogside in Derry.

They were shot without prior warning, most whilst fleeing or aiding wounded others, after a small, low-intensity riot broke out at an erected army blockade towards the the tail-end of the diverted but otherwise-peaceful protest. The rioting was nothing out of the ordinary for the standards of the day and comprised of nothing more serious than stone-throwing.

14 of those gunned down lost their lives, despite none of them posing any threat of causing death or serious injury to their heavily-armed and well-trained killers.

The paratrooper arrested – who was identified as “Soldier J” in the Saville Inquiry that, once established in 1998 after communal campaigning finally broke down decades of intransigence on the part of the British state, sought to definitively ascertain and outline exactly what happened on the day – is being questioned on suspicion of the murder of William Nash (aged 19), Michael McDaid (aged 20) and John Young (aged 17), as well as on suspicion of the attempted murder of Alexander Nash, William’s father, who was shot in the arm and body as he sought to save his dying son.

That this developmental step towards securing some form of justice for the victims and their families has been such a long time coming is both unfathomable and perturbing. The present investigation was first launched by the PSNI in 2012, whilst the evidential grounds for its commencement had been out in the open for a considerable length of time before that.

Major Hubert O’Neill, the Derry coroner at the time of Bloody Sunday, stated in 1973 that what had happened on the day was “sheer unadulterated murder”, whilst Lord Saville, in spite of Ministry of Defence obstruction, came to a similar conclusion in 2010 after years of expensive scrutiny and consideration, although he did carefully avoid going as far as describing the killings as “unlawful”; such a conclusion might have presented the British establishment with what they call “an appalling vista”

The positions and actions of each soldier – those responsible for each shot fired and the outcome of those shots – are well-known, recorded and undisputed. Even British Prime Minister David Cameron described the killings as “unjustified and unjustifiable” in a speech from the House of Commons upon the public release of Saville’s findings.

The arrest raises interesting questions. If the findings of Saville did indeed inspire the go-ahead for the present criminal action, does it mean that the investigation’s scope is confined to remaining within Saville’s lowly parameters of denunciation, or might investigators chase further up the ladder of command and look also into the actions or instructions of those of whom Saville avoided criticism? Will the arrest of “Soldier J” then amount to no more than the token arrest of a disposable or will the arrest of others, including more influential figures, now follow?

Or will this, like the Saville Report, be another exercise in hanging one platoon of the 1st Battallion of the Parachute Regiment out to dry, as the solitary fall-guys for the day’s events, so as to insulate their upper chain of command – the Parachute Regiment, the British Army and the broader British establishment – from culpability, thereby further entrenching into the historical understanding the official “bad apples” narrative?

And will those soldiers who “knowingly put forward false accounts in order to seek to justify their firing” be charged with perjury? Or what about their suborners – their superiors – including the later-decorated and now-highly-esteemed General Mike Jackson, who was accused by lawyers for the victims’ families during the Saville Inquiry (and who remains accused by Eamonn McCann, in spite of Saville’s inexplicable and incongruous attempt to dismiss the allegation) of having orchestrated a cover-up within hours of the shooting by recording the concocted personal statements of other soldiers in order to document a distorted version of events, followed by the compilation of a bogus “shot-list”, for the purpose of collective self-preservation? This all remains to be seen.

In respect of the unsustainable “bad apples” theory – that being the notion that the trigger-happy paratroopers, who had been praised from above for their involvement in a separate massacre just a few months earlier in Ballymurphy, where 11 people lost their lives, acted rogue and without senior endorsement – McCann’s excellent 2010 analysis of the findings of the Saville Inquiry, released earlier that year, is well worth a listen/watch.

McCann dissects the official “bad apples” narrative and demonstrates with effective precision why it is implausible (from 18:30 onward, in particular).

The submission provided to the Saville Inquiry by a paratrooper referred to as “Soldier 027” was also illuminating and is worth noting, assuming it is to be trusted. His story was reported as follows in the Guardian in 2010:

One of the ex-paratroopers who gave evidence to the Saville inquiry has been living under a witness protection programme for 10 years amid fear that he is at risk of attack by some of his former comrades.

The man, who was given the cipher Soldier 027, told the inquiry that soldiers in his company had been encouraged to “get some kills” the night before Bloody Sunday, and that this had been seen as “tantamount to an order”. Two of his former comrades subsequently shot between eight and 10 demonstrators, he said.

When Soldier 027 gave evidence at the inquiry it emerged that he had already entered a protection programme, organised by Scotland Yard and funded by the Northern Ireland Office. Documents submitted to the inquiry outline an incident in which Soldier 027’s landlord was badly beaten by an unidentified man who warned that the former paratrooper faced “dire consequences” if he gave evidence.

A statement from a Scotland Yard officer, Detective Superintendant Geoffrey Hunt, who helped to organise Soldier 027’s protection, said he had “a real and genuine fear for his personal safety”, adding that: “Others attached to the regiment, who may feel loyal to the regiment … may deem this individual to be a traitor.”

Soldier 027 had been a 19-year-old radio operator with the Support Company of 1 Para in January 1972. In October 2002, speaking from behind a screen, he told the inquiry that he had not seen any demonstrators carrying firearms or bombs, or anything that justified opening fire. “I had the distinct impression that this was a case of some soldiers realising this was an opportunity to fire their weapon and they didn’t want to miss the chance,” he said.

Soldier 027 said that two soldiers in particular – one known as Lance Corporal F, who gave evidence, and Soldier G, who has since died – appeared to be operating according to a plan. “I have always been satisfied in my own mind that Lance Corporal F and Soldier G probably shot eight or 10 people that day,” he said. “I thought it was their aggressive, positive actions which incited a few other loonies to join in. Unspeakable acts took place on Bloody Sunday. There was no justification for a single shot I saw fired.”

In spite of the Saville Report having clarified the details of the soldiers’ acts and the facts on the ground on the day itself, as well as having completely vindicated the Bloody Sunday victims, who were previously smeared as terrorists by an unsympathetic media, suspected of having “been firing weapons or handling bombs” and held primarily responsible for their own deaths by the 1972 Widgery Tribunal‘s discredited whitewashing of the British army’s actions (Widgery’s fiercest criticism of the army was that the “firing bordered on the reckless”), thoroughly objectionable and unsavoury opinions like the following still enjoy a degree of popular support from within Ulster loyalism and Britain’s far-right:

The unionist News Letter and the Democratic Unionist Party‘s Gregory Campbell have also been critical of the arrest of “Soldier J”, instead wishing to either condone or overlook unjustified state violence and supplant the aspiration for Bloody Sunday justice with questions over unrelated and irrelevant IRA violence, whilst contradictorily advising people to move on from the past.

Campbell branded the arrest a “disgrace”, but it would appear he is blinded to the flaw in his position by a myopic and stubbornly habitual tendency to automatically take opposing stances against anything he perceives to be associated with or supported by the “other” side of the community; when a state kills its own citizens or citizens whom it deems its own, however, it is within everyone’s interest that the state, and its agents, be called to account. This is especially the case when the evidence is there and readily available in plain sight.

As McCann noted back in 2010 with regard to negative unionist views of the Saville Inquiry:

When unionist politicians say that the Protestant community has nothing to gain from the Saville exercise they imply that Protestants should regard the state as having an untrammelled right to do with them, too, what it will.

Which is somewhat pathetic and not a little insulting in light of the disdain which the British state has shown for the Protestant people for decades. To see Bloody Sunday as an atrocity perpetrated on the other side is to see it in a false perspective.

Former northern secretary, Peter Mandelson, like Campbell, also warned against the “perils in going back into history” and of “[firing] up tensions between different parts of the community”, but this is similarly a disingenuous, diversionary and specious complaint. As McCann alluded to, the search for Bloody Sunday justice is not fundamentally or intrinsically connected with any split or tension between different parts of the community in the north of Ireland. Although all 14 of those killed were Catholics, both Catholics and Protestants were involved in the civil rights movement and both Catholics and Protestants have no problem reconciling themselves behind supporting the quest for truth and justice in respect of the unsettling events of the day.

The quest for justice is about holding the British state accountable for its actions, so, of course, it is entirely within Mandelson’s interests to cast doubt over the worthiness and value of an investigation that will potentially scrutinise the historical approach and conduct of an establishment of which he himself is now part. In reality, the perils, as far as Mandelson is concerned, are that the British establishment may be expected to face consequences for its actions.

It is perhaps only through a realisation of the ideals of transparency, truth, accountability and justice (restorative, with general amnesty to encourage truth-revelation, if necessary) that full, proper and lasting trust can blossom between all those who were party to or affected by the “Troubles”. It is not as if the majority of relatives of the Bloody Sunday victims would even demand prison-time for sexagenarian ex-paratroopers either (if found guilty), particularly in light of the fact that other combatants in the conflict have since been granted conditional post-conviction “pardons” by the British state under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, as agreed under the Good Friday Agreement and in return for a commitment to peace.

Whilst any Bloody Sunday soldier convicted of murder might not qualify for early licenced release – applicable after two years of serving one’s sentence – under the criteria outlined in the legislation (which only applies to “scheduled offences” committed between 1973 – after the passing of the Emergency Provisions Act – and 1998), Mark Devenport suggests possible means of finding a seemingly fair, equitable and consistent solution, as far as any potential sentencing by the British authorities might be concerned:

A Northern Ireland Office source told me the previous Labour government had used the Royal Prerogative of Mercy to free a few individual paramilitary prisoners convicted at the start of the 1970s “who fell outside the letter of the NI Sentences Act” but “within the spirit of the (Belfast Agreement) legislation”.

Theoretically the current government could adopt the same approach of issuing pardons to any soldier convicted of a crime related to Bloody Sunday.

Alternatively they could amend the 1998 Sentencing Act to make early releases apply to crimes dating back from the very start of the Troubles.

On the other hand, it has been compellingly argued that, on account of the state’s assertion of legitimacy, sovereignty and democratic authority, it voluntarily and unilaterally loads itself with responsibilities (such as disclosure of truth and the enforcement of justice) along with its asserted rights, irrespective of what other parties to a conflict have or have not done.

It is also worth pointing out here that the popular notion that other combatants have generally gotten off “scot-free” or that the balance of the scales of justice has favoured non-state players or once-militant Irish republicans is a grossly misleading misconception. Thousands of republican (and, indeed, loyalist) suspects and combatants were imprisoned during the “Troubles”, whilst dozens are still being investigated, “lifted”, charged and convicted in respect of pre-1998 activity and killings. Many others remain tight-lipped on their pasts in the knowledge that disclosing the truth would be to self-incriminate.

Meanwhile, the number of British military personnel to have endured a similar fate can be counted on the fingers of one hand; a total of four soldiers were convicted of murder whilst on duty in the north of Ireland. All were released after serving two or three years of life sentences and were allowed to rejoin the army. This is despite “some 150 cases of unjust killings and murders by security forces”.

Whatever about the matter of potential sentencing of “Soldier J”, however, what the Bloody Sunday victims’ families really desire is a frank admission of unlawful wrongdoing and recognition that their loved ones were murdered; they wish to see that the state holds itself to its own declared standards. What matters primarily and most crucially is the principle of acknowledgement. Otherwise, there can be no faith in for what the British state purports to stand; be that in its moral proclamations or in its rule of law. For if there is no possibility of even a nominal conviction, is it to say that the conduct of state’s forces on Bloody Sunday was, whilst unjustified, still somehow legitimate or lawful? In the words of McCann again:

[The soldiers] have to be charged and face court because if they are not, the implication is that the deaths were not murder.

That is what will sufficiently free people to allow them to finally think about moving on from their painful focus on the past. The power is entirely within the hands of the British state to pave the way for that.

Whilst on the topic of Bloody Sunday, it is worth recalling the “liberal” Guardian‘s interesting early-1970s perspective on day’s events, the discredited Widgery Tribunal and the British government’s suicidally-stupid policy of internment without trial.

The following is from Jacobin magazine:

Thirteen civil rights demonstrators were shot dead by the British Army on the day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday, January 30, 1972, in northern Ireland, forty years ago today. But the Guardian thought it was the Civil Rights activists who were to blame:

“The organisers of the demonstration, miss Bernadette Devlin among them, deliberately challenged the ban on marches. They knew that stone throwing and sniping could not be prevented, and that the IRA might use the crowd as a shield.” (Guardian, 1 February 1972)

Lord Widgery’s 1972 enquiry was widely seen as a whitewash — but not by the Guardian. “Lord Widgery’s report is not one-sided,” it led. Indeed they questioned Widgery’s view that trouble could have been avoided if the army had kept a low-key attitude: “To ask anyone to keep a low-key attitude if persistently stoned is to ask superhuman behaviour.” (20 April 1972)

The demonstrators had been protesting against the introduction of the internment of political prisoners without trial. The Guardian did not support their cause.

“Internment without trial is hateful, repressive and undemocratic. In the existing Irish situation, most regrettably, it is also inevitable. . . . To remove the ringleaders, in the hope that the atmosphere might calm down, is a step to which there is no obvious alternative.” (Guardian leader, 10 August 1971)


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