Bloody Sunday: A calculated confrontation?

The Saville Inquiry has uncovered strong evidence that Bloody Sunday was the outcome of a determined military plan to stage a major and unprecedented confrontation in Derry, but will the final report reflect this evidence?

The Bloody Sunday Inquiry has not found proof of a British Government plan to carry out a massacre of civilians in Derry in January 1972. Instead it has revealed the contours of a much more complex story, of a major confrontational initiative planned at the highest levels of the military in Northern Ireland. This initiative ran directly counter to British government policy decisions on Derry and was driven partly by military discontent with the level of restraint imposed by government.

It remains to be seen whether this evidence will be given due attention in Lord Saville’s final report. There were some signs in the closing statement of counsel to the Inquiry, Christopher Clarke, that the Inquiry had accepted some questionable elements of the military testimony that occluded this evidence.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, when Bloody Sunday seemed safely in the past, interviews with key military personnel made it clear that intense internal divisions in the security forces were central to the events of that day. The Bloody Sunday Inquiry saw attempts by several military witnesses to roll back this acknowledgement and to minimise policy differences, to reduce them as far as possible to technical disagreements and disputes over detail. The decision-making process was presented as fundamentally responsive. If there was no choice then there could be no real responsibility, and the central explanation of the killings was the simple unfolding of events, shifting the focus of debate to the immediate circumstances facing the Paras on the day. The closing statement of counsel to the Inquiry provided indications that the Inquiry may have been excessively receptive to some of these rationalizations.

Just a few months before Bloody Sunday the British Government adopted a tougher line on Northern Ireland, prioritising ‘the defeat of the gunman’, giving the green light to intensified military activity. To implement this policy shift the Commander Land Forces, General Ford, issued a new directive instructing the Brigade Commander in Derry, Pat MacLellan, to step up military activity in the city. In Derry this aggressive new approach generated such strong opposition from even the most moderate of nationalists that MacLellan quickly called a halt to the new operations and asked General Ford for permission to suspend his directive. There then began a process of reassessment that culminated in a political decision to significantly restrain military activity in Derry. This decision was endorsed in a Cabinet Committee on Northern Ireland meeting on 5 January, 1972.

How then could a massive offensive operation be launched in Derry on Bloody Sunday just weeks after the government had mandated a return to relative restraint?

At the Inquiry it became clear that the local Brigade Commander, Pat MacLellan, strongly allied to the local police Chief Superintendent, Frank Lagan, was an advocate of restraint while General Ford, along with a number of other army officers based in Belfast, were strongly opposed to this restraint. At the inquiry General Ford presented himself as the author of this late 1971 policy shift to renewed restraint in Derry, aligning himself carefully with official government policy. But the detail uncovered by the Inquiry calls this into question. Rather, it seems clear that the local Brigade Commander had effectively reversed his superior’s directive by appealing to the highest levels of the military and government to permit the renewal of restraint.

When a civil rights march was announced for 30 January in Derry and the same local commanders proposed a highly conciliatory approach to the march Ford phoned MacLellan and told him ‘that he had decided to use the occasion to scoop up as many hooligans as possible and spoke of arresting 300-400’. Soldiers had never before arrested more than a couple of dozen people in a single arrest operation in the city. This was effectively a decision to stage a massive confrontation. One local commander in Derry ‘wondered who had thought out this deployment: it reflected a change of policy and emphasis on future operations in Londonderry’. He was right, it was effectively a policy initiative that reversed the thrust of security force policy in the city. Questions remain as to how and why the British Government permitted this initiative to go ahead.

On the day of the march Ford himself was behind the barricades with the Paras and urged them on as they surged forward, shouting ‘Go on the Paras, go and get them’. The orders given to the Paras by MacLellan were aimed at minimising their role and their impact, eroding the confrontational intent behind the arrest operation. The Paras ultimately disobeyed MacLellan’s orders and acted contrary to his instructions. Their actions fitted well with a plan for a major confrontation. General Ford’s presence on the ground reinforced the understanding that the operation enjoyed the direct sanction of the CLF, and was in a sense directed against the policy of restraint implemented by local commanders. ‘That’s the trouble with you in Londonderry, you aren’t aggressive enough’ General Ford commented to a senior local commander, when it was clear there had been shooting but before it was clear how many had died. There seems little doubt that this attitude and understanding had been conveyed to the soldiers on the ground in a variety of ways and provides much of the explanation for the approach they took that day.

Given that the local policy of relative restraint enjoyed direct and recent Government sanction, it raises serious questions about the relationship between military and political decision-making in Northern Ireland. It remains to be seen whether the Saville Report will give due weight to the evidence it has uncovered of these intense internal struggles to shape policy.

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