Bloody Sunday: Error or Design?

The publishers of ‘Contemporary British History’ have agreed to allow free access until the end of June to an academic article on Bloody Sunday that I wrote recently. The article draws on the evidence generated by the Saville Inquiry to trace the outlines of an intense internal struggle to shape security policy in Derry. It argues that the operation that day was aimed at disrupting an established policy of relative restraint by the security forces in Derry and that Bloody Sunday was the outcome of a calculated plan to stage a massive confrontation in the city.

Online at:


  • Rory Carr

    That link does not work I’m afraid, Niall. I do hope that you are able to provide a working link after arousing our interest so.

  • drumlins rock

    Managed to find it eventually, quite a heavy read, almost give up as the first part was mainly opinion, but eventually reached the analysis, which was well put together and is the first time I have read a plausable explanation which, as is normally the case, tries to put the truth in between the various opinions, at least when Saville comes out I wont be totally in the dark, but shall wait till then before I make my mind up on too much.

  • joeCanuck
  • drumlins rock

    wonder shuold we get a slugger team of various perspectives to review Saville when it comes out? Try to skip the in-evitable hysteria.

  • Niall O Dochartaigh

    I updated the links. If there is still a problem please let me know.

  • madraj55

    I think the Saville inquiry was a waste of time, and on the rare occasion I agree with SOME Unionist commentators on this. But not for the reasons or motives they are giving this opinion. The innocence of the victims was accepted by the govt as far back as 1974, but only in letters from John Major to John hume in the 90s, this still left the Widgery verdict as the offficial British establishment version of these events. Saville was set up to supersede and nullify Widgery.officially. Yet in reasons given by Unionist politicians, no mention of the effective accquittal of the victims is mentioned. This is as clear a case of bigotry as any I ve seen through thirty years.

  • madraj55

    clarification; ‘clear a case of bigotry I’ve seen in comments on this subject by Unionists in thirty years’..

  • Drumlin Rock

    what are you on about? this thread is about Naill’s view of Bloody
    Sunday, I think I’m the only unionist to comment so far on it so can you point out the bigotry in my comment? if not save your rant for a relevant thread.

  • Cynic


    A well argued piece. I think you miss one issue though. At this point the police had been superseded by the Army. In effect it was a form of undeclared martial law.

  • In effect it was a form of undeclared martial law.

    But if martial law isn’t declared isn’t it just state murder?

  • Cynic

    Even if Martial Law is declared it still may be. I will let Lord Saville work that one out …he and those lawyers have been paid enough to do it

  • joeCanuck

    Yes. People were murdered that day as the evidence given clearly shows.. If Saville doesn’t say so, then he will be more reviled than Widgery.

  • madraj55

    Sorry, DR. I actually meant Unionist politicians and journalist s who commented on Bloody Sunday, rather than ordinary unionist posters. The Reasons given by Donaldson Campbell etc are beside the point. They know that the letters sent by Downing St which said the victims were innocent, wern’t well known in the communty. These politicians avoided mentioning this because they wanted Widgery verdict to be definitive. It’s not now going to be as result of the Inquiry. But the expense wasn’t needed for that. The govt could have simply made their letters officially refute Widgery. They chose to acquit the victim the hard way.

  • madraj55

    I couldn’t get the link to work either but I see what the arguments are as to the highest level of ogf state involvement. The govt of Heath were clearly behind the plan to invade the Bogside, and not just the Army chiefs. This is borne out by the honours given to Wilford and Ford, That was to keep them quiet. If the army top brass was really the highest level of planning, there would not need to be the OBE’s dished out and neither would they have. .

  • Thank you for sharing this, Niall; a valuable contribution to the debate. There are suggestions from Peter Taylor’s account that support your interpretation – up to a point.
    Also Widgery seems to have understood the importance of absolving the brass and dumping some of the blame on soldiers who fired recklessly.

  • RepublicanStones

    Also Widgery seems to have understood the importance of absolving the brass and dumping some of the blame on soldiers who fired recklessly.

    Shit rolls downhill, the Rupert’s must be saved at all costs.

  • White Horse

    An excellent contribution, Niall. Your emphasis is clearly on the brass and not the politicians but at least you do mention that some unionist politicians were in favour of Ford’s approach.

  • Driftwood

    Surely worthwhile looking at how the paratroopers defended themselves in a similar situation at Arnhem under enemy fire.

  • TheHorse

    Defending themselves ! Explain

  • TheHorse

    Defending themselves ! Explain how British soldiers murdering unarmed civilians from a distance can be described as defending themselves.

  • Driftwood

    At least the Germans throwing ‘potato mashers’ were in Wehrmact uniform, unlike the nail bombers and snipers hiding among the rioters.
    But you cannot bring yourself to admit this Horse, why were people throwing bombs at the security forces?

    Do you think Kamphgruppe Peiper expected the 7th Airborne to fire teargas at Pegasus Bridge?

    Catch a grip.

  • TheHorse

    Did they actually shoot any so called nailbombers and snipers, where is the evidence to prove that there was snipers or nailbombers present. – All killed were innocent civilians and all evidence introduced by the British government “as evidence to back up their claims that those killed were either, as you say snipers or nailbombers”. Was proven to be planted by the British Army.

  • Driftwood is at best being provocative, and at worst plain trolling. As for this argument about shots being fired. From what I can tell, there is evidence of a single shot fired at soldiers elsewhere, and then some shots fired from a handgun in response. There seems to be no reliable evidence of any bombs being thrown.

    But, even if there had been, there is no excuse. British soldiers had faced much heavier gunfire and many more bombs without reacting with the massacre of civilians. Nonsense about Arhem and all the rest of it is rubbish pure and simple.

    I’m sure though Driftwood will be able to explain why paras were cutting off the ears of dead Argentines as trophy in the Malvinas/Falklands. Fine fellows indeed.

  • Dixie3057

    I read Niall Ó Dochartaigh’s article and I have to agree with drumlins rock’s post ( 9 June 2010 at 4:08 pm ), a very in-depth report revealing the conflicting in fighting within all the military and political decision makers concerning the build up to bloody Sunday and the actions taken that day by these individuals. I know bloody Sunday invokes emotional and passionate responses by commentators and the public alike, albeit understandably regarding all that were killed that day, but it mustn’t be allowed to cloud over this very good and rational article on analysing the actions that unfolded that day resulting in the unfortunate and regrettable deaths on bloody Sunday.

  • Alias

    Former BBC journalist Peter Stewart told the Saville inquiry that he was present when Colonel Derek Wilford, commander of the paras, gave a live progress report to General Ford in Derry wherein Ford patted Wilford on the back and said “Well done” when informed by him that the army had counted two bodies so far and that neither of them was armed. There was no instruction issued by Ford to Wilford to stop firing and no awareness of what the ramifications of shooting 27 unarmed civilians and running down two others with land rovers might be. Wilford, however, was apologetic about the absence of weapons on the two bodies then counted, so that implies that he saw the paras as acting outside of the norm. But why the paras themselves didn’t see their action as outside of it and why Ford didn’t either is not explained. It seems their was a lot of engineering occuring and that lots of folks were left outside of the loop.

  • Alias

    Incidentally, Ford’s attitude as expressed to Wilford (who apparently didn’t share it) that there would be no detrimental consequences to them for what they were engaged in was obviously shared by those who were busy doing the killing. So why were Ford and some of Wilford’s paras on the same wavelenght but Wilford wasn’t? While it is true that the track record of the state in covering-up any transgressions by its security services and armed forces would lead some of them to believe they had immumity from prosecution there are limits to what they can reasonably get away with and those calculations would always be present in any sane mind. Engaging in massacre of unarmed civilians is unlikely to fall within a soldier’s calculation of action for which he can provide his superiors with a plausible explanation. He would only engage in that action, therefore, if he had prior assurance that is was sanctioned as the highest level and that he would be protected from prosecution by the state. The only person who could give that assurance is General Ford. Since Wilford didn’t know, it is more likely to be the case that only those who were directly involved in the shooting knew. The only way a para could shoot an unarmed civilian in the back without the legal defence of self-defence is if he knew he would never need a legal defence. In one example, a young man was recorded as having a bullet entry wound in his anus and an exit wound in his trachea. The only way he could have received that injury is if he was on his hands and knees crawling away from the para who shot him. No para would take such careful aim (and presumably shout “Bulls-eye!”) unless he knew that he was acting with immunity, and unless he had received such assurance from Ford himself.

  • Brian Walker

    Niall has written an incisive analysis of what is on the record from various sources about the chain of command, some of which was essentially known at the time, like the role of CS Frank Lagan. It took a further three years to restore the primacy of a substantially upskilled police command. His account does not purport to cover what the precise orders were, or how they changed, if they did. While there’s evidence to suggest the army were prepared to risk unarmed civilian casualties, it seems unlikely – I would say inconceivable- that there were positive orders to go in and shoot unthreatening people. To me at any rate, it is a mystery what they thought they were doing, beyond aggession to scatter a big crowd and lift the inevitably aggressive remnants. My own speculative question of nearly 40 years – and everybody will have their own – is: did the orders change when a single bullet seems to have struck near Col Wilford’s vantage point at Great James’ St church? I asked this as I was reporting the Widgery inquiry.

    We can easily see why Saville was drawn into examining every freeze frame, so to speak. To continue the mataphor, I hope that the readers of Saville aren’t tempted to rely on a few vivid sequences rather than plough through the whole monumental movie.

  • vanhelsing


    I’d like to see you unbaised sourcing for your paras comment.

  • draugfea

    The comments on this thread already underscore that Saville has been a waste of both time and money. Those on opposing sides of the argument over Bloody Sunday will not be moved by anything coming out of the inquiry. Their minds are already made up.

    As for the majority of the people who care as much, or as little, about the victims of Bloody Sunday as about the thousands of others killed during the ‘conflict’ Saville’s headlines may take their interest for a little time before quickly receding into the miasma of the past forty years.

  • slappymcgroundout

    “While there’s evidence to suggest the army were prepared to risk unarmed civilian casualties, it seems unlikely – I would say inconceivable- that there were positive orders to go in and shoot unthreatening people.”

    Uh, ever hear of Sand Creek and the Washita River?

    The moron in command otherwise said (courtesy of The Guardian):

    Mr Clarke pointed out that soldiers are trained to “shoot-to-kill”. Sir Robert replied that soldiers are taught to shoot this way with a 7.62mm bullet.

    Mr Clarke asked: “If they are taught to shoot to kill by firing at a position on the body where the bullet is likely to kill them, the same is highly likely to arise even if they use a .22 bullet.”

    Sir Robert replied that “it is likely to arise but less likely” than with a 7.62mm bullet.

    Mr Clarke asked: “If you fire a .22 at somebody at a 50-yard range, if you are attempting to kill him and are a well trained soldier, you are likely to do so, are you not?”

    Sir Robert replied: “It depends on the accuracy of the weapon and I do not know anything about that at this stage.”

    And the backdrop to that:

    He made the suggestion in a secret memo to his superior in Northern Ireland, Lieutenant General Sir Harry Tuzo, the general officer commanding (GOC). Soldiers should use rifles adapted to fire .22 inch ammunition after clear warnings had been issued, Sir Robert had said.

    Lastly, as Captain Silas Soule wrote to Major Edward “Ned” Wynkoop following Sand Creek, and note for the record that Captain Soule refused to give his men the order to fire, though that didn’t stop them from satiating their bloodlust by engaging in what can only be called, butchery:

    Dear Ned:

    Two days after you left here with the 3rd Reg’t. With a Battalion of the 1st arrived here, having moved so secretly that we were not aware of their approach of until they Pickets around the Post, allowing no one to pass out! They arrested Capt. Bent and John Vogle and placed guards around their houses. They then declared their intention to massacre the friendly Indians camped on Sand Creek. Major Anthony gave all information, an eagerly joined in with Chivington and Co. and ordered Lieut. Cramer with his whole Co. to join the command. As soon as I knew of their movement I was indignant as you would have been were you here and went to Cannon’s room, where a number of officers of the 1st and 3rd were congregated and told them that any man who would take part in the murders, knowing the circumstances as we did, was a low lived cowardly son of a bitch.
    When the Indians found there was no hope for them they went for the Creek and got under the banks and some of the bucks got their bows and a few rifles and defended themselves as well as they could.The massacre lasted six or eight hours, and a good many Indians escaped. I tell you Ned it was hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized.”

    So what is it, again, that is so “inconceivable”? Sub in “Taigs” for “Injuns” and you’re there. And if that doesn’t work, kindly note Alias’ report of the entry and exit wounds found on the one soul.

    And, no, I don’t take Alias’ position. It wasn’t General Ford who set the example. Was your Attorney General:

    “The report also reveals that immediately after the shooting, the RUC chief superintendent in Derry at the head of the RUC in Derry, chief superintendent Frank Lagan, recommended that the soldier who fired the fatal shot, ‘Soldier A,’ be prosecuted for murder. However the request was overruled by the then Attorney General, Basil Kelly, who was an Ulster Unionist MP and member of the Stormont cabinet.
    The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) published a report yesterday on the death of 41 year-old William McGreanery, who was shot dead at Laburnum Terrace on September 15th 1971 by a member of the Grenadier Guards firing from the British army base at the former Essex factory site.
    The Attorney General said ‘Soldier A’ could not be prosecuted for murder because he [was] “acting in the course of his duty”. He made the ruling in December 1971, six weeks before Bloody Sunday.”

    To Mr. McGreanery, you can add 14 year old, Annette McGavigan, shoot in the back of the head. No one was ever charged with her unlawful killing, nor does it appear that there was even what one could call a semblance of an investigation into her killing. As I said, sub in “Taigs” for “Injuns” and none of it was/is “inconceivable”.

  • Vanhelsing,

    Those accusations come from a member of the Paras who fought the Argentenians. I first came across them years ago on the TV.

    At least one university within the past few years found him credible enough to invite him to talk about the Falklands War.