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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  • padraig

    I wouldn’t doubt this to be true, Niall, but unless you give citations to substantiate your article as you go along , I’m afraid its out there with Roswell and the US Military covering up an Alien Landing.

  • Full citations are available in an academic article that I published recently in ‘Contemporary British History’. The article is freely available until the end of June.

    Online at:


  • Cynic

    This is a repost?

  • David Dee

    I would agree that the plan was for confrontation not necessarily to arrest so many but the much vaguer order of ‘taking out’ as many as possible.

    To people with the mentality of the Paras this sort of order,as their superiors knew, meant only one thing and that was most certainly never going to be an arresting operation.

    When no IRA members were ‘exposed’ by the earlier barrage of shooting from the Army the Paras lost control and, in an attempt to justify their ‘rottweiller’ reputation, felt the need to ‘show’ some output.

    That this amounted to 13 innocent,unarmed and British subjects been slaughtered in a British town will be forever to their shame if they had the ability to show such emotions.

  • Mick Fealty


    Hit Niall’s name and it will take you to all his past work on Slugger… He has referenced his own academic work before, but this essay is a new one…

  • PaddyReilly

    Éamonn McCann produced quite a short pamphlet on the subject which adequately explained everything that happened many years ago.

    BS was a standard British Army operation. You go to an enemy citadel, attack an innocent passerby, wait till all the local mafia come out to defend their territory, shoot them dead en masse.

    Well that’s the British Army psychology. Of course they’re not around to investigate exactly who it was that got killed. It is clear that in Derry they shot dead all males of military age within a certain area. Also that the Parachute Regiment was posted to Derry especially to carry out this operation and left immediately afterwards.

  • Cynic – I think it as actually a summary of a paper which has been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
    There are reasonable parallels here with the recent US experience in Iraq (e.g. see Thomas Rick’s book Fiasco) and, in some respects, the character of both the French experience in Indochina (as per Bernard Fall) and the subsequent US one in Vietnam (e.g. Bright Shining Lie). The tactical implementation of a broader strategy (e.g. in NI, ‘defeat the gunman’) appears to have broken down along the chain of command. This seems much more of a problem where one combatant is employing paramilitary rather than standard military tactics. Centralised intelligence gathering and assessment do not function particularly well in that sort of environment and the quality of top down decision making suffers dramatically as a result. The rank at which responsibility for deciding local tactical requirements in NI in early 1972 appears to have been poorly defined and there was an assumption that centralised and uniform strategic and tactical decision making was possible. On the day, the tactical errors appear to have begun at the top level and cascaded down through to the squaddies on the ground.
    I don’t know where Saville is likely to place the emphasis in the conclusions/executive summary, though. Based on exepriences elsewhere, I think the military command structure is the place to look rather than the likes of Edward Heath’s diary.

  • vanhelsing

    —-The Paras are up there with the SS———

    Lovely parallel to draw but as I’ve stated before ‘the paras’ distinguished themselves along with the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade fighting against the SS German 9th and 10th Panzerat in Arnhem in 44′.

    ——–The Brits have form in mas murder, so what is new——–

    ‘The Brits’ stood alone fighting the fascism you bring so neatly into your post. Without ‘the Brits’ Europe would be a fascist state. Although perhaps you were cheering for Adolf during WW2 – that always confuses me….

    ArgosJohn – you will let me know the answer to that question won’t you:)

    BTW what is ‘the occupied zone’ – I thought we gave you the 26 counties and told you that you could keep them:) We don’t consider them occupied by you – they are yours to keep – enjoy yourself…

  • PaddyReilly

    It is hard to see how Lord Saville is going to continue the cover-up in the face of so much evidence, but the speech he gave some years ago indicates that he intended to.

    There are two possible outcomes. One, it was solely the fault of the Squaddies. As they have been promised immunity from prosecution, that is the end of it.

    Two, the operation was personally ordered by Edward Heath. He is dead, so that is the end of it.

  • PaddyReilly


    Are you hearing voices, or just posting on the wrong thread?

  • vanhelsing

    oops – lot’s of scarcasm directed at AG and his post seems to have disappeared. Shame.

  • vanhelsing

    🙂 I have no idea paddy – AG went off on a rant – can’t find his bloody post – do they delete them?

  • padraig


    Good work, Niall.

  • vanhelsing

    paddy who is your avatar and on the subject of avatars check out this link

    if you watch it – it’s not an offer…

  • PaddyReilly

    My avatar is Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.

    He may at this moment be having sex with your avatar- I don’t know- they lead independent lives.

  • Jean Meslier

    …Press Statement…


    David Cameron is to give a press conference in Wesminster at 13.30 today, before the release of Saville.

    He will state the following:

    1. The 1st Parachute Regiment were deployed in Derry to entice the Provisional IRA to engage in an open battle.

    2. The soldiers were permitted/encouraged to shoot civilians to provoke retaliation by the IRA

    3. The Widgery enquiry was a coverup because the government was involved in a war with the IRA which was now stronger because of Blood Sunday

    4. In the same vein as Balaclava, Islandlwana, Gallipoli etc the entire operation was a farce. Therefore because of inept planning and incompetent interference from the bungling British Government Cameron will put the blame squarely on whom it belongs:-

    The squaddies on the day.

    ….End of Statement…

  • Jean Meslier

    David Cameron ” The truth will set us free”

  • Jean Meslier

    “Unjustified and unjustifiable”

  • Alias

    Niall, I think your focus on the role of General Ford is spot-on, but I wonder was it simply arrogance of his part that led him to instigate a ‘coup’ against his own government’s policy and against that part of his army command who were in tune with it or if there was another policy that would have sanctioned his actions. There was no guarantee that the State would have covered-up what he did if he acted outside of his remit, and any general worth his salt would cover that contingency, so he would have needed some high level assurance of his own. Ford, of course, increased the UDR by 2000 members in the months prior to Bloody Sunday and then almost doubled it in the months after it, so BS falls inside a policy that was ongoing at that time of ramping up security in a way that Catholics would strongly object to. I’m not sure the ‘rogue general’ thesis as a progression of the ‘rogue Paras’ stops there.

  • Cynic


    Presumably that’s why they were trying to recruit Catholics into the UDR

  • Alias

    In much the same manner that the KKK might recruit blacks: merely for amusement if a few Uncle Toms actually signed up. I think it was circa 3% in 1980. 3% Catholic but 100% unionist. At any rate, the march itself was a protest against that ongoing policy of ramping up security (internment), so the Catholics obviously didn’t endorse it.

  • Alias

    Incidentally, 90% of those interned in 1972 were Catholics, so loyalist murder gang members, being pro-state, were not regarded as a security threat to the British state. That is where the State and sectarianism conflate with the State targetting Catholics disportionately by violating their civil rights.

  • John Sullivan

    Its a highly romanticised image that of the brave Brits fighting against fascism. The British state entered World War 2 entirely for its own selfish reasons. Now you may say there is nothing wrong with that, but please don’t offer up that old chestnut about fighting for noble and altruistic reasons.