The unionist reaction to Saville is predictable understandable and incorrect

The unionist response to Saville has tended to be in one of two fashions. Cushy Glenn made a very valid point on another thread when he suggested that the majority of unionists agreed with Gregory Campbell. Campbell has been unafraid to say what many and probably most unionists think.

One reaction is to regard the Saville Enquiry as a “Blackwash” as opposed to the whitewash allegation levelled at Widgery by nationalists and republicans. Gregory Campbell has put this forward (from a unionist viewpoint) very effectively. He has questioned why the soldiers were disbelieved; they may have had reasons to spin the truth, but they are not the only ones who could be accused of having agendas. In addition he pointed to the fact that 25 years had passed between the events of Bloody Sunday and the beginning of the enquiry. Human memory is actually surprisingly fragile and people will genuinely believe things which are factually incorrect if told them often enough and for long enough. Hence, Campbell may have a significant point when he says that the actual truth may never be known. In this case, Pilate is actually correct when he asked Our Lord “What is Truth.” It is highly likely that the marchers believe that all those who died were innocent (I agree with them but more of that later) but it is also more than possible that the soldiers believe truthfully that 38 years ago they opened fired only on armed terrorists. Campbell has also noted that Widgery found remarkably similar facts though of course he came to a markedly different set of conclusions.

Hence unionists can retreat into a position of suggesting that Saville was set up by that most devious and cunning “straight sort of guy” to find exactly what Blair deemed was necessary for “The Process.” The last Government has something of a history of producing enquiries which have found roughly what the government wanted them to find: the Hutton Enquiry into David Kelly’s death being merely the most obvious other example. As such unionists can try to dismiss much of the enquiry as being utterly politically motivated and can cherry pick at it. They can point to the fact that Saville finds that there was no grand conspiracy at governmental or even military command level: in stark contrast to the claims made by the likes of Niall Ó Dochartaigh. In addition they can point to the simple fact that republicans have done much the same in terms of cherry picking. The very republicans who laud Saville still maintain there was a conspiracy and further of course Martin McGuinness has repeatedly denied the finding of his having been carrying a gun on the day in question. Furthermore although some are suggesting prosecution of the soldiers for perjury or more serious offences no one has yet pointed out that McGuinness held the enquiry in such contempt that not only does he now deny the findings but he could not answer for his whereabouts for part of the day and in addition refused to answer assorted questions in view of his supposed oath to a murder gang. That the oath to a murder gang is more important to him than the truth regarding the deaths of 14 of his fellow citizens should surprise no one since the deaths of Derry people (and others) have long been occurrences which McGuinness has been heavily involved in.

A modification to this strategy is that proclaimed by Tom Elliott as well as Gregory Campbell, which is to contextualise the deaths. It is fair to say that Saville did little of this and it is also manifestly true that the events in Londonderry did not occur as an aberration in an otherwise peaceful environment. Multiple members of the security forces were murdered before Bloody Sunday and Londonderry was in parts a lawless wasteland: something did indeed have to be done and the rule of law established; a theme I will return to.

The second standard unionist response is to point to all the other murders there have been and ask why no enquiry for them. Ulster’s other Bloody Sunday was when 12 other people were murdered in Enniskillen by an enormous IRA conspiracy. On the same day there was an attempt to murder several dozen school children in Tullyhommon, prevented only by luck / Grace of God when a tractor broke the command wire the IRA terrorists had intended to use to allow them to watch the Protestant school children die. I wonder did the IRA “volunteer” get a fizz of excitement as s/he thought of seeing the children’s bodies torn apart? Maybe s/he hoped to see some blown in half children shrieking for their mothers as they died. The counter claim that we all know who committed the Enniskillen bombing has some validity but equally the IRA still deny that they committed Kingsmills and try to claim that events such as the Shankill Road fish shop murders were something other than naked sectarianism. The argument continues that if £200 million was spent on Saville surely much lesser an amount of money would bring the truth to many a family. As I have said previously, however, the republican movement is not interested in anything other than quarter truth process.

Both of these responses may be understandable: however, the first one is essentially minimisation which unionists are right to be furious about when republicans use on them. It is the same sort of logic which leads to the perverse lies that Kingsmills was by anyone other than the IRA or that Enniskillen was set off by the army; that Claudy and La Mon were due to inadequate warnings etc. The second response is essentially a form of whataboutery and that is actually also unacceptable. It is reasonable to point to other murders but to do so at the time people are focusing on Bloody Sunday is somewhat crass to the relatives of those who died on that day. By the same token it would be pretty revolting for republicans to dismiss the likes of Enniskillen as being the inevitable consequence of the conflict and due indirectly to the likes of Bloody Sunday. The fact that both of these strategies have been used by republicans does not mean that unionists should lower themselves into the gutter along with the terrorists and their apologists.

As well as the above responses there has also been a reaction of anger. There is anger at what unionists see as the triumphalism exhibited in the Guildhall Square yesterday. There is anger at the sight of the relatives of the bereaved of that day hugging Martin McGuinness: in this case some of the metaphorical blood which has stuck cloying to that man’s whole body for all his adult life is in danger of sticking, at least temporarily, to those relatives. Many unionists I know had to turn off the radio or television, so sickened were they by the response and the media hype associated with it. The visit of the Methodist President and Presbyterian Moderator along with the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe to the relatives today will simply stoke this anger. In this particular case whataboutery is entirely reasonable and the question has to be asked when the church leaders, with the same media hype, last visited the bereaved of La Mon, Enniskillen, Teebane, Kingsmills etc. etc. When church leaders suggest that Gregory Campbell’s view is a minority one within Protestantism / Unionism, they, if they truly believe it, demonstrate just how pout of touch they are and why the three main churches now speak for but a minority of Protestants (and probably a minority within their own flocks). I have yet to hear of Norman Hamilton so publicly dissociate himself from his friend Fr. Aidan Troy, the man who tried to persuade Aine Tyrell not to make complaints against her father for paedophilia. Maybe if he tried apologising to Ms. Tyrell first rather than leaping on a bandwagon he might be taken a little more seriously.

All that anger and all those explanations are, however, not productive and not helpful and even if at some level understandable must be subdued and unionists must look at other utterly valid facts about Bloody Sunday: facts that if we are honest with ourselves we have known for some time. If we appreciate and accept those facts we can of course understand why yesterday was such an important one for the relatives of the dead. We may not especially like the republicans of Londonderry and when they are on the radio and television it may be highly irritating but we have to recognise these facts

The people who died clearly were not involved in an equal battle with the parachute regiment. One may have had a nail bomb in his pocket, maybe some had thrown stones. However, absolutely none of that could have justified the parachute regiment opening fire on them. The parachute regiment members did not have nail bombs or stones: they had SLR rifles which fired what is in effect a light machine bullet at well over the speed of sound. Had the paras been firing at Martin McGuinness with his submachinegun the fight might have been unequal but few would have shed tears at its inevitable outcome. However, those who died clearly did not have guns or all but one even nail bombs and as such they should not have been shot. Even had those killed been throwing stones they should not have been shot. Participating in an illegal march does not make one guilty of crime and it certainly does not merit a death sentence: still less one imposed summarily.

Unionists do not regard the British Army as the moral equivalent of the IRA or the alphabet soup of loyalist killers. As such we must require much better of our soldiers. Hence, we must regard what happened on Bloody Sunday as utterly unacceptable. Furthermore it seems completely clear that some of the firing was reckless as Widgery found all those years ago. Those killed in Glenfada Park look remarkably likely to have been unlawfully killed as shooting unarmed people with high velocity assault rifles is illegal. Very few British soldiers have ever committed crimes in Northern Ireland: 250,000 served and a very, very small number seem to have committed crimes. In actual fact we owe it to the soldiers who never did anything wrong and the ones who died in the defence of liberty and democracy against the likes of the submachinegun totting McGuinness to state that those who shot people on Bloody Sunday were in the wrong and did wrong.

Furthermore the vast majority of the members of the parachute regiment who went into the Bogside that day did absolutely nothing wrong: they did not shoot anyone; they did not intend to shoot any civilians. Just as they did before and afterwards they went in to defend law and order and did so with courage and restraint. A few of their number did not do that; some may have made mistakes but it seems that some few may have made mistakes so grave as to make them legally culpable.

We can try to contextualise Bloody Sunday, we can point to flaws in Saville but the simple overwhelming fact is that people were shot by members of our army and it seems shot whilst posing no realistic threat to our soldiers: that is wrong and we must not be scared to state that it is wrong. Furthermore our attempts to contextualise look like attempts to minimise. Rightly do we despise Adams and McGuinness for trying to explain away the murders of our kith and kin and rightly then we should avoid beginning down their nauseating road. Rightly do we despise Eames and Bradley for making the murderers the same as the victims, for pretending that we were all involved in the conflict: therefore we cannot do other than make clear that those who died on Bloody Sunday were innocent of crime and should not have been killed. Rightly we denounced the lie from Eames that we must all take responsibility for the actions of the past: therefore we must pin the blame where it belongs and exonerate the innocent, both the innocent soldiers and the innocent victims.

Bloody Sunday was wrong. The events of before it do not fully explain the events of that day and even to the extent that they do, they in no way excuse the wrong done to the victims. In exactly the same fashion not one of the events of Bloody Sunday justified any murder or violence after it; some people may have joined the IRA supposedly because of Bloody Sunday but they hold absolute personal responsibility for joining the sectarian murder gang which gorged on death for 30 years here. The wrongs of the past do not in any way excuse the committing of later wrongs.

There are other issues which we should bring to light. The RUC, that force so denounced by republicans as a sectarian force, recommended against going into the Bogside. Had the advice of our police officers, the people whom republicans denounced and murdered, been heeded then there would have been no Bloody Sunday. It is maybe also worth noting (though a bit tasteless to the families) that as Paul Bew noted on Good Morning Ulster the army were horrified by the supposed whitewash of Widgery and regarded it as showing that they had killed people whom they should not have killed. That realisation produced a change in army tactics to ensure it would not recur. Such a conclusion points to the honour and intelligence of our armed forces and their leadership. Set beside the behaviour of McGuinness’s pretend army of murderous bigots that shows who is morally in the right. It also, however, shows that individual soldiers had done wrong.

More than anything, however, we need to note that despite all its slowness, all its difficulties; the wheels of British Justice have ground exceeding fine if exceeding slow. The Widgery tribunal may have found largely similar evidence to Saville but seems to have produced a difficult to believe conclusion. Saville may be a bit too severe on the soldiers but Widgery was surely too lenient.

The question arises should the story be left at that? Some of the families want prosecutions, some do not. Currently all the soldiers are innocent, they having been convicted of nothing. However, we rightly demand that attempts are made to bring the murderers of the past to justice. Rightly we are pleased that someone is on trial for the 1981 murder of Jennifer Cardy. As such if crimes were committed on Bloody Sunday then they should be assessed. The correct place to assess such and come to an appropriate conclusion is a court of law. Saville was not a court of law and cannot call anyone a murderer. However, if there is evidence against anyone, be they soldiers or civilians then that evidence should be assessed by the DPP and if appropriate tested in court at the trial of those accused. If found guilty those guilty should be punished, if acquitted then they leave the court room innocent. Justice must be equal for all. That may mean prosecutions but we must demonstrate that in our society if the forces of law and order make a grave enough mistake they will, if found guilty, be punished: yet again a contrast to Adams and McGuinness’s rag tag band of butchers who when they killed the wrong person issued a half apology and that supposedly made it all alright.

The Bloody Sunday families have suffered greatly. Gregory Campbell has rightly said he has compassion for them. However, compassion is not enough. We as unionists may find their campaign over the years irritating; we may feel that their case has been highlighted more than many others. We may not always like those who supported them; we may not like the company the victims’ families kept. We may feel that whilst demanding justice for their loved ones they were willing to be seen with those who had committed countless murders and had never faced justice. However, unionists must realise that what happened that day was wrong, those who died were innocent and if there are people to be prosecuted then sadly but grimly and determinedly we must support the rule of law and the fair trial and if appropriate punishment of the guilty. That is why we were, are and will always be morally better than the gunmen and bombers. It is when it is difficult and painful to support it that the light of truth and justice needs tended most.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.

donate to keep slugger lit