“when trying to reconstruct history, dip your bucket as close to the source as possible”

Former Sunday Times Insight journalist, Peter Pringle, savoured the publication of the Saville Inquiry report.  And he had some interesting thoughts on Saville’s methodology

But questions about Saville’s report on Bloody Sunday remain to be addressed: how did they sift the evidence? What evidence did they leave in, or out? What did the secret services redact? Why did he take so long? Here’s a suggestion of how to start reading beyond the headlines: look at Saville’s methods for reconstructing history.

Mark Saville, clearly, is a disciple of the 19th-century German historian, Leopold von Ranke. The Rankean dictum is, basically, when trying to reconstruct history, dip your bucket as close to the source as possible (the “primary source”). Or, put another way, a witness’s second thoughts are probably unhelpful. Saville followed Von Ranke, consistently and sometimes ruthlessly.

And he has this to say on Saville’s examination of the evidence relating to the actions of Martin McGuinness on the day

Of course, there are limits to applying Ranke. For instance, in the case involving Martin McGuinness, then the second in command of the Derry Provisionals and now Northern Ireland deputy first minister, Saville was stopped in his search for the truth – by the intelligence services.

During the Troubles, Britain’s intelligence agencies ran covert agents in Northern Ireland, and the question was what sort of co-operation, if any, Saville would get from them. The answer was always expected to be limited.

In 1984, the intelligence service claimed one of its undercover agents, codenamed Infliction – a man apparently with contacts high up in the IRA – produced a story that McGuiness had admitted to him that he fired the first shot from a Thompson sub-machine gun, thereby prompting the fusillade from the army. McGuinness vigorously denied the charge.

Two intelligence service officers, A and B, appeared before Saville to tell this story, and Saville became convinced that Infliction existed and the story had not been made up.

But some things Saville learned from the intelligence services he was unable to pass on because disclosure “might endanger the life of Infliction”. The intelligence services were also unwilling to produce Infliction for cross-examination – or give a written statement, for the same reason.

This left Saville in a bind. He noted that in a criminal trial the Infliction evidence would be regarded as “unfair”. In McGuinness’s case, Saville concluded that it would be “unwise (and, indeed, unfair) to place much weight” on [Infliction’s] account.

What would Von Ranke have made of that? Another caution for historians, perhaps: the total, absolute, historical truth is impossible to come by when secret services are involved.

And a reminder of some of what Saville recorded on ‘Infliction’

147.232 Officer A was, at the time that he gave evidence to the Inquiry, a senior member of the Security Service. For six to seven months in 1984 he was the handler of Infliction. He told us:1 

“… for the most part, Infliction’s reporting was reliable and, in [the Security Service’s] view, honest. However, there were some areas where he was not prepared to provide information and there were a small number of occasions on which, we believe, that he did not tell the truth. ” 1 Day 326/83

147.233 His evidence was that Infliction gave no information relating to Martin McGuinness that the Security Service ever came to regard as dishonest.1 On occasions Infliction, when refusing to give information, provided reasons for his refusal that the Security Service regarded as dishonest. None of those occasions was one on which the information sought related to Martin McGuinness.2 On the occasions on which Infliction did lie, he did so in order to protect his security.3

1 Day 326/84 2 Day 326/95  3 Day 326/94; Day 326/101 

147.234 Officer A also told us:1

“Infliction produced an enormous amount of information on which he had direct knowledge, either by talking directly to people or by seeing an event or whatever. Now, with that information – on those areas he was very rarely, if ever, mistaken and most of that material, we are confident, was truthful and subsequently much of it was corroborated. ” 

1 Day 326/96-97 

147.235 Officer A contrasted this type of information with that provided by Infliction in circumstances in which Infliction was less certain of the origin of the material. In the latter instances, the information could be inaccurate. Although in these cases Infliction might have appeared untruthful, for the most part the inaccuracies were simply mistakes.1

 1 Day 326/97

147.236 Officer A said that there were very few instances in which the Security Service considered that Infliction was embellishing his reporting or seeking to bluff. Officer A could not recall any particular instance in which this had occurred.1

1 Day 326/98-99

147.237 According to Officer A, Infliction was paid between £15,000 and £25,000 a year for his work for the Security Service. These sums were at the top end of amounts paid at the time to agents. He was not given payment in return for specific pieces of information but received bonuses when he had worked particularly hard to obtain information in a difficult subject area and when his information over a period had been extremely good. His payment was at the top end of the scale to reflect his level of access to the IRA, the potential of the information and the risks that he ran to obtain information.1

1 Day 326/85-87 

147.238 Officer A told us that in April 1984 he had been Infliction’s handler for about two months but Infliction had been a Security Service agent for a number of years.1 Officer A said he was confident that he had had more contact with Infliction than any of his other handlers. He also said that he had shown his written statements to this Inquiry to Infliction’s other case officers and that they did not disagree with any of the contents of those statements.2 

1 Day 326/87-88  2 Day 326/89

147.239 According to Officer A, Infliction knew Martin McGuinness quite well and was friendly with him. The Security Service had other information that corroborated Infliction’s account of the relationship between the two.1 1 Day 326/139

 147.240 Officer A said that he could not think of any credible reason for Infliction to lie to him when providing the information about Bloody Sunday. Infliction did not seek and was not given any additional payment for the information. Infliction, as far as Officer A was aware, did not dislike or resent Martin McGuinness. When providing the information, Infliction did not appear uncertain and gave no indication that he might be mistaken about it. Officer A did not know of any reason for which Infliction might bear a grudge against Martin McGuinness.1

 1 Day 326/137-138; Day 326/140

Adds It’s worth noting what Infliction is actually recorded as saying.

147.229 In November 1984 Infliction repeated the allegation to a different Security Service officer, Officer B. The conversation between the two of them was taped. The Security Service provided the Inquiry with a redacted transcript, part of which contained the following:1

“INFLICTION: (Comment: makes noises indicating hesitation). Well (Comment: pause) you know, McGUINNESS found himself in a certain position. Er, (Comment: pause) really didn’t manipulate it. Er, he found himself as (Comment: pause) overseeing Derry and first spokesman […] and, er, I think the one thing that bothers McGUINNESS is, er the Bloody Sunday thing, that he fired the first shot, which no one knows. And then the (Comment: unfinished as Officer B interrupts). [added emphasis]

OFFICER B: You mean that’s on his conscience? (??? find) (Comment: unfinished as INFLICTION interrupts).

INFLICTION: Yeah, because, you know, he talked to me a few times about it, and er (Comment: unfinished as Officer B interrupts).”

And what Saville said about that

147.349 We were unable to obtain a written statement from Infliction, or call him to give oral evidence. Nor was Martin McGuinness able to question him or even be told who he was. The same applies to the account given by the RUC interviewee. Were we conducting a criminal trial there would in our view be substantial grounds for the submission that it would be unfair to admit this material or to place any reliance upon it. However, we are not conducting a trial but a public inquiry and we are not bound by the rules of evidence. We have to consider what weight, if any, we should give to this material, in circumstances where it has not been possible to question Infliction about his account. We also have to consider whether in the circumstances it would be so unfair, in the context of a public inquiry, to make any findings based on it, that we should refrain from doing so.

147.350 We have already expressed the view that Infliction was generally reliable and did give the information in question to the Security Service. Officer A told us that he had no grounds for believing that what Infliction had told him was the result of holding a grudge against Martin McGuinness. Furthermore, it should be noted that he said to Officer B during his debriefing that “the Brits murdered thirteen people ” on Bloody Sunday,1so it would not appear that he was inventing what he told Officer B (or Officer A) about Martin McGuinness in an attempt to provide the soldiers with a reason for opening fire. If Martin McGuinness did tell Infliction that he had fired a Thompson sub-machine gun from the Rossville Flats on Bloody Sunday, it is in our view likely that this is what Martin McGuinness did.

1 KB3.4

147.351 Nevertheless, our inability and that of those representing Martin McGuinness to question Infliction on such matters as his relationship with Martin McGuinness and the circumstances in which Martin McGuinness is said to have made the remarks in question, and otherwise to test the truth of Infliction’s account and the accuracy of his recollection, have led us to conclude that it would be unwise (and indeed unfair) to place much weight on that account. On this basis we consider that this account by itself does no more than raise the possibility that, notwithstanding his denial, Martin McGuinness did fire a Thompson sub-machine gun on “single ” shot from the Rossville Flats on Bloody Sunday.

147.352 We bear in mind two further factors.

147.353 Firstly, there is the evidence, apart from that of Infliction, to the effect that on Bloody Sunday Martin McGuinness was in possession of a Thompson sub-machine gun in the area of Chamberlain Street and William Street. We have concluded that on balance, though far from certainly, this was the case. In reaching this conclusion we have taken into account that Martin McGuinness had no opportunity to question the RUC interviewee who said that he had seen Martin McGuinness with such a weapon. We are, however, unpersuaded that Martin McGuinness was in Duffy’s bookmakers at any stage.

147.354 Secondly, we have concluded that Martin McGuinness probably did see Margaret Deery being carried after she was wounded, which means that he was probably not (as he told us) to the south of the Rossville Flats when the soldiers came in and started firing, but still somewhere from where he could see Margaret Deery being carried, ie somewhere on the car park side of the Rossville Flats.

147.355 We should note at this point that in the course of considering the events of Sector 2, we have concluded that someone probably did fire a number of shots at the soldiers from the south-west end of the lower balcony of Block 3 of the Rossville Flats, close to one of the walkways joining Block 3 to Block 2 of the Rossville Flats, probably at a stage after soldiers had opened fire in that sector. From that position Margaret Deery could have been seen being carried to a house in Chamberlain Street after she had been wounded in the thigh. The evidence that we have on these shots suggests that they were fired from a carbine, but in our view this does not necessarily establish that it could not have been a Thompson sub-machine gun. Unless the weapon can be clearly seen and identified, for reasons given elsewhere in this report1a Thompson sub-machine gun fired on “single ” shot (ie not repeatedly on automatic) could be mistaken for some other type of weapon being fired more than once. After firing there would have been an escape route away from the soldiers and out of their sight by the stairs that led down to ground level in the gap between Blocks 2 and 3 of the Rossville Flats. However, Infliction’s account is to the effect that Martin McGuinness told him that he had fired the first shot, not a number of shots, so that there is little to connect this account with the firing from the south-west end of the lower balcony of Block 3 of the Rossville Flats.

1 Paragraphs 65.182–202

147.356 We have found that Martin McGuinness was more likely than not to have been in possession of a Thompson sub-machine gun in the area of Chamberlain Street and William Street, and that he probably had not reached the area south of the Rossville Flats when the soldiers came into the Bogside and opened fire. We cannot conclude, however, that he fired a Thompson sub-machine gun from the Rossville Flats. The Infliction material raises the possibility that he did. We have set out above our reasons for not giving much weight to this material. Accordingly, we can in this report make no finding on the point.

147.357 On one matter, however, we have no doubt. If Martin McGuinness did fire from the Rossville Flats he could have come to believe, as Infliction reported he had said, that his firing had precipitated what happened on Bloody Sunday, by which we would understand that he believed that what he had done had led to a response from soldiers that resulted in the numerous casualties of Bloody Sunday. In fact, as appears from our consideration of the events of Sector 2, he would have been mistaken in this belief, since none of the soldiers who in our view shot Jackie Duddy, Margaret Deery, Michael Bridge or Michael Bradley in that sector suggested at any stage that they had fired at people in response to fire from the Rossville Flats; they all claimed to have targeted people with bombs at ground level. Nor have we found any evidence to suggest that the casualties in any of the other sectors were targeted by soldiers because of fire from the Rossville Flats. [added emphasis]

And what Martin McGuinness told reporters after the publication of the Saville report. From the Guardian – not available online.

Asked if soldiers should be prosecuted, McGuinness said he would be guided by what the families wanted. Of his personal role that day, he said he was pleased with Saville’s statement that he had played no part in provoking the soldiers. “Saville said … that he was sure I was not involved in any activity that provided justification for the soldiers opening fire.”

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