Douglas Murray – Bloody Sunday: Truth, Lies and the Saville Inquiry, Book Review

imageThe aftermath of the Saville Inquiry into the events around Bloody Sunday has left me, and I suspect many others, with one enduring image: Prime Minister David Cameron’s apology in the House of Commons, where he says that the actions of the British Army were ‘unjustified and unjustifiable.’

But there’s a lot more to the findings of the Saville Inquiry than that. Douglas Murray’s 2011 book, Bloody Sunday: Truth, Lies and the Saville Inquiry, distils some of the most relevant and intriguing information uncovered, raising tough questions that remain unanswered, and – most importantly – putting the suffering of the victims and their families centre stage.

Murray has a reputation as a young British intellectual with conservative leanings, who has been called ‘the right’s answer to Michael Moore.’ He is now Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society think tank in London, has controversial views on Islam, and is the author of the 2005 book Neoconservatism: Why We Need It.

It’s possible that the political views inherent in Murray’s biography will alienate a segment of readers (or alternatively endear those who share his views), who will find it difficult to countenance his analysis of the Saville Inquiry in light of his views on other issues. Indeed, I would be suspicious about Murray’s views on Islam (he has said ‘Islam has failed Europe’, among other things).

Murray also at times uses strong language (he calls people murderers and terrorists) and makes harsh judgements. I have my own doubts about how helpful it is to persist in this type of labelling or name-calling in public debate. But it would be a pity to let Murray’s political leanings and language prevent people from reading this book, which is sharply written, pacey, and moving in many parts. Readers can decide themselves if his biography and his language get too far in the way of everything else that the writes.

At one level, the book is valuable simply for its summary of the vast information contained in the Saville Report. The printed version of the Saville Report is itself ten thick volumes, while Murray tells us that the initial evidence of the inquiry is 160 volumes. That’s a total of between 20 and 30 million words, as well as 13 volumes of photographs, 121 audiotapes and 110 videotapes (p. 315). (See for the full report as well as the wider body of evidence, including the transcripts of named and anonymous witnesses). Cameron’s ‘unjustified and unjustifiable’ sound bite in some ways has glossed over the quantity and the complexity of these findings.

Murray also works at the emotional level, primarily through his vivid portrayals of victims’ stories. The opening chapter describes the deaths of Patrick Doherty and Barney McGuigan in all their heart-rending tragedy, underlying the injustice and the human cost of what happened on that day.

Murray in fact uses the McGuigan family story to frame one of his main arguments in the book: that a violent response to Bloody Sunday was both futile and immoral. Murray chose to end his book this way (p. 313):

Barney McGuigan’s son, Charles, meanwhile would have been better justified than most in deciding that he should avenge the army, the security forces, or the government that stood behind them. But nor did he choose to do so in the years after his father’s death. To Lord Saville he recounted how, ‘at the time of my father’s death, my mother cleared a space in our kitchen and made me kneel under the Sacred Heart picture and swear to her that I would never do anything about my father’s death that would bring shame on the name of the family. Having lost her husband, I believe that my mother was determined that she would not lose any other member of her family as a result of what had happened.’ He finished, ‘I have honoured that promise to this day.’

All of these people, and many others, realised that they had a choice. And, like many others who have no memorials and are rarely recognised, they made the most important decision of all. They decided that in response to murder they did not have to become murderers themselves. If the peace in Northern Ireland is ever secured fully it will be when the exaltation of the men of violence is consigned to the past and people exalt instead men and women of peace like those who set out one cold, bright afternoon, marching for justice, and managed for the course of a lifetime never to lose sight of that goal.

For Murray there are murderers both in the British Army and in the various expressions of the IRA. For example, his chapter devoted to Soldier F is unflinching in its condemnation of this man’s actions, as well as in its judgement that his testimony to the inquiry was less than forthright.

Murray is also tough on Martin McGuinness. Just in case readers are in any doubt about what Murray thinks of our Deputy First Minister, he titles the chapter devoted to his evidence: ‘The Terrorist: Martin McGuinness.’

Murray’s descriptions of McGuinness’ testimony are on the one hand entertaining, showing us how McGuinness was able to outwit and out-talk those questioning him. On the other hand, Murray suggests that McGuinness, like Soldier F, was not fully open with the inquiry, and claims that he intimidated other people in the city so that they would not reveal certain aspects of what happened on the day.

For example, Murray examines the well-known claim that McGuinness fired the ‘first shot’ on Bloody Sunday, from a submachine gun. Murray reports that Saville found that it could ‘make no finding’ on whether or not he did. But in his chapter on ‘Agents and Handlers’ Murray considers the claim made by an intelligence agent known as ‘Infliction’, shortly after Bloody Sunday, that McGuinness had admitted firing a shot, and that furthermore he felt guilty about this.

Infliction did not testify at the inquiry because it was believed this would compromise his/her anonymity. Murray covered much of this ground in a condensed form in an article in the Telegraph the day after the Saville Report was released, but he goes even further in the book, speculating (among other options, of course), that McGuinness himself could even be Infliction.

The book also includes chapters devoted to Bernadette Devlin, Colonel Wilford, and Prime Minister Edward Heath.

This book raises many issues and questions that remain unanswered – and I am not talking about specific questions like what exactly Martin McGuinness did during every minute of Bloody Sunday. Running throughout the book are important underlying issues that arise when trying to discern how to deal with the past. These include:

  • Memory itself is problematic, as people struggle to remember events that happened so long ago and to discern which memories are truly their own and which have been influenced by subsequent video, audio and written reports.
  • People won’t always tell the truth, even when under oath and (theoretically) guaranteed anonymity.
  • In most cases, the suffering of victims and survivors has not been adequately recognised.
  • ‘Memorialising’ the past is problematic, as certain actors have more power and are better able to get their version of history accepted in the public sphere.

The Saville Inquiry cost a lot of money and took a long time to come to its findings. It’s unrealistic to think that every event during Northern Ireland’s Troubles will receive the attention that Bloody Sunday has received. But the underlying issues raised in this book, indeed highlighted by the Saville Inquiry, must be addressed for there to be a sustainable transition from violence.