Bloody Sunday prosecutions might be justifed if they prompted IRA confessions

Douglas Murray is a  libertarian right winger who goes in  head-on where others hesitate. He wrote a forensically detailed  and heart breaking account of  Bloody Sunday  which was equally unsparing of  the Army and persistently questioning of the IRA, as was noted by Gladys when  his book appeared just after the highly emotional reception that greeted the  Saville report. In his Spectator blog  Murray has  continued to put awkward questions to the Army and Martin McGuinness  alike.

Although I am all for the argument that we should hold members of our own armed forces to a higher standard than we should, say, members of paramilitary organisations, the argument is based on the fact that they operate on behalf of the state and that the state itself is harmed by leaving such wrongdoing unpunished. Yet Martin McGuinness is also now part of the state, and it could hardly be said, by even the most generous of observers, that the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland has told the whole and full truth to date about what he did during his self-confessed period as a commander of the IRA. Either he was involved in murders himself or he is asking us to believe that he rose through the ranks of the IRA whilst keeping his hands and mind unusually clean.

Murray’s position is highly political. He does his best to prevent republicans from highjacking Bloody Sunday and making political capital out of it. Too late?  I have assumed that the point of pressing McGuinness was not that he ever believed that he would get answers about carrying a machine gun that day . Many will write off his pursuit  with a  “no case to answer” retort and  this I suspect is the truth of this particular matter. But by exposing  McGuinness’ omerta  Murray is highlighting the IRA’s share of malign  responsibility  for plunging the nationalist side of the community into thirty years of conflict, a case that  nationalism  arguably still fails fully to admit to itself.  He’s  about people taking responsibility for their actions, the IRA  and  the Army included. This is his rejoinder to the terms in which General Dannatt’s objected to the news of likely  prosecutions, noted by Mick

I have always thought that the Bloody Sunday soldiers who killed on the day and then lied to Saville should certainly be the subject of a proper internal army review, apart from anything else to find out where they may have been responsible for similar actions and to find out how on earth it was that the army retained the services of men who had acted so heinously on the streets of a British city. I am also persuaded that there is a case for prosecutions in certain of those cases. But there can be no rationale whatsoever for such prosecutions if they happen in a vacuum. And if plaques are going to start being allowed to go up to commemorate the lives of terrorists in North Belfast then this is no time to prosecute the troops of 1 Para in the British courts.

For once Murray fails to face up to a uncomfortable conclusion. Even as republican coat trailing is becoming as serious as the loyalist variety  everybody knows that  time will never come.   Murray deep down knows it too, even though he normally enjoys saying the almost unsayable. Prosecutions can only happen on the basis of evidence.  For former paratroopers evidence seems to be available but not for McGuinness. Legally that’s the end of the matter. Wider justice may be a different matter whatever happened on that day.

Not only republicans will say that the account is still very unbalanced . For all I know the PSNI agree; that would explain their decision to open enquiries into Bloody Sunday. Thousands of paramilitaries spent decades in jail; only a handful of soldiers were briefly imprisoned. The Army benefited from the presumption that they were acting in good faith and were generally to  be believed while the opposite was true for the paramilitaries.

There will be no flood of confessions. A new initiative to reopen accounts for the entire Troubles is out of the question. “Everybody knows” but whatever you say… Prosecutions based on randomly available evidence unearthed by the partly compromised historic enquiries team will not satisfy the campaigns of the more implacable victims and their supporters . They will never be sated. Who among us would be sure of saying anything different in their position? The best to  hope for is that is that prospects  for the future will not be hopelessly constrained by irreconcilable approaches to dealing with the past. How unfortunate that the big book on  Bloody Sunday was not closed for the sake of a gesture of exposure and a handful of suspended short sentences.

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London