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.


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  • Brian,

    At this point all that is known for sure about Bloody Sunday is the death toll. We still don’t know if it was a criminal over reaction to a paramilitary provocation or something far worse in moral terms. McGuinness was very guarded in his testimony to the Savoy Commission and I don’t believe that the ranking OIRA figures testified at all. I would still love to know what was going through the head of the first soldier who opened fire at the crowd. Maybe forty years after what happened, with memory being as faulty as it is, we will never know the answer to that.

  • Mc Slaggart

    Brian Walker

    ” plunging the nationalist side of the community into thirty years of conflict, a case that nationalism arguably still fails fully to admit ”

    I would be of the view that British security forces “fear” of the “IRA” made the IRA.

    The most telling account of when someone knew the troubles had truly stated was of a man who was on the Courthouse steps in Omagh when the B specials came out and used brutal force on the people protesting for civil rights. His Protestant farmer friends had left him alone when they struck “cuddies” (girls) next to him. The B specials was deluded and scared and unaware of Newtons second law.

  • sherdy

    Some people seem to wonder ‘what was the Paras’ state of mind, or their intentions on that day.
    Have we forgotten that wherever the Paras were based they left dead and very bruised bodies. They were only acting true to form that day, knowing their CO Mike Jackson would defend them whatever they had done.
    If there are to be any prosecutions, Jackson should be the first to be charged with mass murder!

  • tacapall

    “We still don’t know if it was a criminal over reaction to a paramilitary provocation or something far worse in moral terms”

    FFS how clearer can you get –

    “British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was deeply sorry for the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” massacre, telling lawmakers that an investigation into Northern Ireland’s biggest mass killing by British soldiers showed the attack was unjustified.

    Cameron says the report shows there is “no ambiguity” about what happened that day, and that British soldiers fired first and even killed injured protesters trying to flee”

    Some of those killed were shot in the back, they were unarmed and not a threat. That would be viewed as murder in any normal persons eyes, except of course if your an ex British soldier.

  • cynic2

    I disagree. Its not a quiod pro quo.

    It was murder and if prosecutions can be brought they should .

    As they should be for Enniskillen, Claudy, McConville, McCartney, Donaldson, La Mon, The Abercorn, etc, etc. Only many of us fear they wont be because those who hold the information and evidence have too big a vested interest in keeping sweet one section of the community.

  • Sp12
  • carl marks

    agreed. no sane person could argue anything else!

  • carl marks

    oh any reason you left out loyalist atrocitys in your list?

  • wild turkey

    “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. ”

    Brian, one of your best pieces of writing to date…. and you have done a few.

    the words ‘omerta’ and ‘malign’ sums it all up… both the past and present. we’ll leave da nile (copyright bill clinton) for another time. shall we?

    PS the way i read murrays piece, his comments are not a 1000 miles away from what, perhaps, Christopher Hitchens would have written

  • Donal Davoren

    there is also the question of why Raymond and William paid former Derry IRA vols a visit and told them not to testify, hardly what the families wanted.

  • Harry Flashman

    “At this point all that is known for sure about Bloody Sunday is the death toll.”

    Heavens above, did some people sleep through 2010?

    This is the line that is still being peddled in many parts of the British media, I can understand their ignorance but posters on Slugger should at least be paying a wee bit of attention to what is going on in Northern Ireland.

    There is no longer any dispute about what happened on the afternoon of Sunday 30th January 1972 in the William Street/Rossville Street area of Londondonderry.

    Few events in the history of the UK have been as well analysed and examined as Bloody Sunday. The facts have been well and truly established, there are no doubts remaining about what happened, the course of events is crystal clear.

    For twelve years at vast expense a legal team under Mr Justice Saville forensically examined and meticulously investigated those events. Thousands of witnesses were cross examined, millions of pages of documents were studied, hours of tv coverage were looked at. Lawyers representing the victims and the soldiers were given equal access to evidence and witnesses and were able to make their case cogently and with eloquence.

    The report was published and accepted in its entirety without equivocation by the Prime Minister of the UK who made a fulsome and very humanitarian apology in the House of Commons in a gesture that did great credit to him and his government.

    The facts can be summed up in a very brief way, the victims were unarmed, they posed no threat whatsoever to the troops, the shooting of them was entirely unjustified and the claims made by the thousands of Bogsiders and journalists over the years about the Army, specifically the Parachue Regiment, and its behaviour were upheld and fully vindicated. The Army’s version of events was utterly discredited.

    I hope this clears things up for those who have difficulty following rather simple concepts.

  • Brian Walker

    Saville ruled on innocence but not on individual guilt. A criminal investigation may or may not lead to prosecutions. I guess it will be a long haul. Presumably more is needed than the Saville witness testimony.
    Soldiers who were witnesses before the inquiry cannot be prosecuted out of their own mouths if they are believed to have told the truth but I suppose perjury prosecutions might be considered.
    The DPP has to decide on the evidence and in the public interest. On the facts of the day, the passage of time would be a factor, for perjury less so, because much more recent. The public interest could be argued either way but it would be a very bold DPP to rule out prosecutions if the evidence was strong enough for a court.

    This case is a good example of the failure to grip the issues of the past. I would argue that the wider public interest isn’t served by prosecutions, others argue for the primacy of individual justice over community interest.

    On that highly emotional day in Guildhall square before the big screen, it seemed as if the findings of innocence and collective guilt were enough. Many of those who keep demanding the pursuit of individual justice will never be satisfied.

    Logically and whatever the authorities may say, there is no line that can be drawn; inquiries can always be reopened, as we’ve seen elsewhere.

    With all respect to them and the emphasis given to victims, they and their supporters should not dictate what happens precisely because they are so emotionally involved. This gives victimhood too much power.

    As for the old paramilitaries the responsible thing to do would be to confess. For that to happen an amnesty would have to be declared in exchange for admissions of guilt.

    Victims might then have some satisfaction. If not it would be shown that retribution is what they really want. While that is understandable too it would at least expose motives and allow a coherent debate to take over how much further to go.

    But no government will take the risk of confronting the implacable victims advocates. The British government lacks courage and shrugs off a decision to the local parties, knowing that they are incapable of agreeing what to do.

    And so the deadlock remains.

  • Harry Flashman

    “A criminal investigation may or may not lead to prosecutions. I guess it will be a long haul. Presumably more is needed than the Saville witness testimony.”

    Oh gee whizz, here we go again, yup, it’s a real tough criminal investigation and no mistake.

    A dozen or so men who have been fully identified opened fire in broad daylight shooting thriteen men dead in front of thousands of witnesses and the world’s media who recorded the events as they transpired.

    The men made statements about their shooting to their bosses and the police, they submitted their weapons for ballistic tests which conclusively identified which man shot whom. The victims’ bodies were examined forensically and confirmed the shootings.

    The victims of the shooting were all unarmed and in many cases were shot from behind as they ran away or with their hands up, there is ample photographic evidence to prove this, the witnesses who include policemen, clergymen, lawyers, doctors and journalists have all given corroborating evidence which proves overwhelmingly that there is a massive prima facie case of unlawful killing.

    All of the above lies outside Saville and has no bearing on Saville.

    Are you seriously telling me that there is some complexity in this investigation?

    On the above grounds anyone else would be in the dock in three months’ flat. The soldiers may claim they fired justifiably, fair enough, instruct their solicitors accordingly and let a jury compare their evidence with the overwhelming evidence contradicting and discrediting them, what’s so hard about that?

    Is it only British Paras who get such kid-glove treatment from the peelers? If they’d been Radio One DJ’s or Catholic priests who groped teenaged girls in the 1970s they’d be in jail by now.

  • Morpheus

    The Government does’t have a choice as far as I can see. If they are going to pick and choose who is to face prosecution and who doesn’t, with immunity for agents of the state and those they colluded with, then why bother with a HET? Why bother looking into the numerous other atrocities that happened in Northern Ireland?

    Every single family of those killed by Republicans, Loyalists and The State deserve justice. If the evidence is there, which it obviously is in this case, then the full weight of the law should come down on the perpetrators.

    I suspect that the main issue here is what could happens if the soldiers were to take the stand – what they will say and who they could implicate? In my opinion this will be put off and put off until everyone is dead and exactly what happened will come out in some report in 20-30 years time when nothing can be done about it.

  • Brian Walker


    Did the paras honestly believe they were under fire?

    Did they mistake their own fire for hostile fire?

    Apart from gungo-ho aggression I myself has witnessed from 1 Para the previous Saturday at Magilligan it remains a puzzle as to what the hell they thought they were doing, keeping up the firing for 20 minutes

    Yes I agree, I can’t think of a credible explanation other than cold blooded murder ( less likely) or appalling loss of unit and self control ( more likely),

    .Ah Harry if only you were a prosecutor you’d show ’em

  • Charles_Gould

    Anyone watching the debate in the Commons on Haass?

    Great contribution from Mark Durkan and other SDLP MPs.

  • Charles_Gould

    Durkan: *the* great statesman and parliamentarian on the NI benches in the Commons.

  • Charles_Gould

    Alasdair McDonnell also very clearly set out in the Commons debate the SDLP’s position on the Newry play park naming issue and I think that was very important.

  • Mc Slaggart

    Brian Walker

    “gungo-ho aggression I myself has witnessed from 1 Para the previous Saturday at Magilligan”

    Occam’s razor:

    “among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected”

  • Expat

    Brian Walker

    All the available evidence points to murder having been committed. Murderer, whether of the cold-blooded sort or any other, should be prosecuted. Considerations such as prosecutions in return for IRA concessions are squalid, as are the other reservations you raise, which only cloud the fundamental issue of the right to justice. I am aghast at your comment: ‘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’. I can think of nothing more likely to guarantee the book would remain open for many years to come.

  • Harry Flashman

    “Did the paras honestly believe they were under fire?

    Did they mistake their own fire for hostile fire?”

    Brian you raise the same red herring that keeps cropping up on the other thread “what was the paras’ motive?”, their motive is of no concern to prosecutors, that is something that can be raised at a trial.

    We have no idea what Harold Shipman, Fred West or Peter Sutcliffe’s motives were, it was irrelevant, the forensic evidence of their having committed a crime was sufficient to charge and convict them.

    I have in front of me a series photos of Paddy Doherty being shot, the man is standing, then crouching as he moves past a twenty foot high concrete wall, he is clearly unarmed and running away from the paras, there is no gunman within fifteen feet of him (there was no gunman anywhere) and yet he is shot dead.

    If the soldier who shot him says he fired only aimed shots, as all the soldiers did, then I am gobsmacked that anyone could possibly believe that it would be difficult to prosecute that soldier.

    There was also the case of Barney McGuigan, a plump, balding middle-aged man yelling “don’t shoot!” with his hands up as he moved slowly to assist a dying man, his head was blown off by an aimed shot, this was also photographed. Good luck to the Para who did that claiming self defence in court.

    The shooting of the young man who was lying prone in the car park behind Kells Walk, a witness says he saw him being shot in back of the the head at point blank range by a Para as he lay on the ground, forensic and ballistic evidence could very quickly confirm whether the witness was lying or whether indeed the soldier fired “aimed shots” at a gunman. I wouldn’t fancy that soldier’s chances facing a jury.

    Just for the record I don’t believe there should be prosecutions, in my opinion Saville closed the book, but I have to say my teeth grate when people say, “oh it would be so hard to get a prosecution in this case”, utter balderdash! if ever a case was open and shut it is Bloody Sunday, even without anything produced at Saville.

  • boondock

    Prosecutions will never happen as HarryFlashman has already pointed out the evidence has been there for years so what exactly else is needed. I get the feeling that things are being stalled untill all the soldiers and their superiors are dead in fact of the 2 main culprits who shot between 8 and 10 of the victims, soldier G is already dead and soldier F was reported to be poorly and that was 3 years ago and the likes of Wilford and Ford must be well into their eighties now

  • People in their 80s and 90s fairly frequently go on trial for atrocities including murders around the world. Various European countries and Cambodia are some that come to mind.

  • Harry Flashman

    “soldier G is already dead”

    I wasn’t aware of that, is there a possibility that he and his victims can now be identified? I see no reason why not.

  • Expat

    The book on Bloody Sunday may be closed in respect of prosecutions, but not in terms of the hurt felt by those who lost loved ones and the sense of injustice felt by the nationalist community that they should have been subjected to such treatment and no-one be held to account. The events will continue to weigh upon the political scene and constitute a marker of a wrong yet to be overcome as part of wider justice.

    The gist of Brian Walker’s piece and follow-on posts seems to be that NI could not handle the consequences of a decision to prosecute. Given the entrenched unwillingness of large sections of Unionism to countenance any wrong-doing by the army and their sustained opposition to further enquiry by Saville, trial and retribution was potentially explosive politically – it might be seen as pandering to the grievance of one side of the society and a form of betrayal of the other. It was not for the want of evidence that prosecutions were not pursued, but the service of the ‘public interest’. The fear of the Loyalist reaction, violent or otherwise, and its possible destabilising effects on the delicate political settlement, determined the public interest in this case, as in so many others.