The Channel 4 film “Massacre at Ballymurphy” will quickly be seized on as ammunition in the battle of narratives for dealing with the past. Those who complain that not only the narrative but justice has become one sided may believe that the documentary has handed a propaganda victory to Sinn Fein: and so whatever the gross hypocrisy involved, it probably has. But this is beside the point. To think of it only in Clausewitzian terms is to view it through the narowest of blinkers. To do so would discount the eye witness evidence which is searingly compelling. Although the families are now well organised and supported, it would be an insult and a cardinal error to think of them as republican stooges. So let’s leave the propaganda battle aside.
True, the film was one sided. That’s because the MoD is reserving its position for the inquest about to begin shortly. Already the judge has warned the MoD not to drag its feet.
Because of the similar deployment of 1 Para, the witness testimony prefigured Bloody Sunday seven months later, but strung out over three days. All 11 victims died unarmed and isolated on open ground, 10 of them shot. The innocence of all of them is accepted already. The contrast between the youthful Fr Des Wilson of 47 years ago and the elderly Des of today was poignant to behold but his eloquence was as striking as ever.
Why then was there not an immediate outcry as in Derry on the day of Bloody Sunday and the creation of a cause celebre? Even here, the phenomenon of reluctance of the witnesses and relatives to speak out prevailed for years in case they’d be stigmatised as propaganda fodder. At the time the Ballymurphy experience was submerged in the general turmoil of internment throughout the province when 342 were arrested, three shot dead, 7000 were left homeless and “ all Belfast seemed on fire.”
Unlike Bloody Sunday the shootings lacked the visual impact of happening on camera in a concentrated short period. Unlike Bloody Sunday too, there were significant exchanges of gunfire and the Army’s first version was given longer credibility. The film did not explore this and simply discounted the Army’s claims – (made at the time by among others, the future General Mike Jackson, then 1 Para’s PR man) that they were engaged in a gun battle with 40 gunmen and shot two dead . But the dead were never produced and the gunmen got away in spite of the estate being turned over by the army.
Even in the turbulent atmosphere of the internment operation launched on 9 August 1971, it is remarkable to say the least, that Ballymurphy (and not only Ballymurphy) was a virtual free fire zone and soldiers’ conduct was allowed to persist unchecked for three days. As in Saville, the orders of the chain of command must also be examined.
Last week in the House of Lords, retired generals, former secretaries of state and a former head of MI5 leapt to the Army’s defence and argued strongly in favour of a general “drawing a line “under the Troubles. That worthwhile aim will be debased as a bid for official cover up unless it is accompanied by frank admissions by the perpetrators in the forthcoming inquest and others to follow. If immunity is bargained for in exchange for testimony, let it happen. As the Lord Chief Justice has been appointed President of the Coroners Court, appeals for immunity can presumably be referred directly to the High Court. The inquest will be tested as a lesser tribunal than the Saville public inquiry to produce a satisfactory result in a much shorter time. A similar outcome to Bloody Sunday’s as seems merited, can only do good.
The inquest is an acid test of the state’s good faith. In its own interest, there must be no thought of whitewash. It’s true that in this case the IRA ran away but they were also often caught. Perhaps for those IRA gunmen and UVF gunmen in the vicinity, their day will still come some other time, if it hasn’t already, somewhere else.
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