Analysis & Comment

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Ugly truths from a dark history as the moral compass shifts on Bloody Sunday'

What happened to plain English? According to RTE news headlines on Thursday morning, the 13 victims who were shot dead on Bloody Sunday, and the fourteenth who died later in hospital, “received fatal injuries”. There’s a euphemism if ever there was one. A much better word is murder.

Officially it can’t be described that way, but last week’s decision by the North’s Public Prosecutions Service to charge only one of the members of the Parachute Regiment who were deployed in the Bogside that day in 1972 with the murder of two of the victims and the attempted murder of four others does not change the facts.

The tragedy of Northern Ireland is that this still cannot be said without it becoming a political sparring match. Gregory Campbell, the DUP MP for East Londonderry, appeared on radio last Thursday following the DPP’s decision, and launched immediately into a stupefying display of one-sided indignation. What, he demanded to know, about the hundreds of murders committed by the Provisional IRA?

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After more than 47 years, is it really so hard to just admit that Bloody Sunday was, without qualification or mitigation, abominable?

Whose interests are served by this obstinacy? Tit for tat whataboutery disgraces the memory of the dead, including IRA victims.

Gregory Campbell’s argument rests on two assertions. One is that Irish republicans are hypocritical when it comes to condemning violence by the state while excusing it when committed by their own side. He’s not wrong. There are few sights more nauseating than a spokesperson for Sinn Fein pretending to be shocked by murder, before toddling off to organise another celebration for their favourite IRA killers. One man’s hypocrisy is not diminished, however, by pointing out that of his neighbour. It just means they’re both Pharisees.

His second contention is that the context in which troops were deployed that day has not been properly taken into account when considering what came next.

It’s true that there are different rules in war. Soldiers also have a right to self-defence. But that’s not what happened on Bloody Sunday. The Saville Report, which was published in 2010 after hearing more than 10 years of evidence, concluded that the soldiers were not under threat that day and did not fire in panic. Audio recordings make clear that there was a calculated decision to shoot victims dead, even when they had been independently confirmed to pose no threat. Wherever this happened, whether in Derry or Iraq, it would be a crime. Those involved could be charged and, if found guilty, jailed.

Those who rightly value the contribution made by armed forces in the fight against the IRA may be concerned about the possibility of retrospective prosecutions for men who were acting under duress, but it needs to be balanced by an equal recognition that shielding soldiers from the law in all circumstances damages the army’s reputation too.

Every single shot fired by soldiers is subject to subsequent investigation. Most soldiers never discharged their weapons at all while on tours of duty in Northern Ireland; and of those who did, the overwhelming majority did so under legitimate circumstances.

Even on Bloody Sunday, when there was a heavy army presence in the city to support police during the civil rights march, only 21 soldiers fired their weapons, and half the deaths were caused by just four soldiers.

To tarnish the reputation of all these men by equating their actions with those of Soldier F, who was found by the Saville inquiry to have killed at least four of the dead that day when they were defenceless and posing no threat, is far more shocking than the fact that he will now face charges of murder.

Difficult as it is for the victims of other atrocities, it does need to be acknowledged that Bloody Sunday was a unique event, not just in its totemic role as a rallying cry against the British presence in Ireland, but because, as one of the first incidents of multiple killings in the North, it was peculiarly horrific, akin to the 1960 Sharpeville massacre when South African police opened fire on protesters, killing 69 people.

The subsequent Widgery report into the deaths in the Bogside destroyed any prospect of restoring nationalist confidence in the political and legal system.

It matters when it is the state which engages in this murderous activity. That’s what made Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley’s recent remark that the killings carried out by soldiers during the Troubles were “not crimes” so damaging, undoing as it did all former prime minister David Cameron’s good work when he came to Derry in 2010 and said what happened in 1972 was “unjustified and unjustifiable”.

Just because those who pulled the trigger were in uniform at the time does not exculpate their guilt. Indeed, it could be argued that their role as representatives of the state makes their actions all the more reprehensible, which is why it was such a disappointment to the families of the dead that 16 other soldiers who fired their weapons that day will not also face charges.

The requirement that a conviction must be established “beyond reasonable doubt” has been the get-out clause that allowed numerous others to walk free from court despite being guilty of murder; but partial as the Bloody Sunday families’ victory was last week, the decision to prosecute Soldier F re-establishes an important principle, namely that history matters. “The past isn’t over, that’s the point,” as Eamonn McCann put it.

That idea has been deliberately degraded in recent times. The peace process determined that Northern Ireland needed to “move on” and leave the past behind. That meant sacrificing victims on the altar of political expediency, a cruel washing of hands supported at the highest echelons of the British and Irish governments as a matter of policy. This mutually advantageous pact of silence broke down periodically, but the benefit of turning a blind eye to what had been done in the name of Irish unity on one side, and God and Ulster on the other, always held firm in the end.

The row over whether Bloody Sunday soldiers should be prosecuted is only the latest strain to test this killers’ covenant on, to borrow another euphemism, so-called “legacy issues”. Most people will see through the rhetorical fog to the deeper value in last week’s decision. If what happened on that day matters, then what happened in the days before, and in all the days that followed, also matters.

For parties such as Sinn Fein, dealing with that dark history is a delicate balancing act, but it’s predicated on the notion that there was a line drawn under the Troubles by the Belfast Agreement, with strict Before and After demarcation. That strategy of distancing the current leadership from the past, while simultaneously exploiting the reluctance to speak plainly in order to whitewash the past in the here and now, has proven to be unsustainable. Recent history is back on the table, in all its ugly truth.

It’s a crucial resetting of the moral compass, and long overdue.

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