The broad conclusions of Saville’s inquiry are not in doubt. There was no justification for the killing of 14 people in Londonderry on that dreadful day, and the order to deploy the support company soldiers was in contradiction to superior orders. This event tore apart any prospect of restraint and caused many more deaths in subsequent years in addition to the grievous losses of bereaved families. There should have been court martials at the time to restore the reputation of the British Army, which is supposed to uphold the laws and values that terrorists unfailingly flout.
There was a tactical threat to soldiers in the area at the time, and the presence of nail bombs on one of the dead and the coincidence of an armed Martin McGuinness both serve to underline that threat. It does not justify the loss of life, but provides some rationale other than simply bloodthirsty soldiers, and the Army has subsequently changed radically its doctrine for counter-insurgency and military support to the civil power operations.
The Widgery inquiry at the time was quite happy with the testimony of the soldiers. The Saville inquiry was instigated following the review of the original inquiry statements by an academic (Professor Dermot Walsh) in 1996 and calls from the Irish government in 1997. Saville does not appear to have considered the inadequacy of the Widgery inquiry, which was plainly a whitewash. The blame has been dumped upon the soldiers, for providing misleading accounts which were apparently taken at face value (and not shown to counsel for the families at the time). This is a clear case of ‘the establishment’ covering its own exposed backside, even some thirty years later…no wonder we have whitewash after whitewash in this country….
This may also prove uncomfortable for Mr McGuinness, in the context of the current peace settlement. Why it was released at this time, a couple of weeks before the marching season and peak time of confrontation, is beyond me. It should have been released earlier or sat upon until the autumn. There is ammunition for all in this highly sensitive report and too many will take advantage of it.
And the cost and timescale is simply ridiculous. It was clear to anyone at the time that the killings were unjustified and the inadequacies of the Widgery inquiry were plain enough to see following release of the documents in 1996.
Lessons seem to have been learned at face value, but have they really? What difference lies between the events of January 1972 and the shooting of Jean Charles De Menezes? Will it take another inquiry to overturn the findings of that inquiry? If someone had a nail bomb in a pocket in London today, would they be a legitimate target for police marksmen? Will the inquiry into the death of Baha Mousa in Army custody conveniently ignore the deceit of ministers such as Adam Ingram, who claimed ignorance of hooding, and simply blame the soldiers? The UK also supported US forces in Fallujah, where 17 civilians were killed under very similar circumstances.
I hope this inquiry provides comfort for those who lost loved ones in wholly unjustified circumstances and aids reconciliation. I also hope we can learn lessons rather than analysing events of 40 years ago at the same time as ignoring more recent failings.