Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Bloody Sunday Justice - at last

Yesterday, the Saville Report on the Bloody Sunday massacre was published. It confirmed what was known all along: that British soldiers fired on unarmed, peaceful demonstrators, murdering 14 of them - 13 that day, with one of the wounded dying later.

The background to the story was that a peaceful but "illegal" civil rights demonstration was held by Roman Catholics in the Bogside area of Derry (Northern Ireland) on the 30th of January, 1972. Members of the British Paratroop Regiment (who in fairness, it must be remembered, had been sent there initially to protect the Catholics from Unionist violence) opened fire, claiming that they had been fired upon first.

An inquiry by a tribunal led by Lord Chief Justice Widgery and completed in haste (reporting their findings on April 19, 1972), stated that the actions of some of the soldiers "bordered on reckless" but also concluded that three of the dead had been armed and firing weapons. This conclusion was based on the fact that they were found to have lead residue on their hands, implying that they had handled bullets (although the cartridges of bullets are made of brass) and nail bombs "found" on one of the deceased.

No explosives residue was found on any of the deceased and one of those who had such residue was known to work with lead solder in his normal employment. Moreover, it was known that in a number of cases, the dead were lifted into waiting vehicles by soldiers - who had themselves been firing guns. It was pointed out, even at the time, that this alone could explain the lead residue on the hands. But Widgery rejected this, saying that he didn't think it was very likely. There was just one problem: Widgery hadn't bothered to take any scientific evidence on the subject. Any competent forensic scientist could have told him that lead residue could indeed be transferred in this way.

It was also pointed out that the nail bombs supposedly found on one of the bodies could easily have been planted there. Certainly there was no evidence that any such bombs had been detonated. Furthermore no soldier was either killed or injured and no traces of any bullets or cartridges from any guns other than those of the soldiers were found.  Nor did anyone other than some of the soldiers claim to have seen any of the demonstrators firing guns.

Thus it was clear even at the time that all the victims were innocent. This means that Lord Widgery's report was not only wrong: it was brazenly dishonest. A coroner's inquest was also held at the time and the Coroner (retired British Army Major Hubert O'Neill,) required the jury to return open verdicts because of the overall uncertainty in any particular case. (NB Although the inquest covered all the deaths, each fatality required a separate verdict.) However, having required the jury to return open verdicts on those narrow technical grounds, the coroner then indicated his own overview of the actions of the soldiers as a whole when he stated that: " I would say without hesitation that it was sheer, unadulterated murder. It was murder."

All of this leads us to the present and what should be done about it 38 years later. Some would say forgive and forget. Others would point out that there is no statute of limitations on murder. It has been pointed out that the Good Friday Agreement granted a de facto amnesty for members of "paramilitary" organizations that observed the ceasefire unequivocally. Indeed Sinn Fein co-leader Gerry Adams made it clear in an interview while the agreement was being negotiated that failure to agree to early release of the "paramilitaries" was a deal breaker.

Now it is to the credit of the British government, that even whilst acceding to this thoroughly unreasonable demand (that violated the rights of the victims of terrorism), they never sought to introduce a similar provision for soldiers. However, notwithstanding this omission, the question is should such a reciprocal arrangement be deemed to apply?

I have to confess that I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand it is offensive that those who killed the innocent should escape justice. On the other hand it is equally offensive that one party to the agreement should be denied the benefits that are granted to the other. Some would say that a government and a genuine army should be held to a higher standard than terrorists masquerading as soldiers.  And this is certainly true. But it is not something that Gerry Adams can say - at least not legitimately.

But perhaps there is a remedy. It is now becomingly increasingly clear that some of the soldiers lied to the Widgery Tribunal and/or the coroner. Could these soldiers not be prosecuted for Perjury and Perverting the Course of Justice (both of which carry maximum sentences of 10 years imprisonment)? Indeed if it can be proven that any of them are guilty of Conspiracy to Pervert the Course of Justice, they could be imprisoned for Life!

This could be used as a means for squaring the circle and ensuring that those who wronged the honoured and innocent dead - first by killing them and then by lying about them over their graves - are brought to justice. At the same time it would honour the principle of reciprocity and deliver a powerful message to Gerry Adams and his cohorts that they have made their bed and must now lie in it.

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