John McAnulty of Ireland’s Socialist Democracy looks at the publication of the Saville Report.
Thirty eight years of protest. Over a decade of legal activity. Over 100 million in costs. A dramatic apology in Westminster. A gathering of the great and the good in Derry. Britain accepts that 14 civil rights demonstrators in Derry were innocent people unlawfully killed.
What is the significance of the admission and apology? The word on everyone’s lips was closure. The findings would bring closure and release for the relatives of the dead. Once the psychobabble dies away many may come to doubt that this belated apology and the recitation of facts they already knew are enough to wipe away the murder by a state of its citizens after 38 years of lies and coverup. In any case it is inconceivable that the resources of the Saville report were expended in the interests of the relatives.
David Cameron has a more straightforward political and pragmatic explanation. The time and money invested in the report are well worthwhile because it spells closure not just for the relatives, but for everyone. And not closure in the sense of a feeling of release. No. Closure means finis – the end. No more prying and poking into the role of the British in Ireland. No more awkward questions. We are in a new and different era. The Troubles are behind us and we must never look back.
As with so much else connected with the peace process, closure is asymmetric. Cameron makes it clear that any republicans not washed clean by the peace deal will still be pursued. On the other hand, we can never expect to hear any admission about the Dublin-Monaghan bombings or any explanation as to why the members of the Loyalist gang that killed lawyer Pat Finucaine were also simultaneously agents of the British state.
Leaving that aside, is Cameron correct? Is the Saville report a firm foundation for a new era in Ireland?
What the report does is lead us step-by-step, bullet-by-bullet, through a day’s killing. That walk-through is enough to exonerate the victims and expose the paratroopers as killers. What the report doesn’t do, in all the endless pages of testimony, is explain why the marchers were killed.
A nebulous picture is drawn of the para’s leader breaking discipline and ordering his men into the Bogside in defiance of policy and of individual soldiers then going berserk. “Wilford ignored orders from his brigadier that he should not order troops beyond a barrier deeper into the Bogside”, the report said. The issue of Colonel Wilford’s action is not pursued. General, then adjutant, Michael Jackson emerges unscathed despite having penned the account of soldiers fighting for their lives that became officially adopted as the Widgery whitewash.
We are asked to believe that members of the British army’s elite unit, trained to obey without question, behaved on that one day as a rabble. We are asked to believe that soldier F, who killed four demonstrators on Bloody Sunday, went on to serve out a full career as a reliable servant of state policy, having gone berserk on one single day, just as his fellow soldiers choose the same day to break the straightjacket of their training.
On some aspects Saville is crystal clear. The army high command, the cabinet, the British state – all are innocent. Saville exonerates the army’s then commander of land forces in Northern Ireland, General Robert Ford, of any blame. It notes that he had agreed to deploy the Parachute Regiment in the city against the advice of a senior police officer in Derry. The report concluded that Ford “neither knew nor had reason to know at any stage that his decision would or was likely to result in soldiers firing unjustifiably on that day”.
At this point the report becomes a farce. Only by narrowing his vision down to single square centimeters of the Bogside is Saville able to ignore the evidence that the policy of the British state was to break up the mass civil rights protests by whatever means necessary.
In the run-up to Bloody Sunday the Unionist government openly lobbied the British to use decisive force and quickly smash civil rights before the local administration fell. The British Government held a special cabinet meeting to agree policy. In the aftermath of the meeting the Paras were moved to Derry. In the days before Bloody Sunday they beat into the ground thousands of demonstrators at Magilligan. They had carried out a drawn – out program of assassination in Ballymurphy before the transfer to Derry.
It is not as if British actions changed after Bloody Sunday. By any standards the Troubles were a dirty war involving ambush, assassination, mass terror and the formation of Loyalist death squads organized and armed by the state and operating with relative impunity. These crimes will be informally admitted by the British, justified by the necessity to suppress an armed rising. It’s not a defence that applies to the killing of unarmed demonstrators.
The significance of Bloody Sunday, the reason that fourteen people died, is because the British state had decided that it was not in its interests to allow civil rights in the North of Ireland. Contrary to statements made later as a foundation to the peace process, Britain has very considerable “selfish, strategic and economic” interests in Ireland. It considers the best way of defending those interests the continuation of its partial occupation. That requires a mass unionist base and the continuation of partition, ruling out any democratic solution.
The reason that the Saville report does not represent closure is because British policy has not changed. Having drowned democracy in blood, they spilt rivers of blood to construct a new dispensation based, not on democratic rights, but on sectarian rights. The current success of that policy is witnessed by the cheers of their former opponents as they say sorry and close the book. However the settlement is not a solution. Claims of closure do not mark finis.
On the morning of Bloody Sunday many nationalist workers believed that peaceful protest could win democracy. They were wrong. By the end of the day many believed that a militarist solution, the triumph of the will, would bring a solution. They were wrong.
Democracy in Ireland is not possible within the confines of capitalism and imperialism. Closure is not yet and we must strive to build a working class movement that will make it possible.