Bernadette Devlin McAliskey
I witnessed the events of Bloody Sunday and its violent legacy. The British government, not soldiers, should be held to account.
The outcome of the Saville inquiry has been published. A second British prime minister has apologised for the killing of unarmed and innocent protesters. This time the British government acknowledged the actions of members of the British army were unjustified and unjustifiable.
Prosecutions of individual foot soldiers are unlikely. Their own testimony cannot be used, and almost 40 years after the event, prosecution will raise a whole new series of concerns and debate about human rights violations oppressive litigation, and the application of the terms of the peace agreements. A respected human rights lawyer has already offered their services in prosecuting the real culprit, the British state. But Lord Saville has exonerated the state.
I was on the speaker’s platform on Bloody Sunday. Despite burying the images in some deep mental archive, Bloody Sunday refuses to fade or mellow in my consciousness. Initially, disbelief gave way to fear, horror, anger, and then detachment. Finally, I was angry only with myself.
My political analysis had until then discounted any real belief – despite the long history of Anglo-Irish conflict – that the British government would countenance killing the people in order to suppress the protests. Now that it had happened, it made sense to me that it had always been going to happen and would continue; it was fundamental to the nature of the British state in Ireland. I felt I should have known that, and now I did, I was still up for the fight.
The key impact of Bloody Sunday was that a whole generation made a similar analysis and this fuelled some 25 years of violent political conflict, at least tolerated by the majority of the “minority population” and actively pursued by a significant but sustainable minority. It is responsibility for this legacy that sets Bloody Sunday apart from subsequent atrocities on all sides.
As a member of parliament at the time, I was denied the right to give parliament an eyewitness account. The home secretary, Reginald Maudling, lied to the House and the media willingly collaborated in uncritically repeating the government misrepresentation. In what was considered gross overreaction and disgracefully violent behaviour, I crossed the floor of the House and hit him.
I did not call for a public inquiry, did not welcome the Saville inquiry and only testified to respect the wishes of the bereaved families. I regret none of those things, but challenge the view that it was an expensive waste of time, energy and money. Had Bloody Sunday been no more than a violent and disgraceful overreaction or unlawful behaviour on the part of a few “squaddies” or overzealous commanders, it would not have required the British government and its military to create the complicated labyrinth of lies and deceit which has taken hundreds of testimonies, thousands of pages, millions of pounds and 38 years to unravel.
The Bloody Sunday Trust and the bereaved families have shown great stamina and courage in their quest for disclosure and truth. Respectfully, however, Bloody Sunday isn’t just about the families or how the 13 individuals lost their lives that day; the 14th dying later of his wounds. It is about whether the British government committed a war crime in 1972 and in so doing started a war. It is the British government, not their anonymous and brutalised soldiers of their alphabet army who should be in the dock, at the international court of justice at The Hague. If Saville has closed that route to truth and justice, the British government will consider it worth every penny.
Had the British state been speedily held to account at The Hague, things might have been different for a lot of people, not least for nine Turkish human rights activists on their way to Gaza. They might not have been so confidently slaughtered by the state of Israel.
Bernadette Devlin McAliskey is a socialist republican political activist. She served as a Member of Parliament at Westminster from 1969 to 1974 for the Mid Ulster constituency. For a quick biography, see this wikipedia entry.
Originally published in The Guardian, June 15, 2010