Saville report leaves stain on the army

By Jonathan Beale
Defence correspondent, BBC News

Image caption,
Thirteen people were shot dead by the Army on 30 January 1972

There can be no doubt that Lord Saville's report is a stain on the reputation of the British Army.

Politicians who are more used to praising the heroism and sacrifice of soldiers are now heaping opprobrium on the actions of a few.

In the words of the Prime Minister: "You do not defend the British Army by defending the indefensible."

Lord Saville concluded that some soldiers committed "unjustified and unjustifiable" shootings of unarmed and innocent civilians.

But talk to the lawyers of the soldiers involved, or to others who've served in uniform, and there's already a strong sense of injustice.

Severe provocation

Stephen Pollard, who represents some of the soldiers who fired the shots on Bloody Sunday, says that Lord Saville has "cherry picked" the evidence to suit a particular agenda.

Gen Sir Mike Jackson, who witnessed the events as a captain in the Parachute Regiment, wants the public to remember the context.

He says the majority of the soldiers who served in Northern Ireland behaved admirably, often in the face of severe provocation.

There are similar sentiments from Col Stuart Tootal - the former Commander of 3 Para in Afghanistan.

He says that no-one should forget the contribution the British Army made to bringing peace to Northern Ireland, nor the atrocities it suffered at the hands of the IRA.

Of the day itself, he says: "It was a shooting war, individual soldiers were under enormous pressure, having to make split second decisions."

Even the current head of the Army clearly fears that some of the actions of a few have unfairly damaged the reputation of the many.

Gen Sir David Richards issued a statement saying that he "fully agreed" with the Prime Minister's apology.

But he went on to add that the overwhelming majority of soldiers deployed to Northern Ireland "conducted themselves with utter professionalism, restraint and humanity".

His statement reminds us that 651 British soldiers lost their lives and more than 6,000 were wounded during the Troubles.

'Very painful'

Image caption,
Crowds tore up a banner depicting the original Bloody Sunday report

The Army says it learned the hard lessons of Bloody Sunday long ago, with changes to soldiers' training and rules of engagement.

That all makes the harsh criticisms of the Saville report harder to swallow.

In the words of another former officer: "It's all very painful."

Members of the Parachute Regiment, in particular, will feel the hurt.

Along with battle honours gained at Arnhem, the Falklands, and more recently, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan, they now have to live with the disgrace of Bloody Sunday.

But for most soldiers serving today it may be hard to see the significance.

Many of the troops currently deployed in Afghanistan were not even born when Bloody Sunday happened.

Nevertheless, the Saville Report will be a reminder to everyone who serves that they could be held to account for their actions.