Analysis: Saville's Bloody Sunday legacy

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News home affairs correspondent

image captionRelatives tear up the Widgery report in Derry

"1 Para arrived in Londonderry on the morning of Sunday 30th January 1972."

And from one simple, opening sentence, the Saville inquiry explains how a tragedy unfolded.

It has taken him 12 years, 10 volumes and almost £200m - but Lord Saville and his Bloody Sunday inquiry team have doggedly achieved a near blow-by-blow account of how 13 people were shot dead in a single day by the Parachute Regiment - all of them killed without justification.

The Widgery report, the 1972 inquiry which many dismissed as a whitewash, ran to 60 pages.

Saville's summary alone runs to the same length.

Yet even without delving deeper, these principal conclusions are detailed enough to leave families knowing that they have been vindicated and declaring that the Paras have been disgraced.

When Tony Blair pledged a fresh inquiry as part of the 1998 political deal, many unionists feared that history would be rewritten.

The families of the Bloody Sunday victims wanted Saville to rewrite history because they believed that Widgery had been so negligent with it in the first place.

Saville's response is an incredibly detailed document that comes as close as humanly possible to recreating, moment by moment, events of 38 years ago.

In any other context, that may have rendered the report a purely academic and historic document. But in the context of Northern Ireland this report is alive with the lessons of history.

No-go areas

The city of Derry in 1972 is unrecognisable from the city of today.

Some of the nationalist areas were under the de facto control of republican gunmen. A part of the UK had become ungovernable amid the inter-communal violence that had followed in the wake of the civil rights movement.

At the same time, Northern Ireland's Unionist government at Stormont had introduced internment for suspected paramilitaries and banned marches.

By January 1972, the predominantly nationalist civil rights movement had had enough and decided to defy the ban on marches.

Tensions were high and the 1st battalion of the Parachute Regiment was sent from Belfast to Derry to deal with any trouble.

Saville does not explicitly suggest that 1 Para arrived tooled up for a fight. But he makes clear that they were the wrong people to send into a powder keg situation because they had a reputation for excessive force.

Many marches were followed with a degree of rioting - but the organisers had sought assurances from the various republican factions that they would keep a lid on things while the peaceful demonstration took place.

But 1 Para had a specific role. They were told to arrest rioters from the "Derry Young Hooligans", the men lobbing petrol bombs at the security forces while being covered by republican snipers.

Command and control

Step-by-step, Saville dissects what went so terribly wrong. The commander on the ground, Brigadier Pat MacLellan, had the power to launch that arrest operation.

But he only authorised arrests where there was a physical separation of the rioters and marchers. In practice, this would have meant rushing a barricade and using force to snatch the trouble-makers and whisk them away.

Brigadier MacLellan's subordinate, Colonel Derek Wilford, disobeyed the orders and sent his unit to make arrests in an area where it was impossible to tell who was involved in violence and who was trying to flee the scene.

Meanwhile, a Lieutenant N fired shots over the heads of the crowd - something that turned out to be a fatally naïve decision. In the fog of war, other soldiers mistakenly believed that they were under attack and things spiralled from there.

"Soldiers reacted by losing their self-control and firing themselves, forgetting or ignoring their instructions and training and failing to satisfy themselves that they had identified targets posing a threat of causing death or serious injury," writes Saville.

"In the case of those soldiers who fired… it is at least possible that they did so in the indefensible belief that all the civilians they fired at were probably either members of the Provisional or Official IRA or were supporters… and so deserved to be shot."

Saville makes clear that only one of the dead, Gerald Donaghey, was a member of the Provisional IRA's youth wing. And even though he was "probably" carrying nail bombs, there was no justification for his death either.

That conclusion flies in the face of Widgery's general assertion that many of the dead had handled, fired or had been near to firearms and bombs.

The legacy

British soldiers had arrived on the streets in 1969 largely to protect Catholics from sectarian attacks. The honeymoon did not last and by 1972 many nationalists regarded them as propping up a sectarian state. In turn, many soldiers believed the nationalist communities had something to hide.

Northern Ireland was on the precipice. And Saville sides with the historians who have argued ever since that the decisions of a handful of soldiers on Bloody Sunday helped make the modern IRA.

"What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the Army and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed," says Saville.

"Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland."

Six months later, the Provisional IRA displayed its new-found power. It detonated some 20 bombs across Belfast, killing nine people and leaving 130 more mutilated and scarred forever.

Almost 40 years on, what happens now? Saville's report clearly sets out where he thinks soldiers gave suspect testimony. Some of those men are still alive - but the report does not make recommendations on prosecutions. Some families want their day in court.

Former Bishop of Derry Edward Daly, who tried in vain to shepherd Jackie Duddy to safety, says he wants to forgive. Saville, he says, shows wrongs will be righted without resorting to violence.