Bloody Sunday commander in row over 'republican' relatives

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The Independent Online
A DAMAGING row over the Bloody Sunday inquiry erupted yesterday after the former commander of the paratroopers involved in the shootings said the victims' relatives were a republican front organisation, and "almost every Ulster Catholic" was a republican. The comments by Lieutenant- Colonel Derek Wilford, who is now retired, were condemned by politicians, civil rights groups and the Roman Catholic church in Ireland. Senior British Army staff also privately expressed concern that what Lt-Col Wilford said may be used to paint the paratroopers with a sectarian brush when they appear before the forthcoming Saville inquiry into the deaths of 14 Catholic civilians in Londonderry in 1972.

Within hours of Lt-Col Wilford's remarks on Radio 4's Today programme yesterday morning, lawyers for the victims' families said defamation proceedings are being considered against him and the BBC.

Lt-Col Wilford commanded the 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, when its soldiers opened fire during a civil rights march on Sunday 30 January, l972. He has said the lives of his men would be in danger if their identities were revealed.

His remarks yesterday came as he was interviewed by the presenter James Naughtie, with Michael McKinney whose brother William was killed in the shootings. After Mr McKinney said he had "no links with any republican organisation at all", Lt-Col Wilford said: "We cannot accept that - he may represent his dead brother and a very tragic situation it is. But I do not accept that he merely represents him. He represents the republican organisation." He added that it would be "naive to the point of idiocy" to believe otherwise.

Mr McKinney said this was "totally untrue". And he added: "I've been involved in the Bloody Sunday issue, the Bloody Sunday justice campaign for the past seven years.... We have no links with any republican organisation at all". But Lt-Col Wilford said: "Of course I don't accept it. They will say that, won't they? I mean every republican, every - I regret to say - almost every Ulster Catholic will say that."

Mark Durkan, of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, said later: "This is a case of adding grievous insult to grave injury." A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland said Lt-Col Wilford's comments were the product of "crude ignorance", and the majority of Ulster Catholics would find them deeply offensive.

The row comes at a particularly delicate time for Ulster with unfinished negotiations over the future of the peace process, confrontation continuing between the Orange Order and the security forces at Drumcree and the continuation of the loyalist marching season.

A Court of Appeal hearing is also due to start in September over the issue of the anonymity of the paratroopers who give evidence to the Saville inquiry,. Lawyers for the inquiry are challenging a High Court decision that paratroopers who took part in the shootings should be allowed to remain anonymous.

'they have all become the other side'

This is an edited extract from the interview on Radio 4's Today programme:

James Naughtie: Isn't it possible there were those who were protesting around that time in the torrid atmosphere, who really were doing something which doesn't qualify them as members of what you call 'the other side'?

Lt-Col Wilford: I'm afraid they have all become 'the other side'.

JN: But do you accept that there are people who were horrified by that incident who have pretty much the same attitude to the IRA as you do? Do you accept that?

Lt-Col W: I'll accept it if people have got the same attitude towards the IRA as we have; then, yes, of course, I accept it. But if you're suggesting that the people, in fact, who... one of their representatives, who we've just heard ...

JN: Sorry, we're talking about a relative [Michael McKinney] of someone who was killed...

Lt-Col W: Yes, a relative.

JN: He's not here representing any organisation, it's very important to make that clear ...

Lt-Col W: He may represent his dead brother - and a very, very tragic situation it is - but I do not accept that he merely represents him. He represents the republican organisation, and we are naive to the point of idiocy ... to believe otherwise.