Paras admit 'mistakes' but reject report as one-sided

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The Independent Online

Paratroopers who served on Bloody Sunday have accused the Saville report of turning a blind eye to the role played by the IRA and pinning all the blame for the deaths on the soldiers.

They claim that Lt-Col Derek Wilford, the commanding officer blamed in the document as the person most responsible for the bloodshed, was being made a scapegoat by the inquiry.

Members of the military maintain that the main accusation made by Lord Saville against Lt-Col Wilford – that he disobeyed a direct order not to send his troops into the nationalist stronghold of Bogside – is contradicted by evidence heard by the inquiry.

Current and former officers also point out that the inquiry heard testimony that the decision to send in the Paras, with their reputation for toughness, to a volatile Derry was "taken at the highest level" of the political establishment. They say the issue was discussed by the Heath government of the time, against the wishes of commanders.

In the wake of the report, six former soldiers of 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, said in a statement: "We do not accept the criticism levelled at Lt-Col Wilford. We believe that the inquiry was alive to the potential charge that only lower-ranking persons might be criticised and so conclude that Lord Saville felt he had to blame somebody of rank and Lt-Col Wilford would do."

They continued: "It may be that the inquiry did not want to be dubbed a 'whitewash' nor produce a report which in any way appeared ambiguous as it felt it needed to justify the expenditure of considerably in excess of £200m. It has therefore chosen to produce a summary which on the face of it appears to give all possible benefit of doubt to one side and totally ignore the other."

The soldiers challenged Lord Saville's conclusion that Martin McGuinness, then adjutant of the Provisional IRA's Derry Brigade, held a Thompson submachine-gun on the day but may not have used it. "Such inaction by a Provisional IRA leader would have resulted in his tenure of office being very short indeed," they stated.

"That some of our comrades who opened fire made mistakes is obvious but these men had a great deal of public order experience and they were not given to panic. Had they been so, then similar actions would have manifested themselves during the previous two years or during eight of the remaining months of 1972, when the battalion was fully engaged in public order situations throughout Northern Ireland.

"Something different happened that day to initiate the tragedy which unfolded. There has been consistent and clear evidence that the IRA was engaged in a hurried defence of the area and that a considerable amount of hostile firing took place."

David Cameron, who has apologised as Prime Minister for the Bloody Sunday massacre, said yesterday: "I do find it painful that I now sometimes sit around a table with Martin McGuinness and I think about what that man did. But everyone has to come to terms with that because that is the price we are paying for peace, and it is a price that is worth paying, because peace is

so much better than the alternative.''

The main charge against Lt-Col Wilford is that he directly disobeyed a specific order from Brigadier Patrick MacLellan, the commanding officer of 8 infantry brigade in charge of Derry, not to enter Bogside, where a civil rights march was taking place.

However, the tribunal heard from Maj-Gen Michael Steele, who, at the time a major, was chief of staff at 8 infantry brigade and played a part in transmitting the order, that there were, in fact, no strictures imposed on Lt-Col Wilford about entering Bogside.

One senior officer said yesterday: "Wilford was adamant that he had not disobeyed any orders, and Steele, who should know, backed him up. But Lord Saville chose to take the opposite view which basically damned Wilford."

The inquiry also heard that Maj- Gen Peter Welsh, then a Lt-Col commanding the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Green Jackets, was so concerned about Paras being deployed to Derry that he telephoned General Sir David (later Lord) Ramsbotham, military assistant to the head of the Army, and General (later Lord) Michael Carver, to stress that "the Paras were the wrong people for this operation".

What happened to the soldiers on duty in 1972?

The regiment

1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment, which was involved in the Bloody Sunday shootings, is now the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG) and works alongside the SAS and the SBS.

The SFSG was effectively the creation of General Sir Mike Jackson when he headed the Army as Chief of General Staff. Jackson, who was then a captain in 1 Para, took part in the operation on Bloody Sunday.

Members of the SFSG have fought extensively in Afghanistan, where one of their main tasks now is to help with the training of Afghan special forces.

The soldiers involved

Lance Corporal F, Corporal E, Private G and Private H, who were all named in the Saville Report as the most prolific shooters on Bloody Sunday, are now believed to have left the Army, two of them after serving in the SAS. Lance Corporal F, who was accused of being responsible for up to four deaths, was promoted before he left.

Lieutenant N, who fired the first shots in Bogside in an attempt to disperse a crowd – and who is also thought to have been responsible for shooting a 17-year-old boy – was also promoted but is now also believed to have left the Army.

The commanding officer

Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford, commanding officer of 1 Para, has also left the Army. When he was last heard of, he was living in Belgium suffering with poor health. Lt Col Wilford was exonerated by the Widgery Tribunal shortly after Bloody Sunday in 1972 and six months later received an OBE.