'It was a rapidly deteriorating situation... there was rioting in Londonderry almost every night'

The events of 30 January 1972, when the British Army opened fire on civilians, have returned to haunt the hero of Kosovo
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General Sir Michael Jackson's appointment in charge of the Nato force to wrest Kosovo from Slobodan Milosevic was seen by many as a "poisoned chalice", an enterprise not only difficult militarily, but beset with political and diplomatic pitfalls.

He emerged victorious, his reputation enhanced, winning plaudits not just for his military skills but also for his diplomatic and political acumen which ensured that Yugoslav forces withdrew from Kosovo on Nato's terms and also saw off the demand by General Wesley Clark of the United States for a potentially incendiary confrontation with the Russians at Pristina airport. At the end of this year of triumph, General Jackson was appointed commander of Britain's land forces, with the promise of even greater office to follow.

But the inquiry into the Bloody Sunday massacre in Londonderry on 30 January 1972 will put the spotlight on General Jackson. As a young captain with 1 Para he was on the streets of Londonderry, adjutant to the battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Derek Wilford, whose men opened fire, leading to the deaths of 14 civilians. There is no suggestion that Michael Jackson fired any shots himself or gave any order to do so.

Sitting at his sparsely furnished office at Army headquarters in Wilton, near Salisbury, General Jackson, who has a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, acknowledged "the irony, if you want to call it that" of his role in Kosovo as the champion of the oppressed and the criticism he and his fellow paratroopers will face from some quarters during the inquiry.

The shooting of the civilians led to a diplomatic breach between Britain and the Irish Republic. Bishop Edward Daly, who witnessed the killings, talked of an "obscenity".

The general said: "What happened on 30th January was, of course, a tragedy, I think from whatever point of view you look at it, it is a tragedy. Nonetheless, the event took place, and the aftershocks, as we see, still go on."

General Jackson stressed that the situation in Northern Ireland was very different from that in the Balkans. He said: "In Northern Ireland at that time the British Army was in conflict with the IRA and had been for some time. When I was in Bosnia I was not in conflict with any of the three parties, and when I was in Kosovo I was not in conflict with either of the parties. After the conflict between Nato and Yugoslavia I was playing very much a supporting role in Macedonia - I'd draw the distinction quite carefully."

General Jackson said that as an adjutant he was simply a "cog, if quite an important cog" in the army machine. "One has little enough control over where you are at any particular time, I mean nothing strange or any conspiracy theory should be read into that... I found myself there in 1972 because that's where I was", he said.

Recent reports had claimed that Major-General Robert Ford, one of the most senior officers at the time in Northern Ireland, had send a secret memo to his boss, Lt-Gen Harry Tuzo, in which he outlined a policy of shooting at riot ringleaders, who the Army called "Derry's Young Hooligans".

General Jackson said he had no direct knowledge of the memo. But he went on to say: "Well, I imagine the memo is probably the result of a conversation, 'give me your thoughts in writing', having tossed it around for a while.

"But again you've got to remember, whatever the views about the events of that afternoon... the Army in Northern Ireland was, is, and I'm quite certain always will be, subject itself to the criminal law.

"There are no dispensations for the Army, and the much-vaunted yellow card [meaning soldiers are meant to warn before firing] is only a method of codifying what is lawful force in a series of situations. No order given by anyone in the chain of command which lies outside of the criminal law, and so to speak the yellow card, can be a lawful order. And if therefore the inference is that generals were issuing unlawful orders people really don't understand the British Army at all."

Asked if he was surprised by the content of the memo, General Jackson said: "It's an area the tribunal may think is theirs to determine and it's certainly not mine." He continued: "During the winter of '71 and '72, and we must remember this is the winter after internment was introduced in August of '71, there was without doubt a rapidly deteriorating situation and Londonderry was in a particular position whereby most of the city was a so-called no-go area and there was almost nightly rioting on the interface between the no-go area and the city centre.

"And you will have seen I am sure television shots of soldiers in riot gear holding a line and getting stones and bottles hurled at them... without actually achieving a great deal other than perhaps stopping rioting getting to the city centre itself. I am quite sure careful thought had gone on at headquarters in Northern Ireland as to what could be done about this situation."

Following the shooting, a tribunal under Lord Chief Justice Widgery effectively exonerated the Army for what happened. Tony Blair's decision to launch the new inquiry under Lord Saville of Newdigate has led to unhappiness among senior officers.

Asked whether he felt the matter had already been looked into by the tribunal, or whether he welcomed the Saville inquiry, General Jackson said: "I must be very circumspect. It was a decision by the Government to look again at discerning the truth of events on that, that is what the tribunal sets out to do, and I think that's really all I should say about that, because otherwise you're asking me to comment on the Government and I can't do that."

Asked whether the Army was too slow to admit any culpability for what happened, the General responded: "I think very quickly after the event Widgery's report laid out his view of what happened and to some extent at least who was responsible for what.

"We are now re-examining that account, and I think it would be wrong of me in any way to prejudge, and if mistakes were committed, who committed them, and what the nature of those mistakes were. These are obviously questions at the heart of what the new tribunal will be examining."

Under the terms of the Saville inquiry, soldiers are guaranteed anonymity if they wish it. General Jackson pointed out that he does not fall into this category. "There is little of that left where I am concerned," he said.

Asked how he felt about a situation where British soldiers are being hauled up before a tribunal 28 years after the event, while terrorist prisoners go free under the Good Friday Agreement, General Jackson said: "I have got my own views on that - you will have to wait until I retire to find out what they are."

Turning to Kosovo, General Jackson said "Whilst, without doubt, some of the Serb security forces and paramilitaries committed outrageous crimes, we've also very sadly seen outrageous crimes committed by Kosovar Albanians. There has been enough criminal activity by enough Kosovar Albanians who have degraded the position they were in this time last year on the moral high ground. That's rather short-sighted of them, to put it mildly."