How to invent fantasy scenarios about Bloody Sunday

'Bernadette Devlin puffed out her cheeks and thought about the march of the Carthaginians'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Irish must have become used to being portrayed in a manner that bears no relation to reality, as in productions such as Riverdance. As if any real Irish people go around like that. Dublin is a major modern European city, obviously it couldn't have been built without anybody moving their arms.

But the British have never complained much about misrepresentation of the Irish until now, because of the two television plays based on investigations into Bloody Sunday. One of the most common responses has been: "Why don't they go and investigate all the murders done by the IRA?" To which the first answer must be, because the IRA admitted theirs. It wouldn't make very good telly, a reporter saying: "Tonight we investigate who carried out the Enniskillen bombing. Our inquiries led us to the statement made immediately afterwards by the Army Council of the IRA who said 'We did it'. We also speak to the blokes who were jailed for it. 'Yup, it was definitely us,' they said. Good night."

Or maybe some would prefer a programme in the style of other modern history documentaries. So an eccentric lecturer would wave his arms and say excitedly: "And it was right here – on this very paving stone – that Bernadette Devlin puffed out her cheeks, thought for a moment about the universe, about destiny, about the march of the Carthaginians under Hannibal, and said: 'I think we'll put the banner over here, out of the wind.' "

The complaints have been that the films tell a false picture, and are mere "propaganda", or as the Daily Mail put it, "bloody fantasy". But Jimmy McGovern's film was based on evidence given to the Saville inquiry. For example, the British commander, Robert Ford, did dictate a memo three weeks before the shooting that said: "I am coming to the conclusion... that we must shoot selected ringleaders of the Bogside young hooligans." Which isn't all that open to interpretation. He must wish that, instead of "shoot", he'd said "take out", as then he could have claimed he meant take them out, to the zoo or something. It is also on film that he says, while sending the Paras into action: "Go on... go and get them." Perhaps he just meant over the road for some fags.

The common refrain from defenders of the Paras' actions on that day is that the IRA fired first, as this was the conclusion of the Widgery report, which was compiled immediately after the events. Widgery had served in the Royal Artillery before becoming a Lieutenant-Colonel, so wasn't entirely neutral. After normal murders, do the police nip round to the suspect's mates and say: "Do you fancy looking into it yourselves? It would save us a lot of trouble."

Typical of the report was the acceptance that the marchers were throwing nail bombs, although no soldier reported this on the day. Then later on, strangely, several soldiers suddenly remembered them. What an absent-minded bunch. It sounds as if half of them were looking down their rifles, saying "Hang on, what did I come I here for?"

In one case, Widgery accepted that the soldiers were wrong in assuming the two men they shot were carrying nail bombs, but he still said the soldiers' actions were justified because they thought they saw a nail bomb. It's a wonder this hasn't been tried by every criminal since. Anyone arrested for mugging could say "Well blow me down, I could have sworn that OAP had a nail bomb", and off they'd go.

But best of all was the section in which one soldier described coming under fire : "It was the most intensive fire I have experienced... the initial bursts would be 20 to 30 shots." Seven other soldiers of the same company also described this incident, although they all contradicted each other in many ways. But they agreed the flats from which the firing came were only 15 yards away, and they escaped by hiding behind their armoured car.

All possible, I suppose, except that none of them was hit, nor was the car, nor was anything else in the vicinity; not a single witness confirmed it and not a single bullet was found. For a gunman to miss his target is one thing, but these appear so inaccurate they missed an entire dimension and fired into a parallel universe. Despite this, Widgery accepted the soldiers' account, as he would have done if they'd said: "We were only saved by a time traveller, who span us through a twirly tube into the court of Elizabeth the First."

One other passage from the McGovern film is confirmed by the Saville inquiry, in which Ted Heath informs Widgery: "Remember, we're fighting a propaganda war as well as a military war." Strangely, however, when the original report was published, very few from the British establishment yelled: "This isn't accurate, it's just propaganda."

And Widgery did not even have to make his script work dramatically for television. Which is rather a shame, as maybe he would have earnt more respect if he had included a section where the IRA played a "balaclava jig" on violins while the marchers performed the old Kilkenny nail-bomb dance without moving their arms.

Comments