Leading Article: Discovering the woeful truth is part of the peace process

Share
Related Topics
If 13 people were shot dead by British soldiers in your street, you would probably want to know quite a lot about it. But Bloody Sunday was 26 years ago and it was in Northern Ireland, so there does not seem much point in the taxpayer paying for a rather expensive piece of historical research. That, to be blunt, is likely to be the reaction of many people on the mainland of Britain to yesterday's announcement by the Prime Minister. It would be the wrong reaction, because a nation that does not care about its history is not well placed to understand its future.

The Bloody Sunday killings still matter, above all, because they underpin so much of the sense of grievance which sustains republican terrorism. The events of this day in 1972 were critical in changing perceptions of the British Army among nationalists and Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland. The Army, which had been sent to defend them from Unionist extremists, had come to be seen an an instrument of colonial oppression.

What happened that day, then, must be established. It was not established by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, in his report published three months after the event. The tone of his words was defensive and the imprecision of them lamentable. The soldiers had been fired on first, and some of the dead may have handled guns or bombs, it concluded - although there was no hard evidence for either assertion. Even so, the report criticised Army officers for abandoning the policy of low-key containment for aggressive arrests by snatch-squads, and said some of the soldiers' shooting "bordered on the reckless". The implication, left like the after-image of a flash on the retina of history, was that the Army might have been a bit heavy- handed, but a bunch of IRA sympathisers had been out to cause trouble or worse, so blame was not easy to apportion.

All the evidence at the time and since has pointed in a sharply different direction. It was an illegal march, to be sure: all marches and parades had been banned. The march took place in the context of civil disorder, barricades and a "no go" area. One of the teenagers killed was a member of the IRA youth wing. Some of the marchers had thrown stones and insults at the soldiers. But the march itself was overwhelmingly peaceful. There were no weapons or bombs - not even petrol bombs. Most of those killed had no association with sectarianism. An impartial analysis of the evidence should conclude that the main responsibility for the deaths lay with a small group of soldiers. Paddy Ashdown, who served in Northern Ireland immediately after the killings, said yesterday: "There was an acceptance there had been a very regrettable breakdown of discipline." But did they panic, or had they simply lost patience with civil rights activists and decided to teach them a lesson? There is a terribly important difference and it is quite right that, even after this length of time, a credible attempt should be made to discover the truth.

The inquiry announced yesterday is not simply historical, though. Unfortunately, there will be nothing quite so straightforward or saccharine as "closing this painful chapter once and for all", as Tony Blair suggested in his statement. Much of the value of a new inquiry is symbolic, in that it will put right the deep sense of injustice felt by the nationalists. Especially if, as seems probable, it leads to an apology from the Government to the victims' families. That is what matters, and we should brush aside the predictable complaints from blinkered Unionists and Conservatives about "pandering" to IRA propaganda. The inquiry should destroy the value of Bloody Sunday as propaganda for the IRA - and it is not as if the Unionists have anything to lose by establishing the truth.

However, it must be recognised that the Government has, far from closing a painful chapter in British history, reopened it. Much more pain will be caused before final closure can be achieved. It may be that the new inquiry will conclude that some officers gave orders they should not have given, and it is almost certain to find that some soldiers shot people they should not have shot. It is likely that at least some of those soldiers will be named and will still be alive. If the tribunal finds evidence of misconduct or even criminal behaviour, the Government will be forced to act against them. Alternatively, or in addition, the families of those killed on Bloody Sunday may be able to take legal action.

But this is not a sleeping dog which can be left to lie. Despite the killings of the past few days, the peace process, like a bicycle, is still moving forward and has therefore not fallen over. To maintain the momentum, the Government needs to convince both sides that it is even-handed. Being honest about past misdeeds carried out in our collective name is an essential part of that.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee