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

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Newspaper stands have been criticised by the Child Eyes campaign  

There were more reader complaints this year – but, then again, there were more readers

Will Gore
 

People drink to shut out pain and stress. Arresting them won’t help

Deborah Coughlin
A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?