The Paras need the truth as much as the dead of Derry

The debate about anonymity for the Paras in the Saville inquiry misses the point, says Fintan O'Toole
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The Independent Online
On the front pages of many of the British newspapers on Friday morning, there were photographs of members of the Parachute Regiment preparing to enter Kosovo. In the almost ecstatic coverage of their mission, the Paras were identified as the hard edge of democracy and freedom, ready to protect the human rights of a population that has been oppressed by an abusive regime. But on the inside pages was another story about the same regiment, reporting on the High Court challenge by 17 former Paras to the decision of the Saville inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday to refuse to guarantee the anonymity of their evidence.

It is not hard to see why the conjunction is so uncomfortable for many people in Britain. The Paras' mission in Kosovo takes it for granted that they enjoy a certain moral authority. They must be seen as a legitimate force, a stark contrast to the kind of armies that kill civilians merely because of their political views.

The memory of what happened in Derry 27 years ago, when the Paras opened fire on a civil-rights demonstration and killed 14 unarmed civilians, is thus as awkward as it is painful. As the slogan used by the Daily Mail in its campaign of support for the soldiers' demand for anonymity - "Don't betray the Paras" - suggests, a relatively minor legal issue has taken on deep resonances. What should be a matter for common sense and pragmatic judgment has become instead a cipher for a larger struggle between present purposes and the demands of the past.

The problem with the whole question of anonymity, in other words, is that it has come to stand for far more than it ought to. On a practical level, there are good reasons to allow the Paras to remain anonymous. The identities of the lowly foot-soldiers who took part in the massacre are not germane to the real issues, which are about the nature and sequence of the events themselves and the high-level responsibility for what happened.

It could even be argued that by focusing on named individuals, the inquiry would run the risk of making personal and individual actions which were actually carried out by the state itself. The real point, surely, is not that a particular Para happened to fire a particular bullet, but that a trained, disciplined army opened fire on a political demonstration.

Historical accountability, not the scapegoating of individuals, must be the purpose of the exercise. But instead of raising these rational arguments, the "Don't betray the Paras" campaign has looked suspiciously like a "Don't confront the truth" campaign. And suspicion, where Bloody Sunday is concerned, runs very deep.

No other incident in the three decades of violence in Northern Ireland did so much to shatter confidence in the British political and judicial systems. Because of the awful history of official attitudes to Bloody Sunday, the passion and energy which the Tory press has expended on supporting the Paras' demand for anonymity suggest to most Irish people that the real aim is to undermine the Saville inquiry itself.

To most British people, Bloody Sunday is but one of many appalling atrocities perpetrated by the state, by republicans and by loyalists, over the 30 years of the Northern Ireland conflict. It was, indeed, no more or less savage than, for example, the IRA's slaughter of civilians in Birmingham pubs in 1974, or of building workers at Teebane Cross in 1992, or the loyalist paramilitaries' mass murders in Dublin in 1974, or at Greysteel in 1993. Many leading members of Sinn Fein, the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party now involved in the peace process know a great deal more about some killings than they have ever admitted. Should they, too, be called to account at a public inquiry? Where does the desire for truth end and the need for reconciliation begin?

There is, though, one factor that applies to Bloody Sunday and not to all the other bloody days of Northern Ireland's long travail. In all of the other massacres, the public record is entirely clear. The dead people were innocent victims of cold-blooded killers. In the case of Bloody Sunday, on the contrary, the public record was deliberately and solemnly obscured. The coroner at the inquest in Derry was entirely clear about what had happened: "I say without reservation it was sheer, unadulterated murder." But the official inquiry headed by Lord Widgery, while admitting that some of the firing by the Paras "bordered on the reckless", left open the possibility that some or all of the victims may have been terrorists. Widgery could manage nothing more than the strained legalese of a statement that "none of the deceased or wounded is proved to have been shot while handling a firearm or a bomb". That remains the official memorial to unarmed civilians killed on the streets of a city in the United Kingdom.

There is not and never has been the slightest evidence that any of the dead on Bloody Sunday were engaged in terrorism. Yet the whole thrust of the Widgery Report is to suggest that they were killed in the course of a military engagement. It is as if a judicial inquiry into the IRA's murder of people drinking in Birmingham pubs had concluded that none of these young couples could be proved to have had guns or bombs in their possession at the time. Such a verdict would remain, for families and for the people of Birmingham, an appalling insult. It should not be difficult to understand why the relatives of the Derry victims feel the same way.

The issue for them is not how their loved ones were killed, for they've known that for more than 27 years. It is not even that their loved ones were innocent victims. It is, in a sense, not really about Bloody Sunday itself at all. It is about Widgery and what Widgery does to the memory of the dead.

Bloody Sunday is, in that sense, the British state's equivalent of the bodies of victims that the IRA never returned to their families. As long as the Widgery report remains as the last official word, the relatives will feel that their loved ones have not been returned to them. The victims will still be out there, in the bleak no- man's-land of the conflict's unfinished business. Digging up their stories may be as prolonged, messy and traumatic a business as the literal search for the bodies of the IRA's victims continues to be. But, as a process of closure and a gesture of simple humanity, it is no less essential.

The failure of the Paras' supporters to show that they understand any of this, that they have any sense of the terrible legacy of the Widgery Report, makes it hard to engage in a reasoned debate about anonymity. Some sign that they understand the urgency of Lord Saville's task or appreciate the well-grounded suspicions that surround this whole subject would make their case infinitely stronger. It would also show that the Paras entering Kosovo really do represent a civilised democracy capable, unlike Slobodan Milosevic, of taking responsibility for its own actions.

Fintan O'Toole is a columnist for the 'Irish Times'.