'No one was around. The blood was still fresh on the ground'

Award-winning reporter Peter Taylor's story of Bloody Sunday, and the years to Saville's verdict

Sunday 20 June 2010 00:00

I arrived in Derry just before midnight that day in 1972.

I was working for Thames Television's This Week programme at the time and we had planned to cover the march with three camera crews: one with the Army, one with the marchers and one with a roving mission. We sensed there was going to be trouble. But the Television Technicians Union demanded exorbitant "danger money" and the company refused to pay up. Had the dispute been resolved, television scrutiny of those dreadful events might well have revealed much more.

I confess to my ignorance at the time. I'd never been to Ireland and didn't even know where Derry was. Nor was I familiar with the political roots of the increasingly bloody conflict. Early the following morning I went down to the Bogside where 13 civil rights marchers had been shot dead by the soldiers of 1 Para. There was no one around. The blood was still fresh on the ground. A few flowers marked the spot where some of the dead had fallen. Nervously I started knocking on doors. I interviewed Jack Chapman, a former British soldier whose flat had provided a grandstand view. He told me no shots were fired from the marchers and that the Paras had gunned innocent people down. Lord Saville confirmed that they had.

I stayed in Derry for much of the following week and met the young Martin McGuinness in the Bogside's disused gas works that the Provisional IRA had made its makeshift HQ. I never dreamt that one day the cold-eyed IRA commander would become Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister. He told me the Provisionals had removed their guns to avoid provoking a shoot-out with the Army, with the marchers in the firing line. The Official IRA later told me that they too had removed their weapons but left some behind for "defensive" purposes.

The massacre, McGuinness said, was a conspiracy at the highest level of the British government to teach the troublesome natives a lesson. I never believed this, although McGuinness's conviction appeared to be given some credence when Lord Saville revealed a confidential memorandum from one of the province's top generals, General Robert Ford, to his boss at Army HQ in Lisburn, General Harry Tuzo, saying that to restore order in the city it might be necessary "to shoot selected ringleaders" of the rioters after "clear warnings" had been given. Ford's memorandum was written three weeks before "Bloody Sunday". It's perhaps the closest Saville got to a smoking gun. It confirmed what I later came to believe had happened that day. There was no conspiracy. Saville agreed. "Bloody Sunday" was the result of the climate of the time, chillingly illustrated by General Ford's memorandum. The Paras had been warned about the likelihood of sniper fire and went in, some hyped up, with weapons cocked, knowing a shot had already been fired from the Bogside. It was fired by a member of the Official IRA in response to five shots from the Paras. Saville established that the Paras fired first.

Twenty years on, in 1992, I interviewed Lt-Col Derek Wilford, commanding officer of 1 Para, for the BBC's Remember Bloody Sunday documentary. By then he had a brilliant future behind him. He'd left the Army, and the country, to take up landscape painting, and liked to sit by his tent reading Virgil's Aeneid, in Latin. He'd grown a pony tail. He was sad, and must have been even sadder to read Saville's withering criticism of his conduct for exceeding orders and penetrating deep into the Bogside which, he told me, he "owned" in military terms. His men were ready to finish the job by clearing out IRA "No Go" areas once and for all. But that was not what they had been ordered to do.

"There has to be a scapegoat and I was the one," Wilford told me. "I adored my soldiers and I protected them because I believed they were right." He was haunted by the memories, saying: "I think we need to make a positive decision about ending the war in Northern Ireland." Ironically, 20 years on, he had come to embrace the IRA's position.

I got the impression that Wilford really did believe his men had come under fire. The soldiers I talked to said the same. I was never quite sure whether they genuinely believed they were firing at gunmen or whether they were telling lies. Saville concluded the latter.

But the most remarkable interview was with the CSM of Support Company whose men did the killing. He broke ranks. I later heard he came under pressure to retract what he told me. He said he never saw any gunmen, weapons or bombers: "I feel in my own heart a lot of these people were innocent. It was badly handled by everybody." In effect, some of the Paras "lost it". That is what happened on Bloody Sunday.

After the programme was broadcast, I received letters from people in the Bogside asking me to pass them on to the CSM. They wanted to thank him for saying "sorry". They'd waited 20 years to hear the word. Last week, almost 40 years on, they heard the same word from the British Prime Minister.

I don't think there is any great appetite amongst the families for criminal prosecutions. The word "sorry", and Lord Saville's unequivocal conclusions, are enough.

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