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Once again, Kipling’s “poor bloody infantry” is taking the rap. Further evidence that the UK is slipping down the rabbit hole is the announcement this week about ‘Bloody Sunday’. Arising from events in January 1972, Soldier F is to face charges of murder.
Thirteen people died that day at the hands of the British Army. This pivotal event cast a long shadow over Northern Ireland and it drove many into the ranks of the terrorists. And yet, there is a distinct imbalance when it comes to accountability for what unfolded. A retired lance corporal, who is over 70 years old, is carrying the can for the politicians, the army chain of command and the terrorists.
That Soldier F acted the way he did is now a matter for the courts. Although, whether the man can get a fair trial given the circumstances is another matter. The Saville Inquiry concluded that innocent people died that day; this is irrefutable. One can only feel for the families involved. In the same way, it's also clear that the actions of the IRA terrorists contributed to events. Yet, their crimes go unresolved.
During the so-called troubles, 722 British Army and police personnel died at the hands of the terrorists. The terrorists lost 127 killed. That’s the balance of the equation. But, the vast majority of the army and police deaths have gone un-investigated. Meanwhile, known IRA killers are residing in Spain and Portugal untouched by British justice. Tony Blair provided them with ‘letters of assurance’ as part of the peace agreement. Thus their crimes are unaddressed. That Blair would offer such comfort to terrorists is no surprise. After all, his bloodstained actions brought death to thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians.
On that fateful day in 1972, a civil rights march in Londonderry was ‘policed’ by the crack troops of the 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment. Known as 1 Para, this unit is not skilled in the finesse of dealing with public order events. The Paras trained, and stood ready at short notice, to face the full wrath of the Warsaw Pact. Assigned to blunt an attack or go behind the lines, the Paras would take on fearsome odds and didn't expect to survive. It’s fair to say the complexities of a ‘policing’ role in such an environment was not in 1 Para’s repertoire.
They’d spent a couple of days training for public order duties by practising shield-walls and firing tear gas. Also, they drilled to conduct snatch squads. Most of the soldiers deployed to Londonderry armed with their SLR 7.62 rifle, a weapon designed to punch holes through people and masonry. The SLR is an ideal weapon for combat in open terrain but hardly suited to urban areas. Especially with ricocheting bullet and civilians present.
During the march, a confrontation developed over access to the town centre. The footage shows the soldiers under sustained attack. At first, the Paras responded with rubber bullets, water cannon and tear gas. As the violence escalated, 1 Para deployed snatch squads. After that, the sequence of events remains disputed. The Paras claimed they came under gunfire and responded. The Inquiry concluded the Paras opened fire first, although IRA terrorists did engage them later.
The first 1972 inquiry into ‘Bloody Sunday’ by Lord Chief Justice Widgery proved a whitewash as it ignored much evidence. Families of those killed pursued their cause to secure a second inquiry from Tony Blair.
The Saville Inquiry started its work in 1998 and finally published its finding in 2010. This inquiry was a no-expense spared trawl through the evidence. Some put the cost at over £200 million, a sum of money that could have funded the salary of 8,000 nurses for a year.
So how thorough was it? Consider this — the investigators located one of the SLR rifles in Beirut. The British Army sold the gun as surplus; it then passed through several hands before it landed with dodgy paramilitary types in the Middle East. The Inquiry heard from more than 900 witnesses.
In all the noise of recent days, the media continues to ignore salient facts from the Saville Inquiry. The IRA was present that day, and its active service units fired on British troops. Martin McGuinness, as second-in-command of the Londonderry IRA, was on the ground. The Inquiry concluded that McGuinness was probably armed with a Thompson submachine gun and may have fired at troops. In a bizarre finding, the Inquiry found he took no action that “provided any of the soldiers with any justification for opening fire”.
In my opinion, carrying a Thompson submachine gun to a civil rights march makes McGuinness culpable. It’s evident that the IRA was spoiling for a fight, and it used the civilians as cover. The Inquiry then flips to state the IRA did open fire, although it suggests this happened after the soldiers fired first.
If Britain had a functional media or a sensible government, we’d have a proper debate about drawing a line under this period of history. It would be an opportunity to explore do we wish to keep rerunning the past and holding people to account. After all, if Soldier F can get dragged through the courts, then why not the known IRA killers? A fair question to ask is can we spend £200 million investigating the death of Jean McConville? Likewise, can we spend £200 million to make a case against the terrorists who murdered 18 soldiers at Warren Point in 1979?
Contrast the treatment of Soldier F with that of John Downey. In 2013, Downey faced four counts of murder over the Hyde Park attack. That IRA bomb killed 11 and injured 50, including a friend of mine. At trial in January 2014, the case against Downey collapsed. He produced a 'get out of jail free' letter thanks to Tony Blair. That's right; Tony Blair gave this killer his blessing to walk away from murder. Downey is one of 187 IRA suspects who received such letters guaranteeing them immunity from prosecution. All done in secret.
Others present that day went on to greater things. Captain Mike Jackson became General Sir Mike Jackson, GCB, CBE, DSO, DL. He later commanded the British Army. Likewise, the other officers in 1 Para, some of whom disobeyed direct orders, remain untouched.
The British state has by official action, and secret means, forgiven the horrors perpetrated by the IRA. Meanwhile, the families of the victims of ‘Bloody Sunday’ are getting some form of justice. I trust that brings them a bit of peace. Can the same be said for the mothers, fathers, spouses and children of soldiers murdered by the IRA?
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.