Making a Soldier Face Trial for Bloody Sunday Is Just a Small Step Towards Justice

The story of Bloody Sunday shames the British state and should be a bigger scandal.

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29 March 2019, 10:11am

A mural in Derry commemorating Bloody Sunday. Photo: Olivier Wullen / Alamy Stock Photo

It is now 47 years since British soldiers took to the streets of Derry and shot 14 civilian demonstrators dead. Those killed were on a march protesting the government's policy of internment.

Two weeks ago, the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland announced that one soldier will face trial for the murder of two men and the attempted murder of four more. The decision to prosecute soldier F is another small victory for the Bloody Sunday families, albeit one that hasn't been extended to all the killings which took place that day. It is a decision no parents of the slain have lived to see.

The decision was one of the bigger landmarks in the long struggle between the bereaved families and the might of the British state. It is surely the biggest since the release of the Saville Inquiry in 2010, which told Derry what it already knew and what the state had worked hard to deny: British soldiers fired the first shot, shot at unarmed protesters and killed the already wounded. Over time, the efforts of these families have forced the British government to abandon their whitewash of the massacre, to the point where it is now a matter for a murder trial in the courts. All justice-loving people ought to look to Derry and find sustenance. The British government has looked to it and found cause to complain.

Boris Johnson MP asked, "What signal does this send our brave armed forces?" To which one is tempted to reply, "Don't shoot civilians." Gavin Williamson MP, apparently the Secretary of State for Defence, failed to mention the victims in his response, and instead paid tribute to "those soldiers who served with courage and distinction to bring peace to Northern Ireland". As with the furore surrounding Shamima Begum, the case now seems a lynchpin for ambitious Tories wishing to outcompete each other’s seeming contempt for human rights as a leadership election looms.

Among them all, my remark of choice came from elsewhere. Days before the verdict, Karen Bradley MP, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, gave the soldiers a shout-out in the House of Commons, when she said that members of the British Army who killed in the region were "acting under orders and under instruction and fulfilling their duty in a dignified and appropriate way". She later apologised, stating confidently, "I do not believe what I said, that is not my view," but rejected calls to resign.

It would be easy to read Bradley's remark as yet another fudged attempt at understanding a country she hadn't actually visited before being given the post. She once confessed to being "slightly scared" of the region. In that same interview, she admitted to not knowing that "nationalists didn't vote for unionists". That was almost edifying as hard proof of how the British state, and particularly the British right, often fail to understand the most basic truths of Ireland. Ignorance like this is at least partly why the province seems almost permanently in deadlock, and why the British government has spent so much time head scratching about the Irish border that it created.

bloody sunday derry
The streets of Derry during Bloody Sunday. Photo: Keystone Pictures USA / Alamy Stock Photo

But these new remarks are something else, something different. They remind us just how the silence around Ireland masks a dark history of state violence and collusion, which at its heart the British state proudly defends. And anyone who knows that history knew we were headed this way – Bradley’s remarks neatly elaborate the same worldview that brought Theresa May to declare her contempt for the "left-wing human rights lawyers" coming after British soldiers in her first party conference speech as Prime Minister. It was euphemistic, but the Irish knew what she meant. It is a lesson in listening to people when they tell you what you are.

Without wanting to praise David Cameron, whose flagship austerity measures were part of the tangle that ground the government of the north to its long halt in 2015, he was once able to condemn Bloody Sunday as "unjustified and unjustifiable". It is hard to imagine a similar statement from today's Prime Minister. As this country lurches further to the right, reckoning with its historical violence becomes impossible. This is to be seen not just in the latest round of Bloody Sunday apologia, but in the column inches spent fervently defending whichever colonists and slaveowners are consecrated in stone.

The problem is that the entire post-Troubles settlement demands such a reckoning. One cannot look to a better future for the people of Derry without looking at who gunned them down in the past. If there is a guilty verdict from this prosecution, it will be only the fifth time a British soldier is met with such a charge from their on duty activity during the Troubles.

The British Army, then, is far and away the least scrutinised combatant of the Troubles, despite being the only one still meaningfully active. Prosecuting soldiers for their role in Bloody Sunday is only one part – but an important part – in holding to account a state that systematically interned Irish communities, then shot them for taking to the streets about it.

The work of real justice is clearly in its infancy. There is scant justice, still, for the victims of the 1971 Ballymurphy massacre, when the same battalion famed for Bloody Sunday are accused of shooting ten unarmed civilians dead in Belfast – though an inquest is now underway. Scant justice too for the victims of the 1994 Loughinisland Massacre, when loyalists stormed a pub and killed six people who were watching Ireland in the World Cup. A wealth of evidence points to police collusion in those deaths. But two journalists investigating that evidence were arrested last year, with the police citing worries they had stolen confidential documents. These arrests should remind us that efforts to resist unveiling the dark history of the security forces go way beyond Tory rhetoric; they are having a real and chilling effect on those seeking truth on the ground.

Stories like these should bring scandal and shame on entire governments and countries, and yet they barely figure. The prosecution of Soldier F is one of a thousand disruptions we need of that silence. Prosecution will never displace a family’s grief. But prosecuting means finally treating this like cold-blooded killing, and so treating the slain as human.

@seanbgoneill