The Saville Report into the events of Bloody Sunday is ten volumes or 5,000 pages long and was five years in the writing. The inquiry lasted 12 years, including those five years, and cost the taxpayer £200 million. Some 2,500 people gave evidence, nearly 1,000 of whom gave oral witness. It was set up under one prime minister, Tony Blair, in 1998, and its conclusions were delivered in June 2010 under a different prime minister, David Cameron. It was the lengthiest and costliest inquiry in legal history.
The events it was concerned with — the shooting by members of the 1st Parachute Regiment of 13 civilians attending a civil rights march — took place on 30 January 1972, or 38 years before the report was delivered. Was it worth it?
One result of the inquiry is Douglas Murray’s book. The sheer scale of the Saville Report meant that few journalists, myself included, bothered to go further than the summary — we’re a lazy trade. But Murray was convinced of the importance of this attempt at truthtelling:
It revealed much about how any truth can be uncovered after such a long time — what people remember and what they forget. And what happens when things turn up from the past that might have been easier left undiscovered.
What follows is a riveting account, derived from the inquiry and report, of one of the most notorious episodes of the Troubles. Most Brits, I find, and not a few Irish, tend to blank out those events. Murray’s achievement is to turn what happened four decades ago into something like a real-life whodunnit — all the more remarkable since we know from the Saville Report more or less who did what — though by no means exactly who did exactly what.
He begins with one of the victims, Barney McGuigan, who was shot as he tried — white handkerchief held up — to comfort a man who had been shot and was dying on the ground in front of a block of flats, begging bystanders not to let him die alone. Each chapter deals with one of the participants or groups — punctuated by more general accounts: of the events themselves, of conditions in Derry at the time and the conspiracy theories. In doing so, he creates a real sense of anticipation. Even I, who thought I knew about Bloody Sunday, raced to the end, wanting answers. And the answers will be disagreeable both to Republicans and defenders of the Paras.
So, what lessons do we get for our £200 million? One is that after the lapse of decades it is almost impossible to arrive at a truthful, or at least an accurate, account of events, even from eyewitnesses. Murray gives a horrid instance of how time plays tricks with memory; he cites half a dozen stories about what happened to Barney McGuigan’s eyelid, which was blown off by a bullet and lodged, almost intact, in a wall. Several individuals say what they did with it; they can’t all have been right, though they’re unlikely all to be lying.
The other lesson is precisely the opposite: ‘Swiftness is the enemy of truth’. The Widgery Inquiry into the shootings by the then Lord Chief Justice was exemplary in its speed: he delivered his report less than three months after the shootings. It was not the whitewash job it was made out to be — he made clear that several soldiers grossly exceeded their remit — but fatally flawed in that the Lord Chief Justice sat alone, passing judgment on the actions of his own government. It was also flawed by reliance on dodgy forensics, which meant he concluded wrongly that some of the victims had been carrying arms. In fact, all were unarmed: the only victim carrying nailbombs was shot by a bullet passing through another man.
Yet this is not to say that everyone at that march was unarmed, as Republican mythology has it. What seems clear is that several people — Official IRA and possibly Provos — were carrying weapons that day; and some fired shots at soldiers. Whether Martin McGuinness, recent Irish presidential candidate, fired the first shot is not known; but one of the most interesting chapters concerns the testimony of a heavily concealed informer called Infliction who says he admitted just that. Was Infliction someone very, very close to McGuinness? Or the man himself? The explosive suggestion that this dominant republican was a British informer has been raised before, but it’s still a hair-raising thought. The story of Bloody Sunday is not yet done, despite Lord Saville’s monumental labours. What seems clear from this book and from the two inquiries is that at least one surviving soldier could and should face criminal charges in connection with the shootings. Before reading this book, I would have said that it’s too late for justice to be done. Now I feel that justice should be done, and better late than never.