The Saville Inquiry into the “Bloody Sunday” events in Londonderry (or Derry if you prefer) on Sunday 30 January 1972 lasted for 12 years and cost something getting on for £200 million. Lord Saville has listened to hundreds of people recalling what happened on a hectic, violent day nearly 40 years ago. His team has sifted through thousands of pages of evidence, recollections, data and opinions and will finally deliver its report next week.
But we have been here before. Lord Saville did not need to sit for 12 years to know what happened on Bloody Sunday. He only needed to look at the history books.
Take 5 March 1770 in Boston, Massachusetts. The city was on edge due to protests against British taxation (the American War of Independence was only a short while into the future). On 5 March an officer and private of the 29th Regiment of Foot were guarding the Customs House, with its government archives and treasure chest. A local man, Edward Gerrish, accused the officer of not paying a bill. He was given a clip round the ear and sent him on his way.
Two hours later he came back with a group of a dozen friends who began shouting abuse. This attracted a crowd that grew to be 500 strong, whereupon the guard of a dozen men was turned out under Captain Thomas Preston. The situation turned ugly as the crowd surged around shouting insults, throwing stones and making threats. Then Private Montgomery stumbled and fell to the ground. He was set upon by the crowd, including one large man wielding a club. Montgomery shot him. Hearing the shot, the other soldiers concluded the crowd was armed and opened fire before charging with their bayonets. Five civilians were killed and at least a dozen injured.
The British army exonerated their men of wrong doing. Those agitating against the British called this “The Boston Massacre” and blamed British military brutality.
Then there was an incident at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota on 29 December 1890. The proud Sioux nation had been defeated by the US Army and forced on to reservations. The Sioux eagerly took up what became known as the Ghost Dance, a religious ceremony aimed at replenishing the fertility of the soil and driving out the white settlers. Chief Spotted Elk and 350 followers left the reservation, and the army moved in.
A squadron of the 7th Cavalry under Colonel Forsyth found the tribesmen camped at Wounded Knee Creek. Forsyth ordered the Sioux to hand over any weapons they had and return to the reservation. Some of the Sioux donned their ceremonial shirts and began to dance. One, Black Coyote, lifted up his rifle whereupon he was grabbed by three soldiers. When Black Coyote’s gun went off, the soldiers opened fire. The Sioux fought back. In all 146 Sioux were killed, some of them women and children, along with 25 soldiers.
The American army exonerated their men of wrongdoing. Those agitating for Native American rights have called this “The Wounded Knee Massacre” and blamed American military brutality.
By way of contrast, look at 10 August 1792 in Paris. A detachment of the Swiss Guards of King Louis XVI were guarding the Tuileries Palace when a large crowd of protestors approached. Louis did not want to provoke the revolutionary mob so he instructed the Guards not to load their muskets. They didn’t, and as a consequence they were massacred when the mob attacked. Soldiers have good reason to be wary of an unarmed mob.
Fast forward to Bloody Sunday. In the aftermath, the British exonerated their soldiers of wrongdoing. Those agitating for Republican politics called it a massacre and blamed British military brutality.
In truth, the potential for this sort of violence is there whenever a similar situation occurs. If politicians insist on sending soldiers trained to fight battles to do what is essentially a police task for which they are not trained there will be trouble. Whenever large crowds taunt, jostle and insult armed men thinking that because they themselves are unarmed they are safe there will be trouble.
I don’t know the ins and outs of what happened on Bloody Sunday. But I am convinced that the blame lies with the politicians who sent the army to do a job for which they were not trained and with those Republicans who exploited the march for their own purposes.
There, that did not take 12 years. Can I have my £200,000,000 now please?