50 Years On, It is Time for the British Army to Learn from Bloody Sunday

A British Army patrol in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Image: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy

Half a century after the fatal shootings, defensiveness over failures in Northern Ireland does little to serve the interests of the British Army. Nor does it honour the courage of soldiers who died trying to save the lives of civilians.

The British military aims to learn from other people’s atrocities. When it comes to recent failures in command and military crime, the tendency is to reach for the US military’s campaign in Vietnam or the French in Algeria. It is less common for students at UK military academies to hear about failings within the British military, even one – the fatal shooting of 14 unarmed civilians in a city in the UK on 30 January 1972 – that former Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged was ‘both unjustified and unjustifiable’.

Exceptional officers, like the late Colonel David Benest, have occasionally bucked the trend, drawing hard lessons from crimes committed by British soldiers in Northern Ireland. But such individuals are outliers; their criticisms are often unwelcome, if not resented, within the institution to which they dedicated their lives.

The unwillingness to learn from atrocities in Northern Ireland means that events such as Bloody Sunday continue to impact upon the British Army. In recent years I have spoken to officers who believe that, prior to the dropping of murder charges relating to Bloody Sunday against ‘Soldier F’ – ex-Support Company, 1st Battalion The Parachute Regiment (1 PARA) – the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the wider Northern Irish justice system were engaged in a ‘witch hunt’ on behalf of Sinn Féin. Such a view is also shared by many veterans, including the former Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Johnny Mercer MP. A handful of other legacy cases against former soldiers, most of which have never come to trial, are also rejected as part of a political conspiracy. Evidence to the contrary – that the PSNI’s legacy caseload involving military killings was proportionate, or that the significant majority of legacy investigations are into paramilitary killings – is simply not believed.

It Is not difficult to understand veterans’ anger. There are former soldiers seriously wounded by paramilitaries during the military’s near 38-year Operation Banner in Northern Ireland who still require constant care. They and their families have little or no prospect of justice. In such a context many soldiers put up a square defence, reluctant to concede that any of their comrades deserve to be punished for alleged crimes.

This visceral reaction to years of casualties on Banner and the rising power of Sinn Féin on the island of Ireland may be understandable, but it also harms the British Army. For former or serving soldiers to lose faith in the rule of law within the UK is self-evidently damaging. The protests of former officers like Mercer also negatively affect how parts of British society, not least in Northern Ireland, perceive the British Army.

The unwillingness to learn from atrocities in Northern Ireland means that events such as Bloody Sunday continue to impact upon the British Army

British soldiers’ distrust of the Northern Irish legal system is not new. In the mid-1970s Lieutenant General Sir Frank King, then General Officer Commanding in Northern Ireland, complained to the government about prosecutions against his soldiers after the end of what a Royal Military Police officer called ‘a honeymoon period’ from 1970–1972, during which soldiers were generally not charged by police, even when the Ministry of Defence admitted liability and paid compensation for fatal shooting incidents.

According to King, although there was generally ‘some evidence against the soldier which in strictly legal terms justifies the prosecution’, the decision to do so was nonetheless ‘monstrous’. Soldiers were operating in profoundly difficult circumstances. Yet the police and director of public of prosecutions were ‘hovering in the wings ready to pounce on him and prosecute him in the courts while many of the real lawbreakers remain free’. King favourably compared the efficient prosecution and sentencing of the Birmingham bombers in England – they were later found to be innocent – with his soldiers’ experiences of the justice system in Northern Ireland.

Sailors from the US Navy were also present in Londonderry on 30 January 1972. They were serving in the nearby US Naval Communication Station. One US sailor I interviewed recalled that he immediately recognised that the military operation was out of control. He had married locally and was now trying to get his family out of the ‘kill zone’: ‘I remember vividly my wife and daughter, edging along the wall of the Rossville flats. And I am holding out my [US Navy] ID in front of me. I saw all these people getting shot and all I can do is wave my ID card. It was terrible. We met a Paratrooper at the ground floor. He told us to “get the f*** out of there”’.

In his report on Bloody Sunday, former Supreme Court Judge Lord Saville concluded that most of the killing of unarmed civilians was carried out by a few soldiers, including Soldier F. What prompted them to do so, and why did many of their comrades not fire a shot? Why did the Commanding Officer of 1 PARA, Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford, ignore an order from Brigadier Pat MacLellan? According to Lord Saville, ‘Colonel Wilford either deliberately disobeyed Brigadier MacLellan's order or failed for no good reason to appreciate the clear limits of what he had been authorised to do’.

All these questions should have been immediately obvious to senior officers in the British Army. But they chose not to even attempt to answer them. The British government also failed to examine the consequences of its own demands for more aggressive operations on the part of the military around this time. Both Colonel Wilford and Brigadier MacLellan were decorated for their service in Northern Ireland in 1972.

A perception that state killings that would not be tolerated in the rest of the UK were ignored in the case of Northern Ireland has festered for decades and profoundly damaged the reputation of the British Army on the island

The damage to the British Army’s reputation in Ireland has been long-lasting. It is often forgotten just how Irish the British Army was before the early 1970s. My research into Scottish regiments in the 1960s revealed that these had significant numbers of Catholic Irish recruits, many of whom were from the Republic of Ireland.

A sense of partiality in Ireland – the perception that state killings that would not be tolerated in the rest of the UK were ignored in the case of Northern Ireland – has festered for decades and profoundly damaged the reputation of the British Army on the island. Northern Irish loyalists have been quick to champion the case of Soldier F, conveniently forgetting that loyalist leaders demanded the withdrawal of 1 PARA after the killing of two Protestant civilians during clashes in Belfast in September 1972. Four days after Bloody Sunday, soldiers from The Gloucestershire Regiment were forced to intervene after two Legion of Mary charity workers were abducted and beaten by soldiers from 1 PARA, who attempted to hand them over to loyalists (the latter refused to take them).

The behaviour of 1 PARA in 1972 should not be seen as representative of Operation Banner or of that regiment. Close to a quarter of a million British military servicemen and women served in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 2007. The courage of soldiers who died trying to save the lives of others should be better known. For the most part, fire discipline prevailed. But mistakes should also be recognised and studied. Denials or defensiveness in the face of overwhelming evidence serve the agenda of those who wish to keep the historical focus of Banner exclusively on events like Bloody Sunday and away from the paramilitaries who did most of the killing.

Bloody Sunday offers a warning that should have been drawn upon by subsequent generations of Army leaders. It can still serve as an instructive example of a breakdown in brigade-battalion communications, and a failure in command and discipline. Most importantly, it shows the profound damage to the British Army – over five decades – when it fails to adequately police itself.

A response to this article from a senior Army commander with experience of the period has been published here.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Edward Burke

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