It is ironic that Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley’s recent statement to the House of Commons that killings by security forces during the Troubles were ‘not crimes’ but ‘people acting under orders and instruction and fulfilling their duty in a dignified way,’ was made on the same day that The Irish Times published comments made by former BBC Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer that the British media has been ‘distinctly lacking in curiosity and depth about Ireland.’
Anyone who has maintained readership of both of Irish and British news over the last two years will be acutely aware that the former has been shouting into the void while the latter rinses and repeats the same articles adorned with phrases ‘border’ and ‘backstop’ with little idea or interest what the implication of them might mean.
Bradley’s comments are particularly sensitive, not just because of the Office she occupies, nor because her gaffe-prone tenure has frequently revealed her ignorance of the region within her jurisdiction, but because next week the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service are due to announce whether soldiers of the Parachute Regiment responsible for the killing of 14 unarmed civilians in Derry on the 30th January 1972 will be prosecuted.
Former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, described feeling ‘sicken(ed) that we are persecuting these elderly men for doing what they thought was their duty – in uniform, under orders, as members of the Parachute Regiment.’ It may be useful at this point to consider that John Downey, one of the volunteers of the Provisional IRA responsible for the Hyde Park bombing, was 66 at the time of his arrest in Donegal last year.
Should the PPS decide to prosecute, it would not be unprecedented. In 1974, Corporal Francis Foxford of the Royal Hampshire Regiment was sentenced to three years imprisonment for the unlawful killing (he was originally charged with manslaughter) of Kevin Heatley, a 12 year old boy in Derrybeg, Newry. Foxford claimed that he had seen a ‘small person’ shooting at him and had retaliated, yet witness statements dismissed this testimony and confirmed that all Heatley and his companions had been firing were ‘jeering and cat-calling.’ (McKitterick, D. et. al. Lost Lives) Heatley’s father committed suicide the year after his son was killed.
Johnson said that efforts towards truth and reconciliation were ‘politics, not justice’ designed to give concessions to Sinn Féin while negotiations to restore the devolved institutions of Northern Ireland were ongoing.
One of the members of the Parachute Regiment, known as Sergeant O, said of the day in question in an interview with Peter Taylor, ‘we were under fire. We started looking for targets and started dropping them, shooting them. The mood between the blokes was not elation but a job well done.’
It is worth bearing in mind that of the fourteen people killed that day, five were shot from behind as they either ran for safety or ran to the aid of the person shot immediately before them.
The next march scheduled by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was to be held in Newry the Sunday after and, in light of what happened in Derry, after much deliberation it was decided that the plans would go ahead. 100,000 people, along with the world press, descended on the town which, for context, according to the 2011 census has a population of just over 26,000.
The language from various members of the Conservative Party and associated media seem in total contrast to the speech then-Prime Minister David Cameron made to the House of Commons in 2010, upon the publication of the final report of the Savile Inquiry, in which he stated that the Bloody Sunday killings were ‘unjustified and unjustifiable.’
This is symptomatic of an ongoing convention from all quarters of political thinking concerned with the ‘legacy issues’ of Northern Ireland, which is characterised by both a demand for justice and a hostility to truth. Many wish to receive vindication, but very few are willing to see it given to someone else. Oftentimes a discussion of the Troubles will exemplify the tit-for-tat nature of many of the killings themselves.
Yet the very worst examples of this stubbornness seems to come from various elements of the British state, where an ignorance and long-standing disinterest of Ireland as anything more than a twee and inexpensive little holiday destination has sustained a façade of moral superiority.
There is no question that British security forces were responsible for atrocities and cover-ups throughout the Troubles, a few of which have received official recognition if not reparation. It does not seem unreasonable that a democratic state should hold itself and its institutions to account, in the interest of holding on to some semblance of morality, and by extension authority to govern.
Without recognition from all parties involved in the Troubles, that share an equal burden of guilt for sustaining the conflict, there seems little prospect of genuine reconciliation, and therefore little reasons to be cheerful for the future.