This Bloody Sunday verdict is a milestone in Northern Ireland's path to peace
'I feel like that guy in ," remarked a historian friend when faced with the deliberations of the , which reports today. He was thinking of the character who is fated to sift through every piece of evidence and testimony about the Kennedy assassination, resulting in the collapse of all meaning through information overload. The parallel is a good one: both investigations concern violent events which at a stroke changed everything. But the difference is that in the 38 years since , the conspiracy theories about Bloody Sunday in Derry, unlike those revolving around the , seem more plausible than ever.
This has much to do with the evasions, condescension and shoddiness of the 1972 , whose attempt to defuse the aftermath of the killings damaged the credibility of the British government in Ireland as much as the actions of the Paras did. Its sketchy and contradictory approach to evidence, and the heavily biased way it presented the victims, have since been forensically demonstrated; the idea of a cover-up at the time was amplified by the suppression of the Sunday Times Insight team's report. The immediate circumstances of reconciliation politics in 1998, and Blair's inclination towards touchy-feely gestures, may have precipitated the decision to mount a large-scale inquiry, but the blatant inadequacies of Widgery meant it had to happen some time.
This was certainly the belief of local pressure groups such as the Bloody Sunday Initiative, who reflected the agreement of Derry Catholics and nationalists with the coroner Hubert O'Neill's verdict: "It was sheer, bloody, unadulterated murder." And these are the feelings that gave membership of the Provisional IRA its huge boost; the connection to the events of 30 January is testified to over and over again in accounts of republican activism. "It was only on Bloody Sunday that I thought, ah fuck, we got to meet violence with violence here, even if I am going to be killed on the streets. Bloody Sunday is a fucking defining moment for the IRA because like after Bloody Sunday they had complete legitimacy, before they didn't have any at all."
Much as with the "reprisal" tactics carried out by the notorious paramilitaries during the Anglo-Irish war in 1920, the atrocities of the Paras in Derry exactly corresponded with the way nationalists presented British state power in Ireland: thus far, it was frankly admitted to be a propaganda gift. Interviews with republican tacticians recalling 1971-2 bear this out. "If we provoked them enough, if we attacked them enough, at some point it wasn't just us they were going to be shooting at, it was the people. It didn't matter." The smarter army minds knew they should avoid this; they also knew, as one officer told the Guardian's Simon Hoggart a few weeks before 30 January, that the Paras could behave like "thugs in uniform". And the most interesting recent analysis presents a picture of high-level army authorities split between "restraint" and the deliberate targeting of riot leaders in the runup to Bloody Sunday. At the same time it is not true that the slaughter constituted a microcosm of the way the British ran Northern Ireland: the event was, in fact, more or less unique. "State terror" usually operated in other ways. But it changed the terms of engagement.
The testimony accumulated by Saville enables access to material that would normally be embargoed for many years or anonymised out of usefulness. It adds to the corpus of writing inspired by the event from a very early stage. Thomas Kinsella's long poem, Butcher's Dozen, was written as a white-hot response to the Widgery report, in appropriately Swiftian rhyming couplets. Not the most accomplished or profound poem to come out of the Troubles, it is certainly one of the most powerful: "The shame is theirs, in word and deed, / Who prate of justice, practise greed, / And act in ignorant fury – then, / Officers and gentlemen, / Send to their Courts for the Most High / To tell us did we really die! / Does it need recourse to law / To tell ten thousand what they saw?"
More recently there have been plays, television productions, and on-stage dramatisations of the Inquiry itself. The interrogations in Westminster Hall themselves took on a dramatic quality from time to time, with evidence given from behind screens; there was a powerful sense of tables being turned when Edward Heath, puffing like a grampus, was needled by the most preening of Northern Irish barristers. The sheer volume of commentary and accumulation will not abate now, especially with the popularity of the recent theme of "memory" in cultural studies; a recent large book on the subject devotes a third of its bulk to Bloody Sunday.
That terrible event will not be forgotten: not only for the sake of its 14 victims (13 died on the day, one later in hospital), but also because so much flowed from it. The fallout precipitated the suspension of Stormont, legitimised the IRA in the eyes of many, gave what they called "our first big publicity break", and brought the Troubles dramatically south, with the burning of the British Embassy in Dublin. But it is worth remembering that some of these effects were temporary. Dublin-London relations quickly returned to an even keel, on the basis of shared assumptions. More and more evidence shows that well before 30 January 1972, the trend of British policy was to seek disengagement; four months previously, Burke Trend as cabinet secretary minuted that "if the six counties ceased to be British, the saving to public expenditure would be considerable … some form of deal with the Irish Republic seems the best option available".
Heath himself said little different in private. But Bloody Sunday changed the public language, placed "armed struggle" at the forefront of the agenda and destroyed the credibility of the British state as peacekeeper in . The path to political co-operation was blocked for years, by unionist paranoia as much as republican irredentism and the escalation of violence on both sides. Ironically, the door to politicisation was indirectly opened by the next seismic event in the Troubles – the hunger strikes in the Maze, nine years later.
Reconciliation took longer still, but in 1997 an editorial in the unionist about Bloody Sunday condemned the Paras' "appalling over-reaction" in shooting down people "who were guilty of nothing" and called for "a heartfelt, unambiguous apology from the highest possible source". Whether Saville's verdict amounts to this remains to be seen. But the cumbersome procedure that has led up to it constitutes a necessary milestone in the uneasy process towards some kind of peace.