politics : culture : economics

Bloody Sunday and the politics of honesty

In Ireland, Turkey on June 18, 2010 at 1:10 pm

This week’s publication of the report of the Saville Inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday was another milestone in Northern Ireland’s troubled history. Northern Ireland has seen numerous milestones over the years, many of them painful, many dishonourable. But this was one of the hopeful ones, as the 13 civil rights marchers who were shot dead on 30 January 1972 were finally cleared of all responsibility for the brutal events of that day. Bloody Sunday had a wretched effect on Northern Irish society. An instant recruiting sergeant for the IRA, it accelerated the region’s descent into high-intensity inter-communal violence. Those days are thankfully over now, but until this week Bloody Sunday had remained a open wound. That has now changed.

Notwithstanding the major differences between the two cases, Turkey in its handling of the Kurdish question could learn much from examining the steps that were required from both state and non-state actors to edge Northern Ireland slowly towards its current largely peaceful condition. For that reason, I’ll come back in a future post to outline the constitutional and political settlement that underpins Northern Ireland’s transformation over the past two decades. (The settlement is creative, demanding and full of morally ambiguous compromises; it goes far beyond what Turkey is remotely ready for.)

But for the moment I simply want to quote at length from the response to the Saville report of the UK’s new prime minister, David Cameron. Cameron was only five years old when the events of Bloody Sunday took place, but on Tuesday he took them upon himself with a masterful speech. Perfectly judged and sincerely expressed, his words proved what they claimed—namely, that honesty from a government is a sign not of political weakness but of moral strength. (Here perhaps the lessons for Turkey relate as much to Armenian questions as to Kurdish ones.)

Of course the release from the past that Saville offers is first and foremost for the friends and family of those who died. But there will be release for the UK government too. It took 38 years and two inquiries (an earlier one had largely exonerated the armed forces), but one of the bitterest episodes in the relationship between Britain and Ireland has now at last been put to rest. Speaking in the House of Commons, here is how David Cameron played his part in that process (there’s a link to an unexcerpted version of the speech at the foot of the page):

Mr Speaker, I am deeply patriotic. I never want to believe anything bad about our country. I never want to call into question the behaviour of our soldiers and our Army who I believe to be the finest in the world. And I have seen for myself the very difficult and dangerous circumstances in which we ask our soldiers to serve. But the conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt. There is nothing equivocal. There are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.

Lord Saville says that some of those killed or injured were clearly fleeing or going to the assistance of others who were dying. The Report refers to one person who was shot while “crawling away from the soldiers”. Another was shot, in all probability, “when he was lying mortally wounded on the ground”. And a father was “hit and injured by Army gunfire after he had gone to tend his son”.

Mr Speaker, these are shocking conclusions to read and shocking words to have to say. But Mr Speaker, you do not defend the British Army by defending the indefensible. We do not honour all those who have served with distinction in keeping the peace and upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland by hiding from the truth. So there is no point in trying to soften or equivocate what is in this Report. It is clear from the Tribunal’s authoritative conclusions that the events of Bloody Sunday were in no way justified.

I know some people wonder whether nearly forty years on from an event, a Prime Minister needs to issue an apology. For someone of my generation, this is a period we feel we have learned about rather than lived through. But what happened should never, ever have happened. The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and hurt of that day—and a lifetime of loss. Some members of our Armed Forces acted wrongly. The Government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the Armed Forces. And for that, on behalf of the Government—and indeed our country—I am deeply sorry.

Mr Speaker, this report and the Inquiry itself demonstrate how a State should hold itself to account, and how we are determined at all times—no matter how difficult—to judge ourselves against the highest standards. Openness and frankness about the past—however painful—do not make us weaker, they make us stronger. That’s one of the things that differentiates us from terrorists.

We should never forget that over 3,500 people—people from every community—lost their lives in Northern Ireland, the overwhelming majority killed by terrorists. There were many terrible atrocities. Politically-motivated violence was never justified, whichever side it came from. And it can never be justified by those criminal gangs that today want to drag Northern Ireland back to its bitter and bloody past.

No Government I lead will ever put those who fight to defend democracy on an equal footing with those who continue to seek to destroy it. But neither will we hide from the truth that confronts us today. In the words of Lord Saville:

“What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the Army and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed. Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland.”

These are words we can not and must not ignore.

But what I hope this Report can also do is to mark the moment when we come together, in this House and in the communities we represent. Come together to acknowledge our shared history, even where it divides us. And come together to close this painful chapter on Northern Ireland’s troubled past.

That is not to say that we must ever forget or dismiss that past.

But we must also move on.

Click here for the full text of David Cameron’s speech.


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