The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Bloody Sunday - conclusions and lessons

As mentioned here last week, the Saville report into the events in Derry, Ireland, in January 1972 has been published after a twelve-year investigation.

Whenever the peace process in Northern Ireland has been mentioned on this blog (indeed it has been the subject of three separate posts) it has been with a view to discussing what lessons of that process may be applicable, directly or indirectly, to other conflict resolution situations elsewhere in the world.

It is with a similar principle in mind that the investigation into Bloody Sunday is of interest now - in other words, what warnings from that particular catastrophe should be heeded today?

The Saville report concludes that there was "a serious and widespread loss of fire discipline among the soldiers of support company [1 Para]." No warning had been given to any civilians before the soldiers opened fire. None of the soldiers fired in response to attacks by petrol bombers or stone throwers. Some of those killed or injured were clearly fleeing or going to help those injured or dying. The report stops short, however, of using the term "unlawful killing", contrary to the Guardian report referred to here last week.

The report also exonerates the victims of any wrongdoing, stating that they were not posing a threat of causing death or serious injury. This is hugely significant, above all for the victims' families, as the original investigation into Bloody Sunday - the Widgery report of April 1972 - accused the marchers of being armed and of firing the first shots - an accusation completely refuted by the Saville report which states that the Army fired first.

So what lessons are to be drawn? What warnings are to be heeded?

In the first instance there are immediate political ramifications for the British government. Today's publication of the report poses an extremely delicate challenge for David Cameron, who has barely got his feet under the table in 10 Downing Street. Like almost all British Prime Ministers, with the possible exception of Tony Blair, Cameron does not take office intending to devote much time to Northern Ireland. Like almost all British Prime Ministers however, he has quickly found that the choice is not his to make.

Cameron's problem is twofold - firstly, the Tory Party which he leads (full name the Conservative and Unionist Party) has an electoral pact and very strong historical links with the Ulster Unionist Party, which has been very critical of the Saville report on the grounds that it is too expensive (£192m) and accords 'special treatment' to some victims of the Troubles but not to those killed by the IRA.

Moreover, as discussed here last week, the findings of the Saville report will inevitably put the Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland under pressure to prosecute the soldiers involved in the shootings and their commanders. This comes at a very important moment in the relationship between government and armed forces in Britain, in large part due to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is in this context that David Cameron only last week called for a new "covenant" between the British people and the British Armed Forces.

Although it is not Cameron's decision to prosecute - or not - the guilty soldiers, the issue clearly will require some very careful handling by his administration, starting with his speech in the House of Commons the afternoon.

"The Government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces. And for that, on behalf of the Government, indeed on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry."

Cameron also that said that you do not defend the British Army by defending the indefensible. All in all, these are strong words and, although some would (rightly) argue that he had no choice but to react in this way, it seems that his initial handling of a potentially explosive issue has been good.

In terms of lessons or warnings, the penultimate sentence of the report encapsulates the incalculable damage incurred by the British Army's loss of control.

"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."

This is a warning applicable to any counter-insurgency situation. If a State is supposed to hold the monopoly of legitimate violence, then any violence which it chooses to administer must be absolutely and unquestionably legitimate. If it is not then the legitimacy of the State itself is undermined. In a counter-insurgency situation, this can potentially be a fatal blow and all because of a loss of discipline by a company of soldiers.

NB: This entire issue is worth revisiting in the near future. For the time being, the report of the British Army into their forty-year engagement in Northern Ireland - known as Operation Banner - shows that conclusions drawn from that experience were applied elsewhere, with the caveat that few were "directly exportable". Be that as it may, the report should feature on the reading list of any study in modern counter-insurgency.

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