Strange to recall that nearly nine years have passed since the day I called in as a visitor to the Saville Inquiry in Derry. It was on Monday, June 25 2001, that I stepped inside the Guildhall, out of a sunlit Derry afternoon, and found a breathtaking technical operation in progress. The Guildhall’s Gothic main chamber had been converted into what Richard Harvey – barrister representing the family of Jim Wray, a victim of ‘Bloody Sunday’ – called ‘Courtroom Starship Enterprise’. Sixty lawyers sat in attendance, a great nest of black crows: three for each victim, plus a group representing the paratroopers. Each was fitted out with a personal computer and a lectern from which they could question the witness, and such was the crowd in the chamber that each QC found himself gesturing to get the witness’s attention so that proceedings could commence.
Large screens were suspended from the oak-beamed ceiling, displaying close-ups of highlighted transcript passages, contemporary photographs, and even a VR recreation of the Bogside, reviving the long since demolished Rossville Flats. As a witness testified, they could refer to a virtual panorama of the Bogside, move around 360 degrees, even draw on the screen with a marker in the manner familiar to us from sports programmes on TV.
Taking the stand during my visit was Ms. Susan North, an Englishwoman in her mid-50s, elegant in a cream dress, pearls, and a hennaed bob. Her job as assistant to photo-journalist Fulvio Grimaldi brought her into the Bogside throng that day. When the shooting started she and others sought refuge in the Rossville flats. To get into a particular flat she had to step over the body of 17 year old Kevin McElhinney, shot dead as he tried to crawl to safety in a stairwell. Once in the flat, she and Grimaldi had to dive for cover as incoming shots were fired through the window. Ms North’s tape recording of this gunfire was played in silence that day at the Guildhall. Much argument ensued about a pretty well inaudible remark transcribed as ‘Let me get the bombs out first’: Ms North remembered hearing or seeing nothing of the sort. She did meet a man with a pistol in his pocket, who was afraid of being ‘lifted’, as they say in the North. And in the streets she saw more fallen bodies, people who’d been shot – five dead, three wounded. ‘Even the most hardened person’, she told the Tribunal calmly, ‘could not fail to have been touched by the monstrous scene.’
David Cameron’s speech to the Commons this afternoon, relaying the main findings of Saville’s Inquiry, moved me considerably. Not that I have any personal stake in the matter, you understand – it’s simply to do with the accumulated tensions of it, which anyone can feel who has read and reflected on the history.
It’s reckoned that ‘The Troubles’ claimed 3526 lives, and certain parties will insist on arranging these names in columns and imagining that a slide rule can show beyond doubt which side was more sinned against than sinning. The poet Thomas Kinsella lamented the tragedy very well albeit at what turned out, sadly, to be a very early stage in the conflict: ‘There are too many dead, on all sides, and it is no use pitting them hideously against one another.’
What we now know for a fact is that in the Bogside district of Derry on Sunday, January 30 1972, at the culmination of a march by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association against internment without trial, unarmed Catholic demonstrators were purposely shot dead by soldiers of the First Battalion Parachute Regiment under Colonel Derek Wilford. We know this now in spite of the subsequent inquiry of Lord Chief Justice Widgery, who decided swiftly and erroneously that Wilford’s men had met IRA gunfire as they entered the Bogside, and that several of the thirteen rioters then ‘dropped’ by Para sharpshooters were themselves armed.