On the Saville Report

One of the few house rules operative here at Fugitive Ink is a prohibition on posts that merely re-duplicate an obvious point almost certainly made better elsewhere. The web, we all know, is too cluttered already. Why advert to the defects of CGT, for instance, or deplore the persecution of David Laws MP, when there’s scope for a 20,000 word piece on some dead diarist’s minor intellectual inconsistencies instead?

All the same, however, despite several hours of trying, I can’t quite stop myself from posting a few quick lines on the Saville Report, published yesterday — less because I have anything distinctive to say about it, than because the obvious things to be said about it are so crucially important, both for our understanding of recent history and for what civilian commentators believe to be the case about our own armed forces, both then and now.

Regular readers will find no surprises in my gut reaction to the Saville Report. Put bluntly, this makes more sense to me than this, this more than this. And for readers wanting some background to this miserable business, you could do worse than this (free registration required), John Lloyd’s apparently eccentric but actually rather sly conclusion very much included.

But let’s not leave it there. Twelve long years and £195m later, what have we learned from the Saville Inquiry? That while the British army won the military conflict, successive UK governments have deemed it expedient that the Republican paramilitary leadership should be seen to win aspects of the political conflict. Hence that emetic footage yesterday of Martin McGuiness MP grinning merrily amongst the bereaved of 30 January ’72 as the waves of blandly uncritical BBC commentary washed over the scene, from which one would never have guessed, for instance, that Londonderry’s attractive Victorian Guildhall, featured prominently in the proceedings, was reduced to a ruin in 1972 by Republican bombing and only rebuilt in 1978, with the help of UK government funding.

This, though, like David Cameron’s apology, is really only a short-term irritant. With luck, any prosecutions lodged against the troops involved will rumble on for years, consuming yet more public money and sadly blighting a few more lives, before being thrown out on the perfectly sensible basis that ‘evidence’ dating back three decades or more is, by definition, hopelessly unsafe.

Indeed, more or less the same objection might be extended to the findings of the Saville Report itself. To write, as John Lloyd does, that ‘the details are now likely to be as clear as they will ever be’ may not, in fact, be making much of a claim. As any PhD student could tell you, employing material of this sort by way of argument would necessarily involve hedging it round with all the usual qualifications regarding the benefit of hindsight, fading memory, the tendency of messy individual narratives to converge into tidier collective ones. And while tidying narratives — making ‘history’ — is a useful and worthy pastime, the result should never be confused with what it was actually like to be there at the time, responding to a messy situation with messy, confused, contingent, all-too-human responses, no better for being judged more than 35 years later by people who surely could have very little empathy with the challenges facing those unfortunate soldiers on that particular, ill-starred day.

Let’s be clear about this. When we get to the point where British troops even have to contemplate shooting their fellow British subjects, let alone actually doing so, something has gone very badly wrong — so much so, indeed, that questions need to be asked, truths told, lessons learned.

The irony, however, is that the army was in fact relatively quick to evolve better means of dealing with the threats and provocations sent their way by Republican terror groups. This is why, as ghastly as it clearly was, Bloody Sunday has gained the iconic status it continues to enjoy in some quarters — because it remains, in all sorts of ways, unique.

But then the British army does tend to learn from past experience — improving training, tactics, doctrine. That’s one of the reasons why it is one of the most professional, successful and widely-admired military forces in the world. By the time of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts, British troops knew more than most about low-intensity conflict, urban warfare, fighting in built up areas, etc. This was experience gained at some cost. The British armed forces lost something like 522 men in the course of the Troubles — the most recent of these last year. And how many civilians — soi-disant ‘paramilitaries’ or otherwise — did British troops kill? The statistic, grim as it inevitably must be, tells its own story about training, self-control and professionalism, very little of which seems to feature in the Saville Report’s 5,000-odd pages.

None of which is to say that the British armed forces didn’t get quite a lot wrong in Northern Ireland over the years — not just the tragic mess of Bloody Sunday, either, but in all sorts of dreary and minor ways, too — counterproductive bad manners, rudeness at road-blocks, basically getting on the nerves of the local population and not much caring. Clearly, being human, British officers and their men did get things wrong from time to time. Clearly, too, Britain should be proud of a history in which, the Interregnum notwithstanding, the military establishment is no more above the rule of law than the rest of us. Few nations on earth have been as lucky. It is a tradition to be cherished, not just as an historical memory but as a present-day necessity, abroad as well as at home.

The point is simply that to a large extent, the British armed forces managed to learn from the mistakes they made on Bloody Sunday. In contrast, what baleful lessons did the terror groups learn from Bloody Sunday when it came to the practical efficacy of provocation, victimhood and grievance? What did the Westminster politicians learn, alternately ignoring Northern Ireland or treating it as wholly exceptional? What has the so-called ‘international community’ learned — precisely those peace-hungry folk who are pleased to see a former IRA commander elevated to the status of deputy prime minister of Northern Ireland, but who might be disinclined to welcome e.g. Osama Bin Laden as mayor of New York City? The Saville Report seems rather quiet on these related topics, as does the media. And that, perhaps, is regrettable.

Finally, by way of a slightly elliptical conclusion, let me explain an apparent oddity here. Keen-eyed observers may note that the photo at the top of this post depicts — rather perversely, under the circumstances — a company of Irish Guards, the one regiment of the Household Division which did not, I think, see service in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. The photo was taken during the Queen’s Birthday Parade last weekend, at which the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards trooped their colour.

During their recent six-month tour of Afghanistan, the Grenadier Guards lost five men, including their regimental sergeant major, Darren Chant, formerly of the Parachute Regiment. He leaves a pregnant wife and several children. Notices of Chant’s death, e.g. here, draw attention to the fact that he had recently saved the life of a wounded fellow-soldier whose leg had been blown off by an IED, carrying him over a mile to the helicopter that was waiting to evacuate him. The wounded soldier, aged 22, has now returned to ceremonial duty and hopes to compete in the British Paralympic cycling team. His positive attitude is nothing if not inspiring.

Meanwhile, although the Birthday Parade was as flawless as ever, those familiar marches heart-stirring, the atmosphere that usual inimitable blend of the solemn and celebratory, the image I’ll take away with me comes from just after the parade itself. The crowds had spilled out onto the Mall, awaiting the usual fly-past. The mood was jovial — armed policemen joking with bystanders, frock-coated occupants of the grandstand seats mingling with tourists and young families — the weather sunny. Then I noticed a guardsman pushing a wheelchair. In it sat another young guardsman, incredibly smart in his ceremonial tunic — sitting rather unsteadily, though, as both his legs were gone, amputated well above the knee, his trousers tucked up underneath him. The guardsman was tugging on his tunic, tucking the trouser legs back more neatly. From the fact he didn’t yet have prosthetic legs fitted, but also from these slight awkwardnesses, I wondered whether his injuries were very recent. I wondered whether he was still in pain, whether the rather gravelly road surface was bothering him.

But then I also found myself wondering other things. What it could possibly be like for this young man to see the rest of his regiment out there on Horse Guards, drilling in the sun, so accurate and agile? What must have been going through his head as he watched the Birthday Parade? What sort of future, within the army or beyond it, could he possibly anticipate?

The good-natured crowds, seeing the handsome young guardsman as I saw him, mostly seemed to do what I did then — which is to say, looked, and then didn’t quite know what to do, so looked away again quickly, trying not to wince too obviously, then felt ashamed at the inadequacy of our own responses, but still were somehow not quite able to work out what to do, what to say or even feel — not, at any rate, until the wheelchair had gone on far enough ahead to be swallowed up again by the happy milling crowds who were still enjoying the warm summer sunshine, the upbeat mood, an interlude of feel-good spectacle soon to be lost in the midst of other everyday things — this skimming glimpse across the surface of a raw-edged way of life that civilians like me can perhaps observe, criticise or admire but never fully understand — however much we might wish it were otherwise.

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