The Corner

An Honest History

The report of the Saville inquiry into the events of “Bloody Sunday” in Derry, Northern Ireland, in January 1972, when British paras ran amok and killed 13 people on a civil-rights protest march, was published in June 2010. The public proceedings of the inquiry took six years and cost about $300 million. The report ran to ten volumes; with another 160 volumes of evidence, it amounted altogether to between 20 and 30 million words. Very few people outside the families of the victims have plowed through these volumes, understandably enough, and the main impressions left in the public mind by the report and its reception are Prime Minister David Cameron’s acceptance of Saville’s verdict that some of the paras had unlawfully killed (i.e., murdered) innocent civilians without justification, his straightforward apology for these official misdeeds, and the further verdict that Martin MacGuinness of the Provisional IRA had not fired a first shot and therefore not provoked the killings.

There is more in the ten volumes, of course. And the impressions above leave out a great deal more, for instance that Provisional IRA (“Provo”) gunmen were undoubtedly active in Derry that Sunday. But the post–Good Friday atmosphere in which the report was finally published was one in which reconciliation was valued above truth (above inconvenient truths, one might say) and all sides glossed over aspects of the report that contradicted their cherished myths. Thus, Provo and nationalist spokesmen trumpeted the culpability of the paras and ignored the Saville conclusion refuting their 30-year-old claim that the paras’ attack was the deliberate policy of the British government. (Cabinet papers made available to the Saville investigators showed that, on the contrary, Prime Minister Edward Heath and his ministers had just recently decided on a strategy of political concessions to Derry’s Catholic community.) The result, seen in the Wikipedia account of Saville, is that popular memory skews towards an Irish-nationalist viewpoint that largely ignores, say, the violence in the year preceding Bloody Sunday and so makes it seem even more of a turning point in the Troubles than it actually was.  

So anyone interested in the full discernible truth, including historians, is indebted to the writer Douglas Murray, who has worked through Saville’s ten volumes in order to provide the most accurate possible account of what happened that day, Bloody Sunday: Truth, Lies and the Saville Inquiry. It is a scrupulously fair and decent telling of Bloody Sunday; it is utterly unsparing towards those paras who killed without even mistaken justification. Its heroes are those relatives of the murdered innocents who resolved not to seek revenge. Here is Murray’s penultimate paragraph about the son of Barney McGuigan, who was killed that day while going to help a dying man:

Barney McGuigan’s son, Charles, meanwhile would have been better justified than most in deciding that he should avenge the army, the security forces, or the government that stood behind them. But nor did he choose to do so in the years after his father’s death. To Lord Saville he recounted how, ‘at the time of my father’s death, my mother cleared a space in our kitchen and made me kneel under the Sacred Heart picture and swear to her that I would never do anything about my father’s death that would bring shame on the name of the family. Having lost her husband, I believe that my mother was determined that she would not lose any other member of her family as a result of what had happened.’ He finished, “I have honoured that promise to this day.”

But Bloody Sunday is also a book that transcends the story it tells (another such book, incidentally, is Peter Brimelow’s neglected classic of Canadian politics). Murray lays out general but neglected truths about such larger matters as loyalty, and gives us grounds for taking a skeptical view of such matters as the nature of history and the unreliable nature of even the most honest memory. The gruesome story of Barney McGuigan’s eyelid which at some point that day was blown off the rest of his body is a case in point. Twenty different eyewitnesses gave different accounts of where it turned up. None had any motive for lying. All believed they were telling the truth. All, indeed, remembered it vividly. But almost all were wrong — and innocently wrong. Others were wrong without being innocently so. They stoutly maintained lies from a collective loyalty, whether of military comradeship or of community patriotism, that blessed and sustained their deceptions over decades.  

In his understanding and painstaking but always readable way, Murray broadens our understanding of how conflict and passion distort human reactions,  not only when the shots are being fired but down the decades afterwards too. His book combines honest history with decent morality but also with that imaginative insight into how people’s contemporaneous reactions and feelings, an ability that Conor Cruise O’Brien called, oddly, “fantasia” and thought indispensable to the best historical writing.

Murray’s book was published in 2011 in Britain and Ireland, and in the U.S. in 2012 (by Biteback Publishing). Two weeks ago, however, it was awarded the Ewart-Biggs Prize in Dublin (sharing the award with Julieann Campbell whose book, which I have not read, was also on Bloody Sunday but from the perspective of the victims’ families). This prize was established in memory of Christopher Ewart-Biggs, a British ambassador to Ireland who was murdered by the IRA in 1976. Thanks in part to the work of Ewart-Biggs’s wife Jane, now herself deceased, the prize become a symbol of the drive for good Anglo-Irish relations that have been achieved beyond the expectations of anyone in 1972 or 1976. Murray’s book should help that cause further but — and this is a measure of its skill — by achieving reconciliation through truth rather than by working over and around it.

The Saville inquiry was as honest as official history gets; Murray’s careful sifting of it is still an improvement. Anyone who aspires to write contemporary history should read it.  


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