On Sunday I visited the Frontline Club to watch the screening of Margo Harkin’s documentary ‘A Derry Diary’. The documentary follows the course of the enquiry into the events that unfolded on the 30th January 1972, in Derry, Northern Ireland. A day that would from then onwards be known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.
It was my first visit to the club that was founded in 2003 by former Grenadier Guards Officer Vaughan Smith. The same club that has recently been in the headlines for being the safe haven of Wiki-leaks founder Julian Assange.
As I sat in its darkened screening room, looking at the exposed brickwork decorated with black and white iconic images of historic conflicts. I began to realise that I knew very little about the incidents that had occurred in Derry thirty-nine years ago. As a former member of the Army I clearly had heard about the incident but as it had happened eight years before I was born, my knowledge of the day was rather limited. As Margo introduced her film I hoped that I was not about to spend a rather uncomfortable 90 minutes squirming as the reputation of British Army was hung, drawn and quartered.
Any fears I had were soon calmed as I watched an extremely well researched and directed documentary following the families of those involved. Including the directors own story of how she had been a witness of the events that had unfolded on that fateful day. Using archive footage and interviews from those who were there, a graphically illustrated and detailed image of the day was on offer to the audience. It included the fact that there were Republican gun-men there that day, and that they did fire at the British Troops. It even included an interview with one of the gunmen who fired aimed shots at the Paras. But the theme that remained throughout was that the soldiers targeted the wrong people.
If we now turn our attention to the modern day conflict in Afghanistan (one more that I am far more familiar with), soldiers are told again and again about courageous restraint. Courageous restraint aims to promote the feeling that it is braver not to immediately return fire when fired upon. Soldiers are taught to assess the situation and make more informed decisions before responding with lethal force, if required. Therefore hopefully reducing civilian casualties and winning the trust of the native population.
Whilst I am no expert on Bloody Sunday it would appear to me that those soldiers on that infamous day did not demonstrate courageous restraint. Although shots were fired at the soldiers, none were hit or injured. Perhaps if the principle of courageous restraint had been demonstrated that day then history may reflect differently on the men of 1 PARA. I’m not saying that I can’t understand why they did what they did. They were in a tremendously difficult situation, and one I do not envy. But I think we now must admit that mistakes were made that day from the individual soldier on the ground all the way up to the most senior of officers.
Whilst I’m tremendously loyal to my former employer and I would never want to believe anything that shone a bad light on the British Army. We don’t always get things right, the job that our men and women do on a day to day basis is an incredibly difficult one. We ask our young soldiers to make life or death decisions in the blink of an eye.
We’ll never know all of the exact details of that fateful day almost thirty years ago. But the Saville report has now concluded that the British Army was at fault. We can’t change what has passed, this is now is now part of our history. But what we can change and I believe we have changed, is the way that we would approach a similar situation today. The British military must now swallow its pride and accept the outcome. It must learn from the mistakes that were made and move on, hopefully ensuring that we never have to question the actions of our hard working men and women again.