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  Saville: A new word for farce

John McAnulty

28 September 2009

(This article was initially written for the British socialist journal Socialist Fight)

The announcement that Lord Justice Saville's report into the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry is to be postponed shows yet again the tendency of the Irish peace process to slip over the edge of farce into new realms of absurdity.

The delay came six years after the close of the tribunal, twelve years after it opened and thirty seven years after the massacre. The British remain uncertain about the events in Derry even though the massacre was carried out under the eyes of the press and television cameras and with one of the main eyewitnesses now deputy first minister in the local administration.

So why are we facing this absurdity? Part of the answer can be found in the British Army's account of 'Operation Banner' - its account of the history of the current Irish Troubles. According to the British, the army had to deal with an armed uprising followed by a guerrilla campaign. In fact the history of Bloody Sunday is the history of the initial, unacknowledged part of Operation Banner - the necessity of state terror to force a peaceful mass mobilization off the streets. 

From this perspective the history of Bloody Sunday is relatively clear-cut. The British used military power to force the Civil Rights movement from the streets. As part of the operation they ran a fictional story about a confrontation with the IRA and planted pipe bombs on the bodies of the victims. A judicial enquiry led by Lord Justice Widgery applied a liberal coat of whitewash and the incident was buried. The Bloody Sunday operation was partly successful. Although it did not end street protests and fed into an armed resistance, they did give the capitalist politicians and the local Communist Party the excuse to pull back and oppose further mobilizations.

The Saville Enquiry has to do with the weaknesses of the Provisional republicans. They became a mass organization immediately following the massacre on the basis of a popular understanding that the best way to call finis to Irelandís history of Bloody Sundays, Mondays and every other day of the week was to expel the British. Unfortunately their lack of class politics and reliance on militarism made them unequal to the task.

Militarism proved unequal to the task. The Provos never mounted any real challenge to Irish capitalism and, when they were pushed back, Irish nationalism and the Catholic Church led them to political capitulation and acceptance of continued British rule. It became necessary to propose ways to resolve outstanding issues. The Provos, in secret negotiations, suggested that the British say sorry. The British declined, proposing the old standby of another enquiry and the morass of the Saville investigation was born. As with many other aspects of the peace process it works better floating in mid-air than when touching ground, being able to absorb endless legal fees and tons of statements and documents until faced with the necessity of reaching an outcome. This has proved difficult since the tribunal closed its doors six years ago.

The reasons are very straightforward. The Stormont administration is not composed of earnest statesman trying to find a common future but is led by sectarian bigots whose program was that more Bloody Sundays would have quickly settled the troubles and for whom it remains the preferred method for ensuing stability today. Any Saville admission of British guilt would further destabilise a regime where DUP supporters only tolerate their leaders in government with Sinn Fein as long as Peter Robinson keeps publicly reassuring them that the arrangement is temporary and that Sinn Fein will soon be expelled.

From a Sinn Fein perspective a repetition of the slanders of the original enquiry would be enormously damaging. They have been humiliated by the removal of guaranteed concessions such as the promise of an Irish Language Act. Their vote has plateaued and their organization is hollowing out.

From a British perspective any discussion of Bloody Sunday might mitigate against the attempt to portray the hirelings involved in the latest colonial adventure in Afghanistan, participants in atrocities much greater than Bloody Sunday, as 'heroes'.

Much better if Saville were to be delayed again, due to the imminent election, and then re-present the old whitewash buried in a fog of detail. 

From a socialist perspective the real concern is that the whole issue has been presented as a psychological one, centered on the needs of relatives for emotional closure. The political reality is that the peace process has not significantly changed the relationship between Britain and Ireland, has not changed the fundamental nature of the sectarian colonial statelet. In such an environment Bloody Sunday is not a relic of some dead past but a threat to future struggles for Socialism and Democracy. The way to prevent Bloody Sundays is to force Britain out of Ireland. Provo militarism has proved incapable of doing that, but it is an issue that remains to be resolved by the Irish working class.


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