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Bloody Sunday prosecution

Imperialist massacre - it's not about soldier F

25 March 2019

The capitalist state is not a conspiracy, but it manages to meet the needs of the capitalist class without any difficulty. So it should not be surprising that decades of enquiry into the Bloody Sunday massacre have led to charges against only one soldier, who is very unlikely to be sentenced. To be fair to Stephen Herron, director of the Public Prosecution Service (PPS), the Saville enquiry drew a thick red ring around soldier F, effectively clearing other soldiers in his troop, the parachute regiment, the British Army and the British government from conspiracy to murder.

We will learn more if we turn the situation on its head and ask why the British are so determined to deny responsibility now, why they felt the murder of civilians was necessary then and why nationalist Ireland has never effectively pressed the case for justice.

Firstly, the case for civilian murder as an instrument of British policy is overwhelming. Bloody Sunday was preceded by the Ballymurphy massacre, carried out in part by the same regiment,  as part of the introduction of internment, a form of mass civilian repression aimed almost entirely at nationalist civilians. In advance of internment the British set up the Military Reaction Force, a plain clothes squad killing civilians at random and led by veterans of murder squads from Kenya and Aden.The lead up to the MRF was a mass attack on the Falls Road and the curfew of the civilian population, followed by the introduction of plastic bullets

The whole conflict was infused by a dirty war methodology practiced by Britain and by Loyalist gangs associated with them, similar to colonial battles waged by Britain across the world. In Ireland British strategists wrote learned themes about "low intensity” operations. Anyone reviewing the Bloody Sunday massacre can look up the timeline of cabinet meetings where the unionists demanded suppression and the British agreed.

In the 60s the British were reluctantly nudged towards  introducing  reforms in response to civil rights calls. They were willing to find a role in  advising the Stormont government for nationalist politicians. What they did not want to do was to reform away the sectarian state itself. They wanted to preserve their Unionist base and British rule in Ireland. Mass mobilisation of nationalist workers would make this impossible. It had to be smashed.

So the question after Bloody Sunday was not: “did you catch the name of that soldier?” but rather “how do we prevent British Massacre?”

The British did not fully succeed. If they had then Bloody Sunday would have been buried as a footnote in history. What they did achieve is the fragmentation of the resistance.

The reformist leadership of the Civil Rights Association had one last march and removed themselves from the streets. The Provisional IRA recruited for a full scale armed campaign. Three decades later Sinn Fein signed up to a programme very similar to Britain's initial proposals which the CRA had accommodated to. Following war, we now have peace designed by the British.

However that peace does not involve any apology, compensation or redress. The British are victors. They are staying in Ireland. Secretary of state, Karen Bradley, has asserted that the killing of civilians by British forces are not crimes but officers fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way. If any soldiers were convicted the law would be changed to ensure they were released early. Britain's former opponents disarmed and agreed to administer British rule. If some are still unhappy, who is to notice or care?

There is no past tradition of Britain apologising for crimes in Ireland. Apology is even less likely in a country that has granted itself a general impunity for crimes in Iraq and where the Brexit wing of the Tories  are imagining a military future as specialist invasion troops at the side of the USA.

Nor can this be set aside as simply a legacy issue. The entire edifice of  the Good Friday Agreement is in tatters, disregarded by the British. They now rule the North directly, illegal conduct  studiously ignored by Dublin and Sinn Fein who cannot afford to acknowledge nationalist failure. The entire policy of the nationalists is to kow-tow to the grasping rapacity of Europe while simultaneously bowing and scraping in the direction of Britain and waving the tatters of the GFA before them - bit like relying on the Munich agreement after Hitler had torn it up.

Is there any route to Irish freedom? Is each rising always to be followed by humiliating capitulation?

A close  examination of the days following Bloody Sunday shows that there was an alternative. The 26 county state experienced mass demonstrations in the hundreds of thousands. A general strike spread across the state. A risen people descended on the British embassy and burnt it to the ground.

This reaction, supported by widespread international solidarity, and repeated at various points in the struggle at a lower level, was a major limit on British application of force. Military repression  had to be contained at a level that would not threaten their allies in the Southern state and government. Propaganda had to support British military action and justify a vicious anti-republican attack by the  garda and judicial system.

In fact there was strong practical reasons to link the battle against imperialism in the North with opposition to the capitalist regime in the South.  This was illustrated by a telephone conversation between Taoiseach Jack Lynch an British prime minister Heath where Lynch, rather than protesting the murders, expressed concern that the position of his own government was being endangered. He apologised for ringing British PM Heath at a late hour. Later Dublin agreed to compensate London for the loss of the embassy.

Yet there were few to draw the struggles together. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions was meeting on the day of the massacre, but did not discuss it, let alone undertake any action. The reformist official republican movement moved steadily away from the national question. The Provisional IRA undertook a “labour must wait” position, where class action was downgraded below the “cutting edge” of militarism. Our own group, People's Democracy, saw sympathy for northern workers as enough to mobilise the Irish working class without a full critique of capitalist rule in the 26 county state.

In a period of defeat and decay it is easy to throw the dust of “soldier F” in the face of Irish workers. The supporters of imperialism will demand impunity for the military. Victims will demand that more soldiers be tried. The real issue will be lost.

This is not a battle about feelings in the past. Who can look around the world today and not see the willingness of imperialism to launch unprovoked attack on sovereign countries and spill rivers of blood?

Now, as then, we face the task of building a movement of the working class that stands for full self-determination against capitalism and imperialism.

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