We Irish are said to have long memories and to be unforgiving. The English, it has been said, can’t remember their history while we Irish can’t forget it.
Look around the former and current Empire and I think you’ll find it’s not just the Irish who remember and won’t let the English forget: the Scots, the Welsh, Australian Aborigines, Sub-Saharan Africans, West Africans like Kenya and Nigeria, the Tasmanians (ok, all wiped out but others remember for them), Jews and Palestinians, Arabs, French-Canadians, Indians, Bengalis and Pakistanis, Afghans, Iraqis, Kurds, Egyptians, Greeks, Cypriots, First People and American Indians (before the ‘settler regime’ took over), South African indigenous people, Afrikaners (who — whatever their own sins — saw at least a third of their women and children die in British concentration camps), ‘English’ Caribbean (slave) Islands like Barbados, Trinidad and Jamaica, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, other parts of China in the Opium War …..
‘Very well, yes’ the British ruling class and their ‘educators’ and pundits admit when pushed hard enough – ‘there’s a lot of forgetting to be done, so best get on with it. After all, that’s all in the distant past.’
There’s a problem though with forgetting ill deeds of the distant past – it eases the doing of new ill-deeds and makes their denying easier: “We British are a civilised people and our soldiers wouldn’t do things like that, nor would our leaders let them.” History teaches us that they would, again and again and not only would their leaders let them, they’d order them to and then lie and cover up, occasionally offering up one or two minor actors as a sacrifice if public opinion persists clamorously (and even then not too many in case the lower ranks should rebel and spill the bloody beans).
There’s another problem with forgetting about ill-deeds of the past: it’s not all so distant and some of it is still going on. Part of Ireland is still occupied by the British, i.e it is a colonial possession. And the iniquities of its rule there led a substantial part of the population to rebel at the end of the 1960s, which the British and their colonial administration moved to repress, which in turn led to a war of nearly thirty years. One could (although it is rarely done) call it a colonial war. And that war caused the deaths of many: Irish guerrillas, British soldiers, armed colonial police, colonial paramilitaries, republican political activists, defence lawyers and uninvolved civilians. The toll included over sixty children.
And repression of Republican activists continues today on the streets in the Six Counties (‘Northern Ireland’ for the geographically ignorant) and with over 30 Republican political prisoners in jails of the colony.
Mr. James Brokenshire, Secretary of State for ‘Northern Ireland’ (a post that would perhaps in the past have been “British Governor for …..”), who took the post last July, wants some more public forgetting. And, as is common with colonial advocates of forgetting, he is not only “economical with the truth” (a phrase famed after use by a British politician trying to prevent some other truths entering the public arena)1 but goes for outright lies.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mr Brokenshire was complaining about cases being pursued against British soldiers and colonial police who were stationed in the Six Counties. He said: “It is also clear the current focus is disproportionately on those who worked for the state – former members of the Armed Forces and the RUC.”
In addition, Mr. Brokenshire praised the “vast majority” of police and the armed forces who served “with great courage, professionalism and distinction”. He added: “We are in danger of seeing the past rewritten.”
No, Mr. Brokenshire, it is you and yours who are trying to see to the rewriting of the past but there is little danger that it will happen in the heads and hearts of your system’s victims, nor in those of many other victims and their descendants further afield — despite your historians, pundits, politicians, media and your domestic tools and allies.
Families of Ballymurphy Massacre victims reacted angrily and refuted some of Brokenshire’s lies: “25,000 people have been through the courts and there are only three soldiers among them. Of these three soldiers, they were given lenient sentences, released early and brought back into the army to finish off their service. …. the statistics show that pro-State forces and their agents are responsible for 41% of deaths not the 10% they keep putting out there ….”
As proof of the disproportionately heavy burden of the investigations of 3,500 violent deaths falling upon British military services and colonial police, BBC News on line informed readers that London law firm Devonshire said it was representing between 10 and 15 former soldiers facing prosecution for a number of killings, including those on Bloody Sunday.
Presumably we are supposed to gasp in shock: “As many as fifteen!!” However, just to really shock us, the firm said there could be as many as 1,000 cases. It seems they may know more than Mr. Brokenshire, who claims the killings were mostly done by Republicans.
Barra McGrory QC, the director of public prosecutions for NI, recently told the BBC a number of cases had been coming to court due to inquests and referrals from the Attorney General for Northern Ireland.
He said: “We have taken decisions in three army cases recently, one was not to prosecute and in the other two prosecutions have been initiated.”
TARGETING AND KILLING UNARMED CIVILIANS
The Bloody Sunday killings by the British Army occurred in 1972 – cold-blooded executions of fourteen unarmed civilians on a protest demonstration. Around twenty were also injured, some by gunshot wound. In the colonial tradition of lies following murder, the first official British enquiry found that the dead were armed guerrillas and the soldiers only returning fire.
The City Coroner, Hubert O’Neill, a retired British officer however found it to have been “sheer, unadulterated murder” in 1973. The British establishment nevertheless continued with their lies and found a way to deal with unwelcome coroners’ courts – they changed the law to prevent them apportioning blame and suspended many of the cases indefinitely.2
The Saville enquiry (1998-2004)3 found that all but one of the victims was unarmed and the remaining dead man was recently cleared too. Saville’s findings included that two identified British soldiers had lied under oath (as many as that!) and, without explicitly blaming him, threw a cloud of doubt over the local leader of the Paras, Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford, accusing him of “deliberately disobeying” his superior officer, a Brigadier.4 No explanation was given as to how, if that were the case, he came to receive the Order of the British Empire decoration later that year “in recognition of distinguished service in Northern Ireland during the period 1st February 1972 to 30th April 1972” (i.e excluding the Bloody Sunday date by two days, true but for an officer who that same year had allegedly deliberately disobeyed a senior officer and caused the deaths of 14 civilians …..!).
APOLOGIES, LIMITED BLAME AND NO CHARGES
Wilford’s senior officers all escaped blame, despite their decision to deploy the Parachute Regiment in Derry that day and their part in the coverup, including the wholesale hiding and destruction of evidence.5
When the Saville Enquiry Report was finally published in 2010 (six years after the conclusion of the Inquiry), then Prime Minister of Britain David Cameron apologised to the families of the victims but to date none of the soldiers who shot unarmed civilians has been charged with murder. Even worse, no British Army officer has been even charged with ordering murder and covering it up. Worst of all, no British Government Minister or official has been held responsible for the murders nor was the Widgery Tribunal, which first exonerated the Army and blamed the victims, condemned for a lying cover-up in the face of a mountain of evidence from civilian witnesses and a number of journalists. No media outlet has been charged with nor voluntarily admitted collusion in the cover up.
Major General Robert Ford, in charge of land forces of the British Army at the time and in overall charge of their allocations in Derry that day, escaped any blame from the Saville Enquiry. Yet the allocation of the 1st Parachute Regiment to a Derry march against Internment had been his decision – only five months after they had shot and killed another eleven civilians over three days in another part of the Six Counties – the Ballymurphy suburb of Belfast.
The killings then too were of unarmed civilians protesting against internment (“Operation Demetrius”). As they would five months later, the soldiers, their commanding officers and politicians claimed they were “returning fire” from the IRA. A number of their victims had multiple wounds (one was shot fourteen times) and one received a second shot after being brought inside the Paras’ barracks, according to the victim before he died. As at Derry five months later, a number were shot while going to the aid of victims (including a priest, which makes the action of Fr. Daly — later Bishop — on Bloody Sunday in Derry even more heroic). One victim died of a heart attack after a soldier put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger – the gun had no round in the chamber but the victim didn’t know that. The inquests of the victims have still to be held, nearly half a century later.
Yes, one sees why Mr. Brokenshire wishes to have all this information buried with the victims, not to speak of other information that might yet emerge. And yet the 14 dead of Bloody Sunday in Derry and the 11 of the Ballymurphy Massacre are only some of the unarmed victims of the British Army and the RUC, not to mention the Loyalist death squads run by British occupation forces’ Intelligence units. There are the children and adults killed or maimed for life by plastic bullets fired at short range, sometimes without even being in the area of a disturbance; the children and adults killed by British or colonial forces’ gunfire; the captured Republican fighters executed on the ground or given no chance to surrender when ambushed; the joy-riding youths shot to death. Yes, Mr. Brokenshire has good reason to see all this swept under the carpet and one can understand why a number of British service personnel (supported by those in some foreign forces) would demonstrate in protest at their “persecution” as they did on April 14th in Belfast.
The investigations to which Mr. Brokenshire objects, by the way, are being conducted, not by any impartial organisation but by the Legacy branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. For the unaware, the PSNI is also a colonial police force, the progeny of the disbanded Royal Ulster Constabulary, containing many of that force and like its predecessor, sectarian and repressive of Republican activists. The RUC also contained the B-Specials, a kind of part-time official armed Loyalist militia, implicated in many killings and largely absorbed into the Ulster Regiment of the British Army. Officers of the full-time RUC are also implicated in many killings.6
A TIME TO FORGET
A criminal who has paid restitution and repented is entitled to get on with his or her life without being confronted with their crimes of the past. This is not what we have here – this is a criminal gang wanting us to forget while it carries on robbing, threatening, killing and destroying human lives.
Come the day when British Imperialism is dead, no longer even twitching, no pulse and no brainwaves, well then it might be time to forget. But maybe not – there might still be other imperialist and colonial powers around and as they learn from one another, so should their victims and resisters share their memories and experiences.
On that glorious day when such systems no longer trouble humanity, then, at last we can forget? I don’t think so, not even then. For what history teaches us about imperialism and colonialism and capitalism, it is teaching us about humanity, its economics and philosophies. As long as we exist, it will never be time to forget those lessons.
1Said by Sir Richard Armstrong in 1986 in the trial, the failed British attempt to prevent the publication in Australia of the “Spycatcher” memoirs of MI5 former Assistant Director Peter Wright and co-author Paul Greengrass. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spycatcher. However, the phrase was originally documented from the 18th Century liberal-conservative philosopher and orator Edmund Burke.
2Which is why some recent inquests on people killed by British and colonial forces are giving rise to criminal investigations so long after the actual deaths.
3Which many believe to be part of the Good Friday Agreement deal or at least given as a ‘sweetener’
4No investigation was apparently carried out into whether Wilford had been ever charged by the Army with “deliberately disobeying” a senior officer in an event which led to unarmed civilian deaths. In fact, Wilford had been awarded military decoration shortly afterwards. It seems that Wilford out of loyalty to the Paratroop Regiment and perhaps some other considerations, agreed to “carry the can” during the Enquiry. Wilford was always outspoken in defence of the soldiers under his command but later claimed that the Army had distanced itself from him, so that when he retired he was only one rank higher than that which he held at the time. He retired on full pension of that rank, however.
5“Over 1,000 army photographs and original army helicopter video footage were never made available (to the Enquiry — DB). Additionally, guns used on the day by the soldiers that could have been evidence in the inquiry were lost by the MoD. The MoD claimed that all the guns had been destroyed, but some were subsequently recovered in various locations (such as Sierra Leone and Beirut) despite the obstruction.” (Wikipedia)
6Although here the statistics are skewed by the few tried being made to resign just prior to being charged (presumably in exchange for gentler treatment by the courts or threat of worse) so that they did not appear as serving RUC officers when convicted.