Contesting the Past: The Saville Report on Bloody Sunday

Contributed by Shaun McDaid

The publication on 15 June 2010 of Lord Saville’s Report into the events of Bloody Sunday was one of the most significant events in the recent history of Northern Ireland. For many, Saville’s unequivocal exoneration of those civilians shot by members of 1 Para on 30 January 1972 came as no surprise – not least the families of the victims. The Saville Inquiry exorcised the ghosts of the Widgery report of 1972, the first investigation into the deaths. Widgery’s report suggested that some of those who had been shot had come into contact with or had fired weapons. The forensic evidence on which this conclusion was based has subsequently been discredited; it was rejected by Lord Saville. After almost forty years, the state officially recognised the innocence of those who were shot by the Paras that afternoon. The Prime Minister offered an earnest apology on behalf of the government. However, despite the lack of ambiguity of Saville’s main findings, they were hotly debated in Northern Ireland, with opinion often dividing along sectarian lines.

The differing emphases placed on the report by nationalist and unionist politicians are illustrative of the challenges facing analysts of Ulster politics. Nationalists regard the report as a vindication of the innocent civilians who lost their lives, while many unionists focus on the lack of closure for families who lost loved ones to paramilitary violence. Unionists are also concerned about the movements of the current Deputy-First Minister on Bloody Sunday itself. In Northern Ireland, even seemingly incontrovertible facts can be interpreted in different ways. Politicians on both sides will, it seems, attempt to use the details of the report against each other for political gain.

Ten volumes and 5,500 pages of evidence have been produced by Saville and his team. Clearly, the executive summary of the report, outlining only its most important findings, is just the tip of the iceberg. There may be unpleasant surprises lurking within the report. Many weeks of careful research will be needed to digest the information and come to a measured conclusion about it. The Saville Inquiry has shown that finding the truth takes time. Patience, from historians and politicians, will be required before authoritative comment on Saville’s findings can be made.

The novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin once wrote that the velocity of the tongue per second should always be a trifle slower than the velocity per second of thought, and not by any means the reverse. It might be suggested that many Northern Ireland politicians have not often heeded that advice.  Some have been quick to use information in the report’s summary to condemn their political opponents with apparently little time spent considering the potential impact of their utterances. Much of this barbed commentary is potentially divisive, particularly coming at a time of the year when community tensions are often at their most pronounced. However, despite the ill-considered interventions of some politicians, there are signs that an increase in inter-communal tension is not inevitable in the aftermath of the report’s publication.

The visit to Derry’s Bogside of representatives of the city’s main Protestant churches, for example, and the warm welcome they received from local residents, illustrates that sincere attempts to heal the deep social divisions which have long blighted the city are already underway. If the legacy of the Saville Report is the lasting improvement of the walled city’s inter-communal relations, then it will have been worthwhile. The people of Derry have shown that, however painful, the legacy of the past can be overcome. The extent to which their example might be followed remains to be seen.

Shaun McDaid has recently completed a PhD in Modern History at Queen’s University Belfast. His main area of research is the history of Northern Ireland.

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One Response to “Contesting the Past: The Saville Report on Bloody Sunday”

  1. Frank Says:

    Interestingly, the findings of an inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday at Croke Park in 1920 were only made public in 2000. Other Bloody Sundays occurred in London in November 1887, in St Petersburg in 1905, in Paardeberg Drift (Orange Free State) in February 1900 during the Second Boer War,

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