Saturday, June 19, 2010

From the Bogside to the Beanfield & Beijing

Perhaps one bit of news than has dominated British media in the last week, apart from the World Cup, is the release of the Saville Report which after 12 years and a bill of some £200 million released its findings surrounding the events in Northern Ireland known as Bloody Sunday or the Bogside Massacre. Thirteen people died on 30th January 1972 at the hands of the British Army with a fourteenth dying of their injuries several weeks later. The event was a catalyst in Northern Ireland's troubles and became a key element in boosting the popularity within the Catholic community for the Provisional IRA. Over thirty years later much of the violence has stopped. Most para-military organisations have laid down their arms and only a few splinter groups are resolved to continue their fight with the bomb and the gun.

The Saville Report was received well from the families of the victims and those who had campaigned for the truth. The report found that no warning had been given to any civilians before the soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment opened fire. None of the soldiers fired in response to attacks by petrol bombers or stone throwers and some of those killed or injured were clearly fleeing or going to help those injured or dying. Most pointedly the report said none of the casualties was posing a threat or doing anything that would justify their shooting. The report said that many of the soldiers lied about their actions but that the events of Bloody Sunday were not premeditated. Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, and member of Sinn Fein, was present at the time of the violence, the report said. McGuinness was "probably armed with a sub-machine gun" but did not engage in "any activity that provided any of the soldiers with any justification for opening fire" the report said. McGuinness, said to have been the IRA's second-in-command at the time, denied that he was carrying a weapon on the day. Meanwhile, lawyers representing the unnamed soldiers disputed the findings of the report.

Britain's Prime Minister said he was "deeply sorry" and that the killings were "unjustified and unjustifiable" [BBC]. This certainly brought comfort to the families of those who died and the 17 who were injured. But for others it has stirred up a painful past. The following day Lord Tebbit who survived the IRA bombing of Brighton's Grand Hotel in 1984 which left 5 dead and 31 injured. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Lord Tebbit said, "If the victims of Bloody Sunday deserved a public inquiry, so do those of the Brighton bomb". In a further scathing reaction to the idea, suggest by Cameron, that no more expensive inquiries would follow, Lord Tebbit added, "Some victims, the peace process seems to imply, have superior rights to others."

In many respects Lord Tebbit is right. History should not be forgotten or be whitewashed. Costly though it is, and with a risk of stirring up bad feelings, the truth must be sought and set down to set the record straight. But all too often it takes concerted efforts by families to force governments and authorities to acknowledge fault or wrong doing.

In 1985, ITN journalist Kim Sabido stood in a beanfield in Wiltshire and said that there must be a public inquiry into the events he and his crew witnessed, the beating and arrest of travellers who had attempted to make their way to Stonehenge to set up a free festival. "What I have seen in the last thirty minutes here in this field has been some of the most brutal police treatment of people that I've witnessed in my entire career as a journalist. The number of people who have been hit by policemen, who have been clubbed whilst holding babies in their arms in coaches around this field, is yet to be counted. There must surely be an enquiry after what has happened today." There has been no such enquiry to date, and while twenty-one of the travellers were successful in their case against Wiltshire Police for wrongful arrest, assault and criminal damage and awarded £24,000 in damages, the judge refused to award them their legal costs, thereby significantly reducing the amount received.

The Battle of the Beanfield has been seen by some as an example of the state flexing its muscles against whom it saw as subversives. Even the police acknowledged that many of the techniques employed during the events of 1985 had been learnt during the policing of the miners' strike that had started the year before. The Police Review of June 8 1985 reported "The Police operation had been planned for several months and lessons in rapid deployment learned from the miners' strike were implemented."

Some incidents of police brutality have been investigated however. In April this year the Metropolitan Police released a report into the death of Blair Peach, a protester who died in April 1979. In June 2009, the Metropolitan Police Authority decided to publish the original internal police inquiry into Blair Peach's death by the end of the year. As of December 2009, the Crown Prosecution Service was reviewing the internal report and said it would advise police as to whether further action should be taken. The reports into the death of Blair Peach were published on the Metropolitan Police website on 27 April 2010. The conclusion was that Blair Peach was killed by a police officer, but that the other police officers in the same unit had refused to cooperate with the inquiry by lying to investigators, making it impossible to identify the actual killer [BBC].

The shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes by anti-terrorist police in 2005 was investigated by the IPCC [Independent Police Complaints Commission]. However findings of two reports released by the IPCC have not satisfied the family and failed to answer many questions as to what led up to the shooting of an unarmed civilian in the mistaken belief he was a suicide bomber. This was not the first time a suspect had been misidentified and shot. Stephen Waldorf was mistaken for escaped criminal David Martin and shot several times by police.

State violence against civilians has also occurred in other western democracies. And many families of the victims have found the seeking of the truth just as difficult. The Kent State shootings in 1970 left 4 unarmed students dead and 9 others injured. On May 14, ten days after the Kent State shootings, two students were killed (and 12 wounded) by police at Jackson State University. On June 13, 1970, as a consequence of the killings of protesting students at Kent State and Jackson State, President Nixon established the President's Commission on Campus Unrest, known as the Scranton Commission, which he charged to study the dissent, disorder, and violence breaking out on college and university campuses across the nation, The Commission issued its findings in a September 1970 report that concluded that the Ohio National Guard shootings on May 4, 1970, were unjustified. The report said, "Even if the guardsmen faced danger, it was not a danger that called for lethal force. The 61 shots by 28 guardsmen certainly cannot be justified. Apparently, no order to fire was given, and there was inadequate fire control discipline on Blanket Hill. The Kent State tragedy must mark the last time that, as a matter of course, loaded rifles are issued to guardsmen confronting student demonstrators." There was no forthcoming apology from the then president however.

In non-democratic countries the truth is even harder to establish. In China the 4th of June comes and goes with no mention in the media of the events of 1989. The Tiananmen Square massacre, as it has become known, saw the bloody crackdown by government troops leaving hundreds if not thousands of students dead. The Chinese govenment refuses to discuss the event nor admit the true number of those killed, injured, jailed and persecuted. A public inquiry into those events will be a long time coming despite efforts by the Tiananmen mothers to seek the truth. They have attempted to identify the dead and a map of the dead has been compiled. But the real truth behind the events and the numbers who died may never be known. Even as a book outlining some of the decisions made by Beijing authorities, and due to be published in Hong Kong was halted this week for spurious reasons [Reuters].

Costly though such inquiries may be, and contentious maybe the findings, it is probably better to make an attempt to establish the truth than to cover up the past.

[pictured above: Father Edward Daly attempts to lead shooting victim Jackie Duddy to safety during the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972, A blooded traveller is led away by police following the Battle of the Beanfield in 1985, and victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing 1989]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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