Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The Saville Enquiry - 12 years and £195 million later, has it told us anything we didn't know before?

The Saville Enquiry into the events of January 30th, 1972, better known as Bloody Sunday, was finally published last week. Having taken a total of 12 years to complete since its instigation by then Prime Minister Tony Blair, and cost a staggering £195 million, it seems to me that the Right Honourable Lord Saville of Newdigate has merely reached a conclusion that has long been accepted by a significant proportion of the population of these Isles. Said conclusion is that the actions taken by certain members of the First Batallion of the Parachute Regiment in murdering 13 un-armed, innocent civil rights protestors was, is and will forever be utterly indefensible, unacceptable and entirely improper conduct from soldiers representing a democratic, free and fair society. However I would question the need for such a lengthy, expensive and wasteful enquiry, for a number of reasons. Now I accept that the Widgery Report, published in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, and perhaps lacking adequate evidence and testimony from both sides, needed to be overturned by a fresh verdict, in the interests of providing a sense of closure to the families of Bloody Sunday victims. The report, despite being accepted by the British government and the Unionists in Northern Ireland, was widely and rightly condemned and disregarded as a whitewash, and thanks to the Saville Enquiry it has been officially exposed as the inaccurate, false, face-saving measure that it was. However, has Lord Saville's enquiry, besides hopefully putting the Bloody Sunday issue to rest, delivered value for money? I would have to say no, it hasn't. £195 million sounds like a large amount of money without even being put into perspective, but once put into perspective it becomes even more astronomical. To think that Britain's apparantly under-equipped and inadequately-resourced troops could have been bolstered in their efforts to overcome the Taliban in Afghanistan by delivery of 6 extra Apache helicopters, rather than spending an equivalent sum of money to the cost of said equipment on an enquiry that told us nothing new, is rather regrettable. Now these figures are not my own, and the fact that they have come from a Conservative Party politician may lend to them a certain inaccuracy and exaggeration, but the message is clear. Saville's Enquiry cost far too much, said nothing new, and merely re-opened old wounds.

We must not forget that over 3,000 people died during the period known as 'The Troubles', a significant death toll relative to Northern Ireland's population of 1.5 million. During the period of 1969-1997, if one accepts that the Good Friday Agreement marked an official end to 'The Troubles', there were countless incidents of violence, murder and terrorism committed by both sides, as well as many acts perpetrated and decisions taken by the British government which served to exacerbate the situation and fundamentally increase tensions in Northern Ireland. Now is not the time to play the blame game, for I believe that the Peace Process in Northern Ireland has made excellent progress over the past 15 or so years, and such a degree of co-operation has been achieved as to render attempts to do so undesirable and ultimately pointless. Furthermore I do not doubt that when Tony Blair took the decision to launch an enquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday he did so with the intention of providing a sense of closure to the families of the 13 victims, aiding the transition towards peace in Northern Ireland and reaching a fair and just conclusion. However both the cost involved in the enquiry and its lengthy duration have perhaps soured its ability to meet these noble intentions. Many people have been, whether rightly or wrongly, asking when there will be an enquiry into the Omagh Bombing of 1998, the Eniskillen Bombing of 1987, or the attempted assassination of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984. Personally I feel that to launch enquiries into such incidents would be to undermine the Peace Process and re-open old wounds, whilst turning the Northern Ireland issue into a potentially divisive political football. This would of course help nobody, but there has to be some sense of fairness on both sides. Perhaps had the Saville Enquiry been less costly, and completed shortly after the turn of the millenium it would have recieved a better reception amongst many British citizens. Furthermore the fact that said enquiry has taken 12 years to be published has also meant that the British Armed Forces have been held in a sort of limbo, tarnished by the mistakes made by a handful of soldiers 38 years ago in an undeniably volatile situation.

Whilst I will never attempt to defend the actions of British troops on that fateful day, and any other injustices they commit, the professionalism, dedication, humanity and commitment to the cause of peace and reconcilation demonstrated by the vast majority of British servicemen over the past few decades must not be forgotten. Bloody Sunday needs to be held up and remembered as a tragic sequence of events that must never be repeated. However whilst closure is necessary for the families of the victims, I feel current British servicemen and indeed those who served in Northern Ireland and were not guilty of such cold-blooded atrocities should also recieve closure and not have their own actions and reputation tarnished by the mistakes of others. One of the report's most notable conclusions, that current Northern Irish Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness "was probably armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun" on the day of the shootings, will undoubtedly anger many in Britain, who may feel that he should not be in such a prominent position in Northern Irish politics given his potential implication in IRA terrorist activities. However we must not forgot that Mr. McGuinness' role in Northern Irish politics is crucial to stability in the region, and that the key price of obtaining the seminal Good Friday Agreement, a huge achievement by Tony Blair's Labour government, was the release of many Republican paramilitaries who may have been involved in terrorist atrocities. Personally if that is the price of peace, I feel it's one worth paying. I am glad that the Saville Report has been published and will hopefully provide closure on Bloody Sunday to everybody involved in, associated with or merely interested in the shocking events of that tragic day. A day on which the reputation of certain British soldiers, sent into a volatile and potentially explosive situation as peacekeepers, was tarnished, and the period known as 'The Troubles' truly began. However the huge cost of the enquiry, the time taken to publish its findings, and the undesirable effect it has had upon the reputation of the many professional soldiers who were sent in to Northern Ireland to keep the peace, and have performed a similar role around the world ever since, I do not feel is entirely acceptable. As a final thought, perhaps some sort of 'reverse whitewash', which stated the truth as most right-minded people saw it, may have been a more lasting legacy, and prevented a lot of the needless bloodshed and suffering in Northern Ireland. Alas, we shall never know.

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