Local people turn increasingly to armed men to defend them from what they see as an occupying force. The military settles into a long war against “terrorism”.
So far so familiar, but this is not a story about Basra or Fallujah. It is about a town called Derry in Northern Ireland, and a scandal that is emerging from Lord Saville’s inquiry into the killings of demonstrators there, 30 years ago.
In July, documents were disclosed indicating that the “terrorists on the demo” narrative, which the British army still defends, was the product of one Captain Michael Jackson.
At the time, he was an adjutant to the First Battalion of Parachute Regiment. But today, General Jackson is the chief of staff of the British army, the highest military post in the land.
Families of the dead believe that Jackson and his commander, Colonel (then Major) Ted Loden, began the cover-up of a massacre in the hours immediately after Bloody Sunday.
“I believe they set about trying to turn the tables when they realised what had happened,” says Michael McKinney, whose 27-year-old brother William died when he was shot in the back running away from the protest.
“Willie never even lifted a stone during all the time that the rioting was going on in Derry”
“They got the first strike out in the news to back up their soldiers.”
What this meant for the McKinney family was the blackening of William’s name.
“The paratroopers in that area said that they shot a number of nail bombers,” Michael says. “But Willie never even lifted a stone during all the time that the rioting was going on in Derry.”
Witnesses with immunity
Michael McKinney’s views are widely shared.
“People in the nationalist community are sceptical and even cynical about the prospect that the truth will out,” says the Sinn Fein education minister, Martin McGuinness.
“Don’t forget, this is an inquiry where the witnesses have been offered public immunity certificates, where the rifles have been destroyed, where thousands of photographs have not been offered and where documents have been withheld. It sounds like a cover-up to me. It will be very interesting to hear Lord Saville’s view.”
But Lord Saville has kept his cards close to his chest. Observers believe he is walking a tightrope between an absurd military case and the power of the Ministry of Defence.
“The most difficult thing,” Michael says, “is that the soldiers were granted anonymity and immunity from prosecution so they would not be hostile witnesses. But they are just coming here and telling lies.”
Some are not telling anything at all. On a sticky afternoon in Westminster Central Hall, Soldier 037 is sweating as he gives evidence. He sports Parachute Regiment tattoos under his open-necked shirt and he speaks slowly and earthily.
He played a small part on Bloody Sunday. But in the widely-criticised 1972 Widgery inquiry, 037 gave a statement to the Royal Military Police (RMP) that he had seen a demonstrator killed by an IRA man, shooting from the Rossville Flats. Today he is less sure.
“I think the RMP just wrote it and we just agreed to sign it,” is his first line of defence. But within minutes he cannot recall signing any document at all.
The barrister becomes exasperated. “Isn’t it the case that the RMP were asking you to find an innocent explanation for Soldier U’s shooting?”
“That is not my recollection,” 037 mumbles.
“What is your recollection?”
“I don’t remember.”
But despite the witnesses’ shortcomings, the tribunal has led to the disclosure of two key documents. The first was a list based on a debriefing of soldiers that Loden said he had conducted on the day.
Like so much evidence in the inquiry, Loden’s original notes have disappeared from the Ministry of Defence (MoD). But what remains is a set of grid reference points and coordinates for 15 “engagements” in which unnamed soldiers supposedly defended themselves from attacks by nail bombers and gunmen.
Michael Mansfield QC described the list as an attempt to fabricate evidence justifying the killing of innocents. Certainly, no soldier has recalled Loden’s alleged debriefing; perhaps with good reason.
It was inconsistent with the actual locations of the dead – none of whom were nail bombers or gunmen. It posited shots passing through buildings to reach their targets, non-existent barricades and spectre-like gunmen appearing in two places at once.
It was leaked to the press in the hours after Bloody Sunday, and set the tone of coverage for years to come. Under the more rigorous examination of the tribunal, however, Loden found himself in trouble by his third day on the stand.
Lord Saville’s inquiry has enjoyed
On the fourth came a bombshell. Without warning, a fresh manuscript of operations emerged from the MoD. Loden described it as mysterious, inexplicable and nothing to do with him.
It was handwritten, he agreed, by Michael Jackson, and it tallied precisely with his list. Inevitably, some inferred that Jackson was putting his name on the line in a attepmt to bail Loden out.
Now, as the tribunal prepares to move back to Derry for its final session this autumn, the stakes could hardly be higher. The city is after all, the site of the killings in 1972 and a centre of nationalist opposition to the British army.
McGuinness, for one, continues to believe that in 1972, the troops were sent in “to teach the people of Derry a lesson.” Such a view may be more consistent with Republican mythology than the evidence emerging from Saville’s inquiry.
Some republicans fear MI5 allegations that McGuinness fired shots at British troops on Bloody Sunday will be used to divert attention from the disarray of the military’s case.
McGuinness, though, is dispassionate. “As someone who is going to testify before the inquiry, I always anticipate dirty tricks,” he shrugs. “Every trick in the book is going to be used to try and justify the soldiers’ actions on that day.”
“There has been an attempt by elements in the British military to turn the Bloody Sunday tribunal into the Martin McGuinness tribunal, but I don’t think they’re going to succeed.”
Perhaps, but the inquiry has come a long way from the optimism that greeted its launch in 1998. Then, Tony Blair sounded almost idealistic when he told Parliament: “I believe it is in everyone’s interests that the truth be established and told. That is also the way forward to the necessary reconciliation.”
Michael McKinney still agrees, but with the weariness of a marathon campaigner. “But there were 13 deaths on that day and a further 14 people were shot. Someone must be brought to account for what happened.”
Some are more downbeat.
“I don’t anticipate truth and reconciliation coming out of this tribunal,” McGuinness says. “That’s what I would like to see but until the inquiry gives its verdict I’ll be as sceptical as the rest.”