Eamonn McCann was one of the organisers of the civil rights protest on Bloody Sunday. He looks at two new TV dramas which expose Britain's bloody role
Bloody Sunday should fill the British ruling class with shame. Instead they send up flurries of outrage to distract attention from the truth. The two new TV dramas marking the thirtieth anniversary of the massacre have been denounced by a variety of politicians and commentators. Some of these people didn't feel the need to see the films before delivering their judgement.
They attack the films as one-sided, depicting the British Paratroopers as murderers and all the dead and wounded as innocent victims. What's more, it's said, there's an imbalance between the continuing concentration on Bloody Sunday and a relative lack of interest in other Northern Ireland atrocities.
But what drew the writers of the films, Jimmy McGovern and Paul Greengrass, was precisely what made Bloody Sunday different. The Paras killed 13 people in the Bogside because they'd stood up and demanded equality. Many people, particularly young people in Catholic working class communities across the North, believed they faced a choice of either giving up the fight for equal rights, or getting armed and fighting back.
Both films accurately depict how the IRA mushroomed as the stench of cordite was clearing from Rossville Street. The killings weren't an accident or a result of psyched-up soldiers running amok. The British Commander of Land Forces in the North, Robert Ford, had laid out his intentions.
In a memo dictated three weeks before the slaughter, on 7 January he wrote, 'I am coming to the conclusion...that we must shoot selected ringleaders of the Bogside young hooligans.' Ford's preferred action, and his role in urging the Paras to 'go on...go and get them', is, again, portrayed accurately in both films.
These sequences do not prejudge the truth. They are meticulously built around established fact. The films show soldiers planting four nail bombs on the dead or dying Gerry Donaghy, aged 17. This is not 'bloody fantasy' (Daily Mail), but the only conclusion possible from a mass of evidence. Two doctors who examined the stricken youth confirmed that there were no nail bombs in his pockets.
The films depict Barney McGuigan inching out from cover waving a white handkerchief towards the dying Paddy Doherty who was crying, 'I don't want to die on my own.' A para from across the street shot him in the back of the skull. This is exactly as scores watched it happen.
Jim Wray, 22 and unemployed, is shown shot in the back at point-blank range as he lay wounded in Glenfada Park, the way horrified neighbours remember. Jackie Duddy, 17, a brilliant amateur boxer, was laughing at the sight of Father Daly out-running him away from the soldiers when a bullet hit him in the back Hugh Gilmore, 17, died cradled in the lap of Geraldine Richmond, 18, moaning, 'I want my mammy.'
All the deaths have been reconstructed from published evidence. Bloody Sunday didn't happen on a lonely road in the dead of night, but in bright winter sunshine in a built-up area with hundreds of witnesses. The reason the issue has remained raw for 30 years is not that the basic facts are elusive, but that they are obvious.
Hostility to the films doesn't arise from concern for the truth, but from an unwillingness to acknowledge the truth. Each has a Para who watches the slaughter with dismay and is assailed by guilt afterwards. This is Soldier 027. The depiction is taken from his witness statement to the Saville inquiry, which also helps provide the basis of scenes showing other Paras filled with savage exultation.
The films look at the facts from different angles. Greengrass tells the story mainly through the eyes of SDLP MP Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt). This requires that Cooper is shown at the heart of the action and involved in every key decision on the civil rights side. These scenes, while they do not impact on the account of the killings, portray Bogside people as far too deferential.
Bernadette Devlin, the most popular and influential person in the Bogside on the day, is played as a shrill fool. Greengrass also shows a priest delivering a patronising lecture to a submissive Gerry Donaghy. As a depiction of the relationship between priests and Bogside teenagers in 1972, this is laughable.
Greengrass accepts the cock-up theory of Bloody Sunday. The massacre didn't flow from deliberate strategy, but from a combination of the officers' belligerent stupidity and the soldiers' confused aggression. His account is framed within the 24 hours of Bloody Sunday. He focuses on the question of whether the order for the Paras to go in was properly given, with a detailed reconstruction of army communications. This question is important. But to make it a major focus is to miss the more important point of why the Paras had been brought to the Bogside from Belfast that morning.
This is the issue McGovern homes in on, depicting the alarm of the Derry garrison commander on discovering the Paras are to be deployed. He incorporates the moment when the garrison commander was told that the deployment order had come from 'the very top'. The commander's assumption (which he has recorded) was that this was a cabinet decision.
McGovern shows Tory prime minister Edward Heath steering Lord Widgery towards the conclusion he wants from the inquiry, set up two days after the event: 'Remember...we are fighting in Northern Ireland not just a military war but a propaganda war.' In McGovern's film, the source of the evil which burst on the Bogside is located in the conscious intentions of the political, military and legal elite. Greengrass suggests a general moral deficiency in the political and security apparatus.
Greengrass implicitly concludes that what the Bogside needed was trust in the leadership of decent men like Ivan Cooper. McGovern suggests that the answer lies somewhere in the sense of working class oneness and sheer indomitability of the people themselves. Greengrass's depiction is undeniably powerful. More documentary than drama in style, it is simply structured. It builds tension through intercutting the marchers' jaunty banter on the march with the Paras' grim preparations.
The violence is caught in jerky, hand-held sequences seemingly snatched on the run, zooming in on terror. The scenes of Cooper at Altnagelvin Hospital, besieged by pain all around as families discover that their son or father or brother is among the dead, will remain vivid in the memory long after the detail of dissection of the film has faded.
McGovern's film is more deliberately structured. Its prelude sketches the build up to the Bogside march. It also shows the Widgery tribunal and the repercussions for politicians and shattered families. Throughout, he looks at the unfolding horror through the families' eyes. You get to know the Youngs the way you know people you call in on without knocking on the door.
Discussion of the differences between the films shouldn't obscure what's true and brilliantly realised about both. They present Bloody Sunday as a pitiless murder spree carried out on behalf of a ruthless government by a kill-crazy regiment and covered up by a class-conscious liar, the Lord Chief Justice of England.
THE 13 victims murdered by British Paratroopers on Bloody Sunday. John Johnston died of injuries later.
Gerard Donaghy, 17 Gerard McKinney, 53 Hugh Gilmore,17 Jack Duddy, 17 Barney McGuigan, 41 Jim Wray, 23 John Johnston, 59 John Young, 17 Michael McDaid, 17 Michael Kelly, 17 Paddy Doherty, 21 William McKinney, 53 William Nash, 19 Kevin McElhinney, 16
Paul Greengrass's Bloody Sunday was shown last Sunday. Jimmy McGovern's Sunday will be shown on Channel 4 this Monday at 9pm.