Tuesday 15 June 2010

The Saville Inquiry - What Happens Now?

It's the product of 12 years of hearings and deliberation and for £572 plus delivery, you can now purchase all ten volumes of the Saville Inquiry, although its available for free online.

It has taken a long time for the British state to finally admit what has been common knowledge for some time - that soldiers from the Parachute Regiment killed 13 completely innocent civilians in Derry on Sunday 30 January 1972. It has been a lifetime for the families of those who died to finally have the distressing stigma of the Widgery Inquiry verdict, which whitewashed the British Army's conduct on Bloody Sunday, finally removed.

I have no idea what happens now. Watching Cameron's apology today, I was immediately reminded of another apology in 1999, by the then Home Secretary Jack Straw to Doreen and Neville Lawrence, which was an electrifying moment for all of us who had been actively involved in the Stephen Lawrence Family Campaign during the public inquiry hearings in south London. But the same question was on our minds as Straw addressed a packed House of Commons. What happens now? After so much energy spent simply trying to ensure that the state finally admitted that it had failed and then repeatedly lied about its failure, there was a moment of deflation, a realisation that the struggle for justice was still far from over.

In January 2008, I wrote about the way that public inquiries can shed light on the truth but they provide a very brief window of opportunity for change, before the issue under investigation slips from the public consciousness. In the case of the Lawrence Inquiry, that window has now closed. I suspect what the present government wants more than anything is for the Saville Inquiry to be buried as quickly as possible, written off as a "disaster in terms of time and expense" to quote Justice Secretary Ken Clarke.

The Tory blogger Iain Dale sums up what I expect is the establishment view when he says he hopes "the families of the thirteen who were killed will be satisfied with a verdict by the Saville Inquiry of unlawful killing" and that "republican politicians in Northern Ireland will see the sense of leaving it at that". But that can't be enough. The early 1970s might seem like ancient history to some (I was not yet four years old in January 1972) but the events of Bloody Sunday involved the execution of British citizens, albeit reluctant ones, by the state. And as Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey rightly points out:

Had Bloody Sunday been no more than a violent and disgraceful overreaction or unlawful behaviour on the part of a few "squaddies" or overzealous commanders, it would not have required the British government and its military to create the complicated labyrinth of lies and deceit which has taken hundreds of testimonies, thousands of pages, millions of pounds and 38 years to unravel.

Moreover, today's inquiry report effectively accuses representatives of the British state of what in international law amounts to a war crime. Setting that aside is on an entirely different level to the "sacrifice made for peace" that enabled IRA members and Loyalist paramilitaries to leave prison under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey is dismissive of the Saville Inquiry and suggests Bloody Sunday should be taken to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, but I'm not convinced this is any more likely to secure justice, which may now be impossible. What might make a lasting different, in the brief window of opportunity that exists, is an unequivocal demand that the violent suppression of legitimate protest, whether by the army or the police, is an anathema to any democracy that reserves the right to lecture other nations about human rights. I therefore see no reason why individual soldiers and their commanders should avoid prosecution if the evidence exists to bring them to trial. The best way to remind the wielders of state power through the use of force that they cannot act with impunity is to properly hold them to account.

The same applies just as much to those responsible for the death of Ian Tomlinson at last year's G20 protest. It applies to all those responsible for the hundreds who have died in police custody over the years. Taking the lives of innocent citizens is not ancient history. And we really are no nearer to preventing it from happening again.

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