Home > Commentary, Transitional Justice > Guest Contribution: Prof. Christine Bell (TJI) on Bloody Sunday and Human Rights in Northern Ireland

Guest Contribution: Prof. Christine Bell (TJI) on Bloody Sunday and Human Rights in Northern Ireland

We are delighted to welcome this guest contribution from Prof. Christine Bell, Transitional Justice Institute (TJI), University of Ulster. The TJI offers the LLM in Human Rights Law and Transitional Justice at both Magee and Jordanstown campuses, for which applications are still being accepted. For further information, see here. You can find out more about Christine on our Guest Contributors page.

Lord Saville is due to publish his report into the events of ‘Bloody Sunday’ the week commencing 22nd March.  There are two ways in which a Tribunal of Inquiry can  bury rather than reveal the truth.  The first, known as ‘doing a Widgery’ is for it to go in fast and dirty, with a biased process whose main aim is to vindicate those accused as quickly as possible.  In place of truth and accountability, this approach attempts a narrative of blatant denial.  The second way, known as ‘the Italian job’ (but not unfamiliar to those in the Republic of Ireland), is to have a very long and expensive tribunal, produce a very long and detailed report.   This approach can deliver a more subtle form of denial as the ‘truth’ becomes lost in a morass of information which produces only the vague conclusion that, as everyone did something wrong no-one did anything too wrong.

Despite the Saville Inquiry taking on a flavour of this second approach, the families of those killed and the injured maintain faith with a process many never entirely believed in, but which was the only process on offer.  That faith is now being tested in ways they might never have imagined.  Instead of focusing energies on preparing for finally reading the outcome of the Saville Tribunal, they have found themselves in a protracted negotiation over whether and when they will see the report in its full version at all.

A new phase of campaign – ‘set the truth free’ – has been prompted by meetings with the government relating to the report’s public release.  The British government have informed the families that on receiving Saville’s final report they will conduct their own ‘post-proofing’ exercise to ensure that Saville has adequately protected right to life and national security interests.  Some of this ‘post-proofing’ will be undertaken by Ministry of Defence officials because, according to Secretary of State Shaun Woodward, these are the only civil servants in the entire realm with the requisite expertise to undertake the exercise.  If this post-proofing exercise should lead the government to disagree with Lord Saville’s call on these issues, the government may redact the report.  By way of reassurance, the government has expressed to the families the hope that Saville will have adequately proofed the report himself, that there will be no redactions, or that they will be of a ‘typographical’ nature only.

The families are rightly concerned.  Both the government and the Ministry of Defence, like the families themselves and indeed the government, are ‘interested parties’ to the Inquiry.  The good faith of the Ministry of Defence is particularly in question, having destroyed the guns used in Bloody Sunday as soon as the Tribunal opened, and more recently been found in dishonesty over claims of ‘national security’ by judges elsewhere in the United Kingdom with reference to torture in Iraq.

With the whole point of the Inquiry being to restore public confidence, and with a huge amount of money having been spent in the exercise, there is now a real danger that confidence, money and the report’s integrity will be squandered by a ham-fisted process of release.  Those most concerned about ‘value-for-money’ todate should add their voice to the call for full release immediately.  Attempts to suppress inquiry reports have cautionary precedent in other jurisdictions.  In South Africa, for example, the ANC took an injunction against, and redacted the final Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report.  It was something they rather came to regret as it served to detract from the strong conclusions against the former apartheid government.

In Northern Ireland the potential of a Bloody Sunday report debacle is part of a broader disturbing pattern.  An official discourse of peace process human rights measures is fast taking hold.  That approach views the peace process as now completed, with devolution and policing as the ‘last piece of the jig-saw’.  In this discourse outstanding human rights processes at best the ‘icing on the cake’, which can be jettisoned because peace has been so successful that there is now no need for them.  The deal is done, and now the cake, we are told, is good enough.  Bloody Sunday, a bill of rights, or a mechanism for dealing with the past more generally: who needs them now?  Those who argue that human rights protections and processes remain important are dismissed as a monolithic ‘industry’ with its own axe to grind, those who cannot let go of the past, or who cannot accept the new political process and the accountability of electoral politics.  Yet, the more cynical observer might charge that the bits of the peace process left undone are precisely those which are unsusceptible to party-political deals, because they involve constitutional discussion ‘by the people’, and the right of victims with respect to those in power whether in the Assembly or Westminster.

Whatever its motivation, the judgement that human rights are an unnecessary luxury is at best complacent and at worst dangerously naïve.  Northern Ireland has greatly changed for the better.  The dramatic reduction in violence and death on our streets is to be welcomed daily.  But our past is also disturbingly present.  It is present in social attitudes that continue to embrace sectarianism, racism, and misogyny, and promote ever-increasing spacial and social segregation between communities.  It is present in what are likely to be ongoing difficulties of power-sharing, partnership and coherent legislation.  It is present in the hurt still felt by victims, compounded by never-ending proposals for processes which don’t materialize, which serve to re-victimize rather than heal.  It is present in the lack of socio-economic progress in the areas worst affected by the troubles and in the iceberg of post-conflict corruption whose sharp tip we have seen.

If resolving the conflict was about more than achieving a permanent ceasefire, then the human rights dimension of the peace process still requires to be fully implemented.  In the case of Bloody Sunday, the government, the soldiers and the families have a common interest in seeing the Tribunal finally publish its judgment.   The moral and political imperative is to let the Tribunal conclude and report as the independent and international Tribunal it is.

The proper place for debate and challenge of the Tribunal’s conclusions is that of the democratic and civic process, not in the secret conversations behind closed doors of faceless people who have vested interests.  If the Tribunal is to be anything more than the expensive debacle as is so frequently charged, and if all those at the heart of the events all those years ago are to be treated fairly, then pre-emptive strikes, incompetent political handling, or the appearance of bad faith must all be strenuously avoided.  The name ‘Saville’ should not enter our lexicon as ‘Widgery’ has, as a term synonymous with suppression of truth and further victimization of those killed.  It is time to ‘set the report free’, strike where it will.

The campaign website is available at http://setthetruthfree.org/.

A Facebook campaign for the release of the Bloody Sunday report can be found here.

A petition to support the campaign can be accessed here.

  1. Vicky Conway
    March 12, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    an excellent contribution. I note that an interim report has been published today from the Hamill inquiry – has this been subjected to any such ‘editing’ process?

  2. March 12, 2010 at 6:33 pm

    Christine–excellent post, thank you. I think the point that you make about some parties seeing the peace process as now ‘done’ (well, once P&J have been devolved) is at the heart of the problem here and, to my mind, demonstrates the gap that may have existed all along between different understandings and expectations. To the relevant governments, perhaps, the end goal was essentially an end to violence where violence was conceived of as a physical problem to dealt with on a daily basis. For communities and activists, it seems to me, the end of violence may have been a much more textured kind of a concept and one that really meant an end in terms of a resolution and reconciliation as well as an end to daily iterations of physical violence. My fear is that if a Cameron government is elected that gap will be widened even further because of the apparent disinterest on the part of Cameron in NI (apart from as a vote-gaining constituency), seeming blindness to the implications for devolution of all the plans about ‘British’ bills of rights and so on, and lack of institutional investment in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement because of having been out of government for so long. If Brown’s Labour are taking this approach to the report, what kind of approach to other aspects of consolidation of the peace process is Cameron likely to take?? Are they likely to see the human rights dimensions as tokenistic and dispensible? The impact of such an approach on NI would really be dramatically bad I would imagine.

  3. March 12, 2010 at 8:36 pm

    Vicky–on the Hamill enquiry, this RTE news report suggests with the government since end of January but says nothing about whether any ‘editing’ was engaged in: http://www.rte.ie/news/2010/0312/hamill.html

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