The empty bottle

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    Kenneth Roy

    If I walked down into John Finnie Street and killed someone, I would not expect to elude the attentions of the Lord Advocate for the next 38 years. But if somehow I did, and were still alive after 38 years, I would not expect Mrs Angiolini’s successor to assure me that there would be no criminal investigation because so long a period had elapsed between the death of my victim and my eventual arrest….

    Kenneth Roy

    If I walked down into John Finnie Street and killed someone, I would not expect to elude the attentions of the Lord Advocate for the next 38 years. But if somehow I did, and were still alive after 38 years, I would not expect Mrs Angiolini’s successor to assure me that there would be no criminal investigation because so long a period had elapsed between the death of my victim and my eventual arrest. I would not expect to be told by the authorities that it was ‘time to move on’. I would not expect a favourable editorial in the Daily Telegraph headed: ‘Prosecution in no one’s interest’.
    This, however, seems to be a popular position being adopted in the wake of the Saville report into Bloody Sunday and its conclusion that soldiers in Londonderry shot and killed 14 unarmed civil rights marchers. Was this murder? If it was not murder, what was it? Lord Saville makes no judgement on these questions, preferring to leave them for the consideration of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
    Among those who believe that the DPP should take no action is the former chief of the general staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, who undertook seven tours of duty in Northern Ireland and witnessed the chaos for himself. He concludes: ‘January 30, 1972, was a black day for both the Army and for Northern Ireland. We now know the truth about what happened, and it is an uncomfortable one. But the time has come to move on.’
    Uncomfortable is a revealing choice of word. It is repeated in a Daily Telegraph editorial: ‘Lord Saville’s 5,000-page report on Bloody Sunday makes uncomfortable reading for anyone who wanted to give the Army the benefit of the doubt about what happened that day’. Uncomfortable. Well, I suppose one is uncomfortable in a crowded theatre or restaurant, uncomfortable with a streaming cold, uncomfortable in a remand cell in Barlinnie prison. But is uncomfortable really an adequate emotional response to the findings of the Saville report or is it simply a subtle expression of detachment? To his credit, the prime minister found more appropriate language – the simple human language of sorrow and remorse.

    But let’s say no more of the lack of comfort endured by Sir Richard Dannatt and the leader writers of the Daily Telegraph and turn to the substance of their argument.
    It is summed up in this extract from the Telegraph editorial: ‘…no one’s interests would be served by prosecuting soldiers so long after the event…without diminishing the suffering of the bereaved or seeking to exonerate any of those criticised, it cannot be in the interests of the victims, their relatives, the people of Northern Ireland or of the United Kingdom to pursue this through the courts. This tragic chapter should now be closed’.
    So long after the event…what on earth should the passage of time have to do with the decision to initiate a criminal investigation or not, in this case or indeed in any other? The mishandling of the initial inquiry, the extraordinary length and complexity of the subsequent one, the fortunes made by lawyers in the process, the lack of political urgency in expediting the outcome – none of this can be blamed on the people of Londonderry who longed only for justice to be done. There are are all sorts of reasons why it is now unlikely to be fully done and why no one will ever to go prison for the events of January 1972, including the potential damage to the fragile peace of Northern Ireland. But it is disingenuous of the media, and the military commentariat, to cite the passage of time as one of them.
    Of course, the passage of time – the discreditable ‘so long after the event’ argument – is extremely convenient to the establishment when it finds itself in a tight spot. If you want a scandal to be defused, the surest way of accomplishing this desirable end is to set up a committee. By the time the committee comes to report, preferably in around 38 years, most people will have forgotten what the scandal was about, many of the protagonists will be dead or decrepit, and the Daily Telegraph will be able to sigh, writhe uncomfortably in its editorial seat for a couple of minutes, and then conclude sagely that it is time to move on.

    We see the same strategy at work in the Lockerbie case – no public inquiry yet, but every tactic in the book being employed to prevent the facts emerging; years of procrastination at the Crown Office; endless delays in the hearing of appeals; prolonged ‘discussions’ about the release of an incriminating report by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission – until finally interest in the case evaporates. I have a phial of the first oil to be extracted from the North Sea in 1972. When I came across it the other day, there was nothing left in the bottle. It is the same with Lockerbie: one day, if the establishment can hang on long enough, there will be nothing left in the bottle. The campaigners on both sides of the Atlantic will be too old, too exhausted, too dispirited to carry on; the media, with its notoriously short attention span, will have ‘moved on’ to many fresher griefs; and those still digging away 38 years later will be written off as dotty.
    As Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead. At that point, it could safely be said that we have moved on.

    Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.{jcomments on}