The British Army's case to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry appeared to begin to
fall apart last week.
Under questioning from lawyers for the Bloody Sunday families and the
wounded, General Sir Robert Ford, the most senior officer on the ground on
the day, conceded that the army's plan of operation may have contained a
"fatal flaw" which he hadn't been alerted to; that the pattern of action of
paratroopers in the Bogside had differed "radically" from what had been
contemplated; that the shooting in which 26 civilians were killed or wounded
may have been sparked by "warning" shots fired by an officer which were
mistaken by his fellow paras for IRA gunfire; and that snipers in high
positions around the Bogside had apparently failed to spot the gunmen who the
soldiers who caused the casualties maintain were operating on open ground.
In a number of possibly significant interventions, Inquiry chairman Lord
Saville appeared to indicate that he was not convinced by Ford's explanation
Ford, Commander of Land Forces in the North at the time of Bloody Sunday in
January 1972, has been on the witness stand at the Methodist Central Hall in
Westminster for five days. He will resume evidence tomorrow.
On Tuesday, Arthur Harvey QC, for a majority of the families, challenged
Ford's account of the operational plan drawn up on his instructions which,
Ford has insisted, was intended to encircle rioters in order to arrest as
many of them as possible. Using maps and aerial photographs of the Bogside,
Harvey argued that the plan "contained a fatal flaw in terms of its ability
to succeed," in that it left "huge escape routes" via which the presumed
rioters might easily have made heir escape. Ford responded that, "If that was
so, then I should have been informed...I am sure I was not informed."
Harvey put it to Ford that the paratroopers, when they entered the Bogside,
had not, anyway, moved to encircle rioters but had launched a "frontal
assault" on a crowd, the vast majority of whom were peaceful civil rights
demonstrators. Saville intervened: "Mr. Harvey is suggesting (that) what
happened in fact was a straightforward frontal assault...Mr. Harvey's
suggestion is that that was in fact radically different (from the plan). Is
that not right?"
Ford replied after a pause; "It was, sir, different."
Saville pressed Ford as to why he had not raised the question of what had
gone wrong at a meeting of senior commanders at Army headquarters in Lisburn
on the evening of Bloody Sunday: "The question immediately presents itself:
in view of the fact that what happened was so radically different, with this
frontal assault...surely that was something that you must have appreciated
very soon after the events and called for some explanation?"
Ford said that he had no clear memory of the Lisburn meeting but accepted
that hadn't asked for an investigation that night. By the following morning,
he said, it had become clear that a inquiry "well above my level" was to be
established. Saville responded: "I am bound to say my own view, it may be c
ompletely wrong, General Ford, is that when you got back that night, the very
first thing you would ask, which anyone would ask, but particularly the
person who was in overall command, is: what happened?"
On Wednesday, Ford was questioned by Harvey about a passage in his diary in
which he recalled following C Company of the First Paras as they went into
the Bogside on foot through a barrier in William Street. The diary recorded
Ford hearing shots for the first time on the day, from gunmen in the
Rossville Street Flats, he believed, as the troops entered Chamberlain
Street. Harvey pointed out that otrher paras had gone in in armoured
personnel carriers through a barrier in Little James Street out of Ford's
sight, and that an officer from this group, Lt. N, had "fired a burst of
warning shots into a brick wall immediately before the main battle....
"The shots you heard are equally consistent with a detachment of the paras
going onto the wasteground and an officer firing shots, in fact, in the
direction from which C Company were coming?"
Ford replied: "That may be, but I had no personal knowledge or observation of
The operation order envisaged the positioning of "a very large number of
snipers" to cover soldiers going into the William Street/Rossville St. area,
Harvey pointed out. How was it then that these snipers had not engaged the
gunmen the paras on the ground insisted had opened fire?
"Is it not surprising, if there was a gun battle, with the IRA out in the
open for the first time in Derry, that not one sniper was able to have an
identifiable target on even one occasion...when the paras themselves were
shooting a number of persons whom they later claimed were gunmen, petrol
bombers. Did that not come as a little surprise?"
Ford: "At the time, apparently not. But now, of course, I really do not have
sufficient detail to give you an answer...I do not have the information."
Ford also came under pressure from Harvey on Wednesday in relation to his
suggestion, made in a memo three weeks before Bloody Sunday, that soldiers
confronting rioters in the Bogside might be better equipped with rifles
modified to fire bullets of .22 millimetres rather than the standard 7.62
rounds. "It would be much less lethal," the general said from the witness
stand. Harvey suggested that the smaller bullet might be less lethal only
because less likely to pass through its intended target and kill an
additional person. Ford insisted that if a .22 bullet struck its target in a
part of the body which wasn't "vital", "the chances of him being killed, I
would have thought, were relatively small."
Saville stepped in to close the exchange: "As I understand it, General Ford,
you have accepted that a high velocity .22 bullet shot to kill, which the
soldiers are trained to do, if it hits where it is intended to hit, will kill
the person concerned?
Ford: "Yes, sir."
Saville: "That is probably, as it happens, the case of a low velocity .22 as
well. Can we really take it any further?"
On Wednesday afternoon, Ford was asked by Lord Gifford QC, for the family of
James Wray, referring to the reported opinion of the Lord Chancellor of the
time, Lord Hailsham, that soldiers in the North were legally entitled to
shoot and kill people behaving as "enemies of the Queen": did he personally
regard the people of the Bogside as enemies of the Queen?
"Not on paper," replied Ford. "But, yes, I suppose in my heart, if I can use
that expression, I considered them to be so."
The General Officer Commanding British forces in 1972, Sir Harry Tuzo, having
died, Ford is the most senior officer involved in the North on Bloody Sunday
available to give evidence. It may be that his period on the witness stand
will prove pivotal to the Inquiry's proceedings.