x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Bloody Sunday and the universal lessons of a civilian massacre

In Gaza the Israelis have the advantage that the British army had in Northern Ireland, but they have spectacularly lost control of the narrative.

The headlines in the London press were startling: 38 years on, justice at last and A full stop to Britain's colonial experience. This outburst of joy was prompted by an official report into the killing by the British army of 14 Northern Irish civil rights protesters in Londonderry. The incident - notorious in Britain, Ireland and the US - is probably forgotten in those other parts of the world, from Kashmir to Palestine, where people still yearn for a real "full stop" to the effects of British colonial rule.

Lord Saville, the British judge who presided over the 12-year inquiry, in effect told us what we had long suspected. The victims of "Bloody Sunday" - January 30, 1972 - were unarmed innocents, murdered by the army. The army had always insisted that its soldiers had been fired on from the crowd by Irish Republican Army (IRA) gunmen. This was not true. The soldiers, to cover up their guilt, lied and perjured themselves.

The real point of the report was to set the record straight after the whitewash of an earlier investigation by the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, who parroted the version of the security services. At a cost of £200 million (Dh1.1 billion), this has now been done, and it worth drawing some lessons from Bloody Sunday, for it has much to tell us about low-intensity wars and the way they are won and lost.

Lesson one: The killing of civilians by security forces is the surest way to stoke a conflict. Bloody Sunday was the hinge which turned an angry and occasionally violent civil rights protest into armed conflict. After the massacre, Catholics flocked to join the gunmen of the IRA. The actions of the army showed to the uncommitted that power was not wielded by consensus but through the barrel of a gun. The same conclusion, though without resort to armed struggle, took hold in India after the 1919 Amritsar massacre, when British troops opened fire on unarmed Indian demonstrators in the Jalianwala Bagh, killing 379, according to an official tally.

Lesson two: An official cover-up multiplies the potency of the martyrs' blood. The Londonderry killings, disastrous as they were for British rule in Northern Ireland, achieved iconic status because of the failure of the first investigation to try to get anywhere near the truth. Lesson three: Killing the local population loses wars. History is replete with examples of colonial conflicts from Vietnam to Algeria to Kenya where the security forces killed hundreds of thousands, but still lost the war and retreated. In fact, fighting and killing a less technologically advanced enemy tends to demoralise an army, and undermine support for the conflict among the elite. In Algeria, the colonial French army all but defeated the nationalist FLN, but the cost was too great. France tired of the conflict and withdrew in 1962.

For all the mistakes of Bloody Sunday, this was a lesson well learned by the British in Northern Ireland. The security forces were responsible for the deaths of 363 out of the total 3,526 who died in the Troubles, as the 30-year conflict is known. Few of them were civilians. The army and police employed a shoot-to-kill policy against known IRA members in the 1980s, but it was stopped after media revelations forced an investigation.

Lesson four: Peace depends on the international context. The end of the Cold War, and a new relationship between Britain and the Republic of Ireland, which had gained in wealth and confidence thanks to the European Union, paved the way for a peace process in the 1990s which ended with the IRA putting down its weapons, and Northern Ireland gaining self-rule as part of Britain. The support of the US in cracking down on private American funding for the IRA gunmen was also vital.

Lesson five: It is easier to fight on your doorstep than across the ocean. The British army knew its enemy well, and ended up with informers at the top levels of the IRA, allowing it to conduct a more intelligent campaign. Looking at today's conflicts, some of these lessons have been learned, but others have not. In Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, the commander of foreign troops, has set as his priority the protection of the civilian population, a policy which would surely yield results over the long term. Washington, however, is already setting timetables for a US withdrawal, which means there is no long term.

As for the Israelis, by fighting on their doorstep, the Israelis have the advantage that the British army had in Northern Ireland, presumably including the intelligence assets. But they have spectacularly lost control of the narrative. The truth which took the people of Londonderry 38 years to extract from Britain was available to the Palestinians within eight months of the end of the Israeli war on Gaza, thanks to the Goldstone Report commissioned by the UN.

More information should be a sign that the conflict can move towards a resolution, but I do not see that happening. There is no indication that Israel sees the need to spare civilian casualties in its war with Hamas. The blockade of Gaza has the opposite effect to the millions spent by the British tax-payer on housing and jobs for Catholics in Northern Ireland. But most importantly, the golden moment of the end of the Cold War when the conflict could have been solved in the 1990s has passed. Such intense quarrels need a favourable international context. At the moment, with the risk of confrontation between America and Iran growing, it is hard to envisage any chance of dialling the conflict down. So long as the Israelis can present any concession to Hamas as a victory for Iran, they will most likely have the ear of Washington.