Bloody Sunday soldier prosecutions would set dangerous precedent, says ex-Army chief

Prosecuting British soldiers over the deaths of civilians on Bloody Sunday would set a dangerous precedent for the Army’s future operations around the world, a former military chief has said.

Sunday, 10th March 2019, 10:33 am
Updated Sunday, 10th March 2019, 11:40 am
Former military chief Lord Ramsbotham who has said that prosecuting British soldiers over the deaths of civilians on Bloody Sunday would set a dangerous precedent for the Army's future operations around the world. Pic: Cathal McNaughton/PA Wire

Lord Ramsbotham, who was military assistant to the chief of the general staff at the time of the shootings, said he is hopeful that soldiers from support company of the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment will not face charges 47 years on from the killings.

The 84-year-old said there is “profound” concern within the Army about the effect such prosecutions might have on a soldier who, he said, “only obeys an order”.

Lord Ramsbotham told the Press Association: “The position of a commander giving an order to somebody to open fire, if it’s likely to end up in court, the soldier receiving the order and the person giving the order will think twice about it in the future.

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“And that could have very serious implications if we’re defending this country. I’m thinking outside the box, as it were, and Londonderry. But I am thinking in terms of the command and control of the Army as a whole.”

He added: “I hope that they are not prosecuted because it sets a very difficult precedent. It’s a very dangerous precedent.”

Lord Ramsbotham, who was then Lieutenant Colonel David Ramsbotham, was in London when he took a phone call on the evening of Sunday January 30 1972, telling him people had been killed at the civil rights march.

He said: “I was obviously very sorry that lives had been lost because one never likes lives being lost at all, and the thought that the soldiers might have been involved in killing people on the streets of Londonderry.”

He recalled that General Sir Michael Carver, then head of the Army, had been “appalled” by the news.

He said: “As far as my boss was concerned, he was appalled that a civil rights march, which is what it was advertised as, should have resulted in so many deaths.”

He and General Carver visited the regiment a week after the shootings and Lord Ramsbotham said he “got the impression that the regiment was full of remorse for what had happened and was obviously nervous about the inquiry into what was going on, what had happened”.

Recently one of those being considered for prosecution, identified only as Sergeant O, claimed in an interview with the BBC that he still believed what happened on Bloody Sunday was a “job well done”.

Asked if he was shocked at this comment, Lord Ramsbotham said: “You’ve got to remember that he’s looking back on events that happened at a particular time quite a long time ago and I know memories get distorted over time but I wish he hadn’t said that, particularly because it will give such offence to the families.”

Lord Ramsbotham said he was “not excusing anything that happened”, but added that he felt it was time for an end to the idea of historical prosecutions.

“I’m involved in the general hope that a line could be drawn and we could stop the idea of prosecuting people for something that happened in the 1970s,” he said. “I’m not talking about Bloody Sunday, I’m talking about the general historical inquiries.

“I regret that they are even being considered because I think that there comes a time when you’ve got to draw a line in the sand about these things, regrettable though they are.”

If Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service announces it intends to prosecute some or all of the 17 soldiers under consideration, Lord Ramsbotham has urged the Government to ensure they are supported.

He said: “I’m hoping that nobody will be prosecuted but I’m hoping that the Government will step in and help them (if they are) and give them all the legal help that they require, because they owe it.”

He added: “The country must stand by the people who it sent to act for them, otherwise you undermine the whole status of the armed forces in the country.”

Meanwhile, one of the founders of Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement has backed calls to prosecute former soldiers over the Bloody Sunday killings.

Former MP Ivan Cooper, 75, still regards the fatal shooting of 13 people in Londonderry on January 30 1972 following a civil rights march with disbelief.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP have also backed calls for prosecutions.

A number of former soldiers who served in Londonderry on the day of the shootings are expected to find out this week if they will face prosecution.