8 Nov 2012

The past on trial: the charge sheet

Since there is a clear pathology to a peculiar British disease, it is worth examining the symptoms.

Time after time the patient – the British state – presents with the same pattern of distress and it is only by recognising the familiar pattern that the same state may one day seek a cure.

Regrettably, we are not at that day yet, by any means.

Currently the patient is under examination because of serial child abuse in north Wales. But we should all sense by now that Wrexham’s simply the latest outbreak of the long-familiar disease – chronic is perhaps the medical term.

Many, many other places have seen the same pathology down the years, over and over again.

The symptoms

Consider Derry and Bloody Sunday. Or perhaps Sheffield and Hillsborough. Or why not head north to the Mull of Kintyre and the Chinook helicopter disaster. You will be able to call other examples to mind, I need not list them here.

To take one – Bloody Sunday. Now, 40-odd years on from that January day, the police find themselves involved in a murder investigation.

The events that day sparked the classic presentation of symptoms. First the disaster: unarmed civilians shot dead by British paratroopers at a civil rights demonstration.

Second the cover-up – the forces of the state, the army in this case, getting their version of events out first and fast – the army were attacked and acted reasonably.

Third the media lie – it follows from the cover-up that initial reports paint a neutral picture often at odds with the subsequent truth of it all.

Fourth, the judicial whitewash – after Bloody Sunday Prime Minister Ted Heath even said openly that the state was involved in a “propaganda war” with the emerging Provisional IRA so Lord Widgery’s inquiry would be short and limited: the classic recipe for the judicial whitewash we’ve seen again since.

Fifth, wilderness – the long years pass. The victims’ families campaign for year after year. Typically their voice will eventually be heard by sympathetic MPs and TV news, current affairs programmes and even dramas in the cases of both Hillsborough and Bloody Sunday. Momentum builds to the next symptom.

Sixth, the full inquiry – and there may be more than one. Many millions will be spent. Lord Saville’s Bloody Sunday became a vast judicial behemoth lasting several years and making many already rich lawyers millionaires. The British state’s seen nothing like it before or since.

Seventh, justice – finally after a generation or more, names are cleared. The truth is finally recognised and compensation paid long after the event. The part played by our armed forces, police forces and judges in dismissing uncomfortable facts and protecting those at fault and in positions of power is explicitly stated but often glossed over in terms of doing anything very much.

The prime ministers, the judges, the army or airforce top brass, the chief constables – they all get promoted, pensioned, knighted, rewarded, retired or they’re dead. Rarely – if ever – are they genuinely held to account.

Learning lessons?

Hillsborough saw the initial on-the-day smear of the victims by South Yorkshire police. The initial judicial inquiry was a limited affair which got us nowhere near justice. The long wilderness campaign complete with TV drama took a generation.

Only this year is the full extent of the cover-up coming to light and those responsible have not been brought to justice.

I have received word from the Hillsborough families campaigners that they do not want anybody from the British establishment to oversee the current investigation into the police. They are “vehemently opposed” to that and say only an international figure can command confidence. Can you blame them?

The Mull of Kintyre Chinook disaster saw the initial smearing of two pilots and loadmasters who couldn’t defend themselves – they were dead.

It keeps happening: a new geographical location; a familiar set of symptoms; a blinding inability to prevent the next outbreak.

The families of the victims often conclude in these grinding, painful situations that those charged with upholding the truth, so often suppress the truth. The victims get shot, crushed on the terracing, smashed to death in a helicopter – the men who then cover it all up get away with it.

And successive governments evidently learn nothing. Our police forces evidently learn nothing. Our armed services evidently learn nothing. Our judiciary evidently learn nothing. If they did, it would not happen over and over again, would it?

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