General Jackson faces his Waterloo

  • 13 September 2006
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Memory serves as a weapon and a shield for General Michael Jackson, one of the commanders at the Bloody Sunday shootings, writes Eamon McCann

Bloody Sunday scarcely figured in coverage of the retirement of Britain's number-one soldier, General Michael Jackson, on 30 August.

But the departing chief of the general staff may feature prominently in the report of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry.

On 30 January 1972, Jackson, then a 27-year-old captain, was second-in-command of the paratroopers who killed or wounded 28 unarmed civil-rights marchers in Derry. Testifying in London to the Saville Inquiry, in April 2003, he said he had only a vague memory of the day. He could not recall seeing anyone shot.

A month later, the inquiry heard testimony from Major Ted Loden that threw new light on Jackson's role.

Loden had been commander of one of three companies of the First Paras deployed in the Bogside. On the witness stand, he identified a typewritten "shot-list" as a verbatim copy of a document he had written within hours of the massacre, detailing 14 "engagements", in which soldiers had fired on men identified as gunmen, nail-bombers or petrol-bombers. Six-figure map references specified the location of each shot fired and person targeted.

But none of the map references conformed to the positions of soldiers and targets detailed in other evidence – including evidence given to the 1972 Widgery Inquiry by the soldiers who fired the shots. One of the families' solicitors, Des Doherty, handed Lord Saville a 1972 map of the Bogside showing that some of the lines of fire described in the shot-list appeared to go through brick buildings.

Towards the end of Loden's evidence, a handwritten version of the shot-list was produced. It was not in Loden's writing. Loden suggested that someone must have copied out his list before having it typed.

"Why on earth," Saville's QC Christopher Clark asked Loden, if he had written out the list, "would somebody else write it out again in manuscript?"

"Well, I cannot answer that question," Loden replied. "I think General Jackson might be able to throw some light on this."

Loden then agreed that the manuscript "might well be" in Jackson's handwriting.

Recalled as a witness in October 2003, Jackson agreed that the shot-list and five other documents shown to him by inquiry staff were in his handwriting. These documents were accounts of Bloody Sunday in the names of five other First Para officers: the commander of 1 Para, Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford; the commanders of the three companies deployed in the Bogside, including Loden; and the battalion intelligence officer.

In their statements to the tribunal, none of these officers had mentioned Jackson inscribing their accounts of events. In evidence, Jackson stated that he had had "no recollection" of compiling the documents in April. "Now that I have seen them," he admitted, "I have a vague memory of writing them."

He said that he must have been ordered by senior officers to act as a "scribe", producing the accounts "to a particular template", and that he must either have sat down with each of the officers in turn, or worked from notes supplied by them. However, he has no clear memory of this, or of drawing up the shot-list. He could not remember who had ordered him to undertake this exercise, but said "the requirement may have been instigated in London."

Jackson was unable to give the inquiry much further assistance. On more than 20 occasions, he responded to questions, mainly from Michael Mansfield, for the family of Barney McGuigan, with phrases such as "I cannot remember," "I do not recall," "I have only a very vague memory."

Saville published background in 2000 which show that two days after Bloody Sunday, British Information Services (BIS), a unit in the Foreign Office, distributed a document entitled "Northern Ireland: Londonderry" to wire services and broadcasting outlets and to British embassies and consulates around the world. "Throughout the fighting, the army fired only at identified targets – at attacking gunmen and bombers," this document stated. "The troops came under indiscriminate firing."

The BIS document ended with a list of 14 separate shooting incidents which it suggested made up the "fighting". These were, in detail, the 14 "engagements" on the Jackson shot-list.

We must wait and see what Saville makes of this. It is open to him to find as the most likely explanation that Jackson was instructed to compose a cover-story which British officials could refer to in answering questions about Bloody Sunday.

While Wilford, the commander of 1 Para, was never promoted after Bloody Sunday, Jackson rose through the ranks to the very top.

In December last year, defending the army's handling of allegations of mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by British soldiers, Jackson said: "Surely it's more damaging not to face up to allegations that are made? If serious allegations are not properly handled, the army's position would be eroded, and that would be very dangerous."