More 'butcher' than 'grocer'

by David Granville

IT IS doubtful whether anyone who counts themselves on the side of the working class will have shed tears over the recent death of former Conservative prime minister Edward Heath.

Of course, even Heath had his good points. As a Tory student activist he supported republican Spain and opposed appeasement of Hitler. Later, as Conservative leader, he sacked Enoch Powell in the wake of the racist MP's inflammatory 1968 "rivers of blood" speech. He was also, rather bizarrely, pro-Chinese, though this undoubtedly had more to do with his opposition to Soviet communism than any latent admiration for the Chinese road to socialism.

Even so, this amounts to small beer compared with his government's vicious assaults on the trade union movement, its disastrous economic policies or the his enthusiastic support for the European federalist project of economic and political union.

The Heath government's determination to 'crack down' on the growing IRA campaign in the six counties of Northern Ireland also led to one of the bloodiest periods of the conflict and the imposition of direct rule in the wake of the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry in January 1972.

Over 800 people lost their lives in the two years following the Stormont regime's decision - made with British government approval - to target republicans by introducing one-sided internment without trial in August 1971.

Yet the anger and resentment this caused among the nationalist community of the six counties was as nothing compared to the outpouring of grief and anger which was to follow the massacre by British soldiers of 13 unarmed civil rights protesters in Derry on 30 January 1972 - a fourteenth victim died later of his woulds.

Shortly after the massacre, the Heath government suspended Stormont and reintroduced direct rule - a move which earned Heath the lasting enmity of Ulster unionists and was mistakenly welcomed by republicans and some leftists as a major victory in the campaign for British withdrawal and Irish reunification.

Far from quelling the IRA's campaign, it is now widely accepted that internment and the events of Bloody Sunday stoked the conflict and acted as a remarkably effective recruiting sergeant for armed republicanism. From 1969 to the signing of the Good Friday agreement over 3,250 lives were lost as a result of the conflict.

The controversial circumstances surrounding the use of the Parachute Regiment in Derry against the advice of the local army commander, and the concerted, and now discredited, efforts of the army and the Ministry of Defence to cover up the truth and lay the blame on the victims have long fuelled suspicions of a conspiracy going right to the top of the government.

The first government inquiry into the Bloody Sunday events, chaired by Lord Widgery, resulted in little more than a whitewash, failing to hold any individual or agency accountable for the deaths of thirteen innocent people.

Exonerating the soldiers and their superiors while maligning those killed and wounded on Bloody Sunday, Widgery supported the army's contention that troops had been fired upon by the IRA and that several of those killed had been carrying weapons - a lie not finally put to rest by the British government for another two decades.

The nearest Widgery got to challenging the army's actions was in criticising individual, unnamed soldiers and by suggesting that that some of their shooting had "bordered on the reckless".

Called to testify to the later Saville inquiry, established in the wake of the Good Friday agreement, former prime minister Heath admitted he had spoken to Widgery prior to the inquiry and impressed upon him that the morale of the army was at stake and that that the British government was fighting a 'propaganda' as well as a 'military' war against the IRA. Heath denied that he had given Widgery "a steer".

As it turned out, his admission concerning the conversation with Widgery proved to be a rare moment of candour. Any slight hopes that the Bloody Sunday families had entertained of Heath shedding light on government responsibility for the massacre once he appeared before the inquiry in person were to prove forlorn.

In his written statement to the Saville Inquiry Heath had denied any knowledge of, or responsibility for, the events of Bloody Sunday and insisted that he had been unable to add anything to Widgery's findings. With the one exception mentioned above, it was to be the line Heath was to persist with when appearing before the inquiry in person.

Heath's three weeks of personal testimony amounted to little more than a catalogue of denial, evasion and alleged memory loss. Belligerently refuting all suggestions that his government had sanctioned the shooting of civilians, Heath even claimed not to have known that paratroopers had been deployed in Derry.

He was equally unable, or unwilling, to recall any intelligence briefings relating to predicted IRA activity, or indeed any specific intelligence briefings on Northern Ireland throughout his time in office.

Under cross examination, he specifically denied knowledge of the now infamous memo sent by land forces commander in Northern Ireland General Robert Ford to his superior General Harry Tuzo, the overall commander of British troops in Northern Ireland. The memo raised the possibility of shooting "selected ringleaders of the Derry Young Hooligans" as a means of restoring law and order in the city - the Bogside area had become a no-go area for British troops and clashes with young nationalists a regular occurrence.

Given the draconian nature of the army proposals, spiralling violence in Northern Ireland, concerns over the deployment of the Parachute Regiment in Derry raised by the then Cabinet secretary Sir Burke Trend and Heath's own insistence that all options be considered, the former premier's convenient amnesia stretches credibility to the limit, and arguably beyond.

It is already clear that the final report currently being prepared by the Saville inquiry judges, which is not due until 2006, will reach significantly different conclusions to the Widgery whitewash. However, the lack of candour from senior politicians and military personnel and the continued unavailability of important documents in 'the interests of national security', means that it may be some time yet before a accurate judgement can be made about the British government's responsibility for the events on Bloody Sunday.

In the meantime, while Heath's obituary writers remind us that it was the satirical magazine Private Eye which gave him the nickname 'Grocer' the jury must remain out as to whether the trade of 'Butcher' would have been more appropriate.

This article originally appeared in the Morning Star

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2005-07-28 11:45:49.
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