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June 28, 2010

by John Carey         

Twenty days after British paratroopers opened fire on civilians gathered in downtown Londonderry, Northern Ireland, I was in London preparing to fly there the next day, Sunday, February 20th, . I had left New York on Friday the 18th with Georgetown Law Professor Samuel Dash. Sam and I had served together as Assistant District Attorneys. Another lawyer friend declined to come to Northern Ireland to look into the shootings. But Sam jumped at the opportunity. At the airport in London, we ran into Lou Pollak, the former Dean of Yale Law School, who decided to join us.

          We slept Saturday night at London’s Russell Hotel after dining with Tony Smythe, head of the National Council of Civil Liberties of England. Tony had urged the International League for Human Rights, which I then chaired, to send over a delegation to witness the start of the Bloody Sunday investigation by the Lord Chief Justice of England, the Rt. Hon. Lord Widgery. Sam Dash had met Widgery when His Lordship visited the US at a time when Sam was head of the American Bar Association’s Section of Criminal Law.

          On Sunday February 20th, Sam, Tony and I flew from London to Belfast. There we rented a car and drove north through the bleak winter landscape. We arrived in Londonderry (or Derry as the local people and many others call it) before dark and went straight to the scene of the shootings. Here we witnessed a “snatch squad” at work, British soldiers in an armored car grabbing one of the youths that were taunting them and cramming him into their vehicle, to be whisked away for interrogation.

As we watched this spectacle, and saw soldiers firing rubber bullets at crowds of angry young men, a BBC cameraman warned us we to take cover since live bullets were hitting the ground nearby. We saw the dust being kicked up close by and did as advised. I muttered to Sam something like ‘this is not our war, so let’s not get shot.’

          In talks with local leaders, it was clear they had no intention of cooperating with the Widgery investigation. But we felt it would be a mistake for them to give up the chance to present their own evidence of what had happened on January 30th. So we had late-night talks with various groups.

          Just before the opening of the hearings, Lord Widgery consented to meet briefly with Sam, based on their previous acquaintance. His Lordship must have known that any report by Sam on the hearings would speak truth unwaveringly. Sam had published “The Eavesdroppers,” a book on wiretapping throughout the United States, and had been President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

          When I needed to get back to law practice, I flew to Zurich, where a client picked me up for a drive into the Alps. There we interviewed a man doing his Swiss Army service who was a possible witness in federal litigation about to start back home.

          Sam toiled through the spring of 1972 reviewing the records of the hearings held by Lord Widgery. Early in June 1972 he turned out a scholarly 85-page analysis entitled “Justice Denied: A Challenge to Lord Widgery’s Report on Bloody Sunday’.” Sam concluded that, “an official Inquiry which began with promise did not fulfill that promise. * * * Great Britain and the world cannot simply walk away from ‘Bloody Sunday’.”

          UK Prime Minister Cameron has just pointed out that “Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces.” [1] Sam’s report points out two main military mistakes that may have led to the tragedy. One was sending the paratroopers to the scene in the first place. Troops with their type of training are accustomed to being forcibly resisted and to meeting force with force. In crowd control situations, a different type of training is needed.

          Perhaps a more striking military misfortune is described as follows at page 33 of Sam Dash’s report: “It is important to note that, if an order was given by brigade command, only Company C of 1 Para was authorized to engage in any scoop-up operation by that order. There is no order recorded anywhere in the brigade log authorizing Support Company of 1 Para to engage in any scoop-up arrest operation, or to leave its position at barrier 12. It was Support Company which fired every single one of the Army live rounds that day.”

          Postscript: soon after Sam published his report, the Watergate break-in took place in Washington, DC. When the US Senate determined to get to the bottom of that most unfortunate event, a Special Committee chaired by Senator Sam Ervin was created. The Committee appointed, as its Chief Counsel, Professor Samuel Dash, who brought to bear his prodigious energy and intellect. The rest is history. RIP.

[1] New York Times, June 16, 2010, page 1.

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