It was hard to contain my emotions

Mark Durkan, MLA, addressing the large attendance at the Bloody Sunday parade.  (0202JB18)
Mark Durkan, MLA, addressing the large attendance at the Bloody Sunday parade. (0202JB18)

In this article, written specially to mark the first anniversary of the publication of the Saville Report, Foyle MP MARK DURKAN recalls that June 15, 2010 was a momentous day not only for the families of those murdered on Bloody Sunday but for thousands of others - including himself.

As MP for the city, I had to be in Westminster on June 15th for the publication of the Saville Report and the Prime Minister’s statement. A big part of me would really have preferred to be in Derry, but the families had agreed that my station that day, as their MP, was to be in the Commons. Of course when we agreed that, we had no idea what Saville would find, how David Cameron would address it or how the House of Commons would receive it.

I had meetings and telephone conversations with family representatives over the preceding weekend and before leaving for London on Monday 14 June. These discussions reinforced the principle points that they hoped to hear from Saville and the Prime Minister. But they also crystallised aspects of what they wanted conveyed in the Commons chamber. These included questions to challenge or eliminate any possible ambiguity on innocence, clear repudiation of Widgery so no one could still resort to his findings and the names of the victims to be remembered.

While feeling my detachment from Derry on the eve of publication I was able to continue with a lot of phone contact with families and others who had given evidence to Saville. The mixed feelings of expectation, anxiety, hope and apprehension were palpable. At this time, of course, we knew that the British Government had the report, were reading it and preparing who knew what lines on it. There was particular concern about possible “spin” on briefings from British government sources with some worried about “speculative” pieces which had already appeared which, to some, read as though they were sourced.

During the evening of the 14th I got a call from Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State. He said he was just checking that I was clear on the logistics for the controlled reading of the report in the Cabinet Office the following morning. He was also again confirming that I would have the only phone call from there and the only call into the Guildhall where the families would be reading the Report.

After some conversation about arrangements in and around the Guildhall, he then mentioned the size of the report with so many volumes. Without indicating anything of the content, he referred to his own hours reading the report and indicated that he had already met the Prime

Minister in preparation for the statement. He then said “By the way, David has said that he is conscious that he promised you that he would say what needed to be said based on the report and that I could say that to you”. This was a reference to my conversation with David Cameron the previous Tuesday. While there was a possible hint in this, without sight of the Report, I still could not rely on it although I did report it to the relatives I spoke to that night or the following morning.

On the morning of 15 June I spoke to some family representatives before they went into the Guildhall for their “lock-down”. The mix and strength of their emotions were clear and moving to hear. I had to get ready for our own “lock-down” in the Cabinet Office building on Tufton Street. In the Commons Library, I lifted some black-bordered, embossed, addressed sheets which were available in a small stand as the remainder of some old-ordered stock. Due to their A5 size, card-like strength and sombre appearance as sympathy note paper, I thought these sheets would be appropriate for my speaking notes. By way of advance preparation, I then wrote the names and ages of the victims on one sheet and, on another, the quotation from Seamus Heaney’s “The Road to Derry” and the inscription from the Bloody Sunday monument on Rossville Street.

Before going into the Cabinet Office building in Tufton Street and handing my mobile phone over, I made final calls home to my family, staff and some of the relatives not in the lock-down. The sense of how the mood was growing already in Derry came through. I really wished I was there even though I knew I needed to be where I was.

The “lock-down” in the Cabinet Office was on a L-shaped open-plan floor. Each party or person had their own tables assigned with the volumes of the report and a loaded computer ready. We also had private rooms available along the side.

I opted for the traditional route of reading the printed report. First scanning the various volumes to get a sense of its shape, scope and weight of analysis and then reading the summary of the findings. This allowed me to cross-refer to the more detailed volumes when relevant. Margaret Ritchie at the adjoining table would occasionally read out telling lines but I was just too emotional to say anything and I also wanted to get my full read of the report before affording any comment. That is why I also waved Shaun Woodward away when he first came over to test our reflections.

Even when some tea, juice and sandwiches were made available to us all in a kitchen area I still thought it best to say nothing about the report, my reaction to it or any anticipation of what the Prime Minister might say. I will still mentally and emotionally digesting the strength of the findings. Would David Cameron do justice to them? How could I do justice to the victims, their families and the people of Derry in the short contribution allowed to me on the Report? Also I had promised relatives that I would say nothing to anyone until I had spoken to them about their feelings and views.

Margaret Ritchie and I were in the room assigned to us, highlighting key findings that we might specifically quote. An official came in and said “You can now make your call to the Guildhall, Mr Durkan”, and walked out. I waited for him or someone else to bring in a phone or come to take me to one. When nothing happened I stepped out to ask about the phone, so they came to lift an old look phone – a 1970s phone – from a shelf in a corner. They plugged it in nearer the desk and told me to ring the number. I had to remind them that they – the NIO – were meant to be providing the secure phone contact because the families had no phones I could call. The call was then set up.

The ring tone stopped and I heard “Yes, Mark”. I knew it was Mickey McKinney but he told me anyway and said that the wider group of the family members were just on their way upstairs to be briefed. He advised that John Kelly and Mickey Bridge were with him by the phone. I acknowledged the emotion of the moment and asked what they felt about the report. Mickey said tentatively “We were wondering what you think”. It was almost like “I asked you first” when I said the most important thing just then was for me to know their feelings rather than them to know my thoughts which I would share anyway.

Mickey said “Well we think it’s kind of good, do you?” Whereupon I stated that I thought it was “very good”. Mickey was then more forthcoming about how they had all received the findings as they went through them.

John Kelly then spoke about the importance of clear vindication not just of the innocence of the victims but the perseverance of the campaign. He was conscious of the need to brief other relatives before the statement. Like Mickey, he reminded me of the importance of the victims being named in the House of Commons if the Prime Minister did not do so. He again stressed the need for clarity on “binning Widgery”.

Mickey Bridge reflected on everything it had taken to get to that point and we still had to wait for the statement until we would know if we had really got there. Understandably, he reminded me of the need to insist on clarity on the innocence of all who were wounded as well as those who were killed. He too wanted Widgery absolutely repudiated.

When Mickey McKinney came back on to say they were having to join the briefing for the wider families group, he offered generous thanks along with good wishes for my duty in the chamber that day. I acknowledged all they had been through, what they were achieving even with the uncertainty of what was before them. But I was confident that it was going to be a good day in Derry which I was missing. But we both moved to reflect on the people who were really missing from this momentous day for Derry and all these families.

The call over, I could feel the emotion pounding in me. Taking a drink of water, I reached for my pen and the special pages from the Commons Library. I wrote out what I thought I might say, getting Margaret Ritchie to read out some of the specific text from Saville for me to quote for emphasis.

My speaking notes largely complete, we were transported to the Commons, allowed to take our full copies of the Report with us but still under embargo restriction. Sitting in the Chamber, waiting for 3.30, I could just acknowledge the good wishes or personal interest of other MPs but not get into talking answers. I was able to gesture that the Report was strong. When David Cameron came in he made eye contact with me as he moved to take his seat. I hope to myself “This means that you are going to ‘say what needs to be said’”.

I soon did. We all did. The candour of David Cameron’s statement had its impact in the House of Commons but I knew that its most important effect would be on Derry. It wasn’t just the strong words he used in his statement, but that he kept repeating them over an hour of questions and was measured in the other points he acknowledged. Also he freely and readily used “Derry” a number of times as I had encouraged him to do in our 8 June conversation. The strength and solidity of the Prime Minister’s line emphasising the import of Saville’s findings registered with the military wing of the Conservative Party. The “Tory soldiers” I had worried about were measured, sensitive and reflective on the day.

I changed my notes slightly after David Cameron spoke about not having lived through Bloody Sunday but growing up learning about it. As Acting Opposition Leader, Harriet Harman also spoke clearly even if slightly misadvised by Shaun Woodward on some of the terms. Meanwhile I was fine-tuning my own likely words while listening intently. For time containment on my own remarks I also had to score-out my drafted acknowledgement to the former Secretary of State and government.

In my conversation with the Speaker about these proceedings he had told me that I would not be curtailed to the normal back-bench contribution on a statement. It was only on the night before that he indicated to me that he was looking at three minutes. I had told him that I doubted if that was sufficient for the occasion and the issues which I ought to reflect as the constituency MP. He nodded that he might tolerate more given the special sensitivities but it cannot be five minutes.

The Speaker called me after he had taken the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, former Secretary of State Paul Murphy (who had wanted and expected me to be called before him) and one of the Conservative former army officers.

Without rehearsing my remarks I can confirm that it was hard to contain my emotions in that context. I was conscious that I too had to say what needed to be said –for the victims, the families, the community and the city.

David Cameron was thoughtful in his reply to me. To his credit, he sustained his focus on the import of Saville’s findings for the rest of the hour of questions even when invited to stray into other avenues.

While taking in all the words of the chamber, my mind was imagining what must be going on in Guildhall Square. I knew that the screen there was to switch away after Cameron’s statement. Any poor reaction in the chamber could have spoiled the mood.

When the Speaker concluded proceedings I left the Chamber past the Speaker’s chair. He tenderly complimented me on my “emotional and importantly so” contribution. He said that he knew not to curtail me even if I had gone over five minutes.

Behind the Speaker’s Chair, I warmly thanked David Cameron not just for the tone and strength of his statement but the tenor and measure of all his subsequent answers. I asked him if Owen Paterson had mentioned a request I had made to him during our previous night’s phone call. That was that the chamber copy of the statement as used by the Prime Minister could be given to the Museum of Free Derry as part of the Bloody Sunday archive. Cameron said “Oh yes, I have no problem with that if you think that might be good”.

As he flicked his folder, the Secretary of State cautioned that there may be archive or other issues for the Prime Minister’s Office to check. I explained that I was not looking for the text there and then and that I thought that the government should give it to the Trust and the families as a more meaningful gesture.

As I moved along the corridors to get to the Central Lobby to meet those family members, supporters and friends who were in the Gallery, along with the Irish Ambassador there was a lot of acknowledgement from other MPs. Thumbs up, hugs, tears, arms gripped, hands shaken and sincere emotion voiced. Some were talking about the wonderful images and messages from Derry. Meanwhile texts and calls were telling me of the great emotional release at home. The power in Jackie’s voice only made me feel the disconnection more. But hugging the family and friends group in the Central Lobby restored my sense of emotional connection with Derry.

John Kelly’s son Niall said the hairs had stood on the back of his neck as he sat in the Gallery. More people came over to acknowledge the day and congratulate the group along with myself. I said to Niall that he must really miss not being in Derry because I did. He replied that he did but was already in touch with his father and others. He also said that someone from the families had to be there for the statement just like I had to be “and I am glad that I was here to hear all that”.

I also spoke on the phone to Paddy Nash who told me that he had stayed inside the Guildhall to watch the whole of the Commons proceedings. He was impressed and grateful. As ever, he had to rib me too – this time about my obvious emotion. “The one good thing about the sisters being out in the Square and missing that was that you would have really set them off”. He asked me to bring him home the Hansard Report of the proceedings, which I did.

To this day many MPs still tell me that Saville is their most emotional memory of parliament. Many wrote to me, new MPs, experienced MPs and former MPs. I was struck by how many were passing on emotional references from parents or other relatives as well as revealing personal associations and sentiments.

Because I had to do a number of media appearances after leaving the group at the Central Lobby, it was only later that I could catch up with fuller footage of the Guildhall Square events. I had heard accounts and lines by phone from some family members as well as my own. It was a remarkable and respectful celebration of vindication. Poignant and powerful. “Well done! Well Won!” I mouthed as each family registered their loved one’s innocence and the repudiation of Widgery. I could not help thinking about the emotional costs to them of their quest for justice. My mind flicked to the same image I had voiced in the chamber, of them whispering words at the graves of the victims and their parents. About family promises kept… “We have overcome”.