An excellent article by Niall Ó Dochartaigh’s in History Ireland (Sept./Oct. 2010) reminds us that while the Saville Report is clear on the detail of what happened on Bloody Sunday it does not make us much wiser about the reasons. Ó Dochartaigh emphasises General Ford’s plan to reverse the policy of restraint which had previously been implemented by those directly responsible in Derry. Inescapably Ford’s plan would lead to casualties. Still, the scale of the slaughter remains unexplained.
On Bloody Sunday also, Major Robins Alers-Hankey of the Royal Green Jackets died in London. He had received a fatal injury several months earlier in Derry’s Bogside - shot while providing cover for the fire brigade in Abbey Street. The fire had possibly been started deliberately to lure soldiers into an ambush.
The Saville Report mentions the major’s death as background to events in Derry at the time, but it does not suggest that there was any link with the terrible civilian killings which occurred only yards away from Abbey Street. To my knowledge no-one has suggested such a link. Indeed, if I was a suspicious person I might conclude that there was a conspiracy to avoid making such a connection. There is, however, a significant reference to the major’s death in the book by the distinguished journalist Peter Pringle and his co-writer Philip Jacobson, Those are real bullets: Bloody Sunday, Derry, 1972 (p. 92). This confirms that soldiers on duty on Bloody Sunday (including significantly a detachment of Royal Green Jackets at the infamous barrier 14 in William Street from where the Paras were ‘launched’) were not only aware of the major’s death before the attack on the marchers, but also, very importantly, the way his death had come about. General Ford was himself present at barrier 14 throughout the tragic events.
The death of Major Robin Alers-Hankey was itself a tragedy. He was a thirty-five year-old married man with two children and was the first officer to be killed in the Troubles. The Alers-Hankey family belonged to the crème-de-la crème of the British establishment. Important London goldsmiths, from the seventeenth century they were involved in the beginnings of English banking, the foundation of the London Stock Exchange, various sections of the army and its imperial adventures, numerous colonialist enterprises, and the peerage.
The major was thus no ‘ordinary squaddie’. From the point of view of the army he must have been an iconic, even a totemic figure. His death must have been experienced as a massive blow. It is difficult to believe that revenge for it was not in the minds of at least some of those who knew him. Although as far as I know it is nowhere acknowledged, it defies logic that his death was not influential on the subsequent events in Derry. The only question, it seems to me, is how influential?