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Gen. Sir Robert Ford, center, in Belfast 1972. General Ford was exonerated after two inquiries into the deaths of 13 unarmed protesters that year on what became known as Bloody Sunday
Michel Lipchitz/Associated Press
Gen. Sir Robert Ford, the most senior army front-line commander in Northern Ireland when British paratroopers fatally shot 13 unarmed Roman Catholic civil rights protesters in 1972 on what became known as Bloody Sunday, died on Nov. 24. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by A.J. Wakely & Sons funeral directors in Dorset, England, which did not say where he died or provide a cause.
General Ford was exonerated after two inquiries and continued to defend the deployment of his battle-hardened Parachute Regiment, but acknowledged that while the army had claimed a short-lived victory in restoring order locally, it lost a worldwide public relations war.
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The killings on Jan. 30, 1972, in Londonderry, occurred after the regiment was deployed there to contain an illegal march. The demonstrators were protesting the imposition of preventive detention, or internment without trial, as a means to quash the mostly Roman Catholic Irish Republican Army in its fight against the British-backed government of Northern Ireland, a Protestant-dominated province.
A British soldier seized a protester during the march in Londonderry on Jan. 30, 1972, that led to the 13 killings by soldiers.
via Agence France-Presse Getty Images
The paratroopers insisted that they were returning fire, but none of the victims were found to be armed, and an exhaustive inquiry concluded that the soldiers had lied.
The killings prompted more protests (the British Embassy in Dublin was set on fire on Feb. 2), drove a new wave of recruits to Irish Republican Army ranks and resulted in the most casualties, including British soldiers, of any year of the divisiveness known as the Troubles.
The killings inspired Paul and Linda McCartney s song Give Ireland Back to the Irish (which was banned on BBC Radio), John Lennon and Yoko Ono s Sunday Bloody Sunday, the U2 anthem by the same name ( There s many lost, the lyrics bemoan, but tell me who has won? ) and Paul Greengrass s prizewinning 2002 film Bloody Sunday. (Tim Pigott-Smith played General Ford.)
A 12-year inquiry by Lord Saville of Newdigate concluded in 2010 that the killings had been unjustified and unjustifiable, and David Cameron, the British prime minister, issued a formal apology. Last month, Bloody Sunday reverberated again when a 66-year-old former lance corporal was arrested on suspicion of murder in a continuing investigation of the 1972 carnage.
But while the Saville Report described the parachute unit deployed in Derry as having a reputation for using excessive physical violence, it largely absolved General Ford.
In our view his decision to use 1 Para as the arrest force is open to criticism, but he did not know his decision would result in soldiers firing unjustifiably, the report said.
General Ford insisted that the troops had returned fire, killing or wounding 26 civilians (a 14th man died months later of his injuries) only after they were attacked with rifle fire and nail or acid bombs. The Saville Report found no evidence that the victims were carrying weapons.
The investigation also uncovered a memo, dated earlier that January, in which the general warned that he was coming to the conclusion that the minimum force necessary to achieve a restoration of law and order after clear warnings is to shoot selected ringleaders of a splinter group known as the Derry Young Hooligans, which he said was intent on violent disruption.
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But he also testified that the suggestion to shoot was not an instruction to kill, adding, shoot and kill are obviously different words.
General Ford acknowledged that he had encouraged his troops that Sunday with the cry, Go on Paras, go on and get them and good luck! But he insisted that he was urging them to arrest the several hundred hooligans who had broken away from the marchers and, he said, had begun attacking soldiers with rocks. It was right and proper for a commander to inspire his troops who were poised to undertake an unpleasant task, he said.
General Ford s exoneration did not sit well with Ivan Cooper, a Protestant member of Parliament who, with John Hume, a subsequent Nobel Peace Prize winner, led the Bloody Sunday march on behalf of Protestant and Catholic civil rights advocates. He argued that the Saville Report should have leveled overall responsibility for the massacre at General Ford.
Robert Cyril Ford was born at Yealmpton, Devon, England, on Dec. 29, 1923, to John and Gladys Ford. He was educated at Musgrave s College and the Royal Armoured Corps officer cadet training unit at Sandhurst before being commissioned in the Royal Dragoon Guards in 1943. He took part in the Normandy invasion landings the following June and served in the Middle East after the war.
He married Jean Claudia Pendlebury, who died in 2002. They had a son who survives him, as does his second wife, the former Caroline Margaret Peerless Leather.
He was appointed commander of land forces in Northern Ireland in July 1971 with the acting rank of major general. The policy of preventive detention was imposed the next month, prompting the march on Jan. 30.
An initial inquiry by Lord Chief Justice John Passmore Widgery described the shootings as bordering on the reckless but concluded in April 1972 that the soldiers accounts were generally credible. No order and no training can ensure that a soldier will always act wisely, as well as bravely and with initiative, the report said.
The Widgery Tribunal was widely discredited, and the ensuing drumbeat of dissent prompted the Saville inquiry.
In 1973, General Ford became commandant of Sandhurst, Armyrats © military secretary and adjutant general. He retired from the army in 1981.
In 1984, interviewed by the author Desmond Hamill, he reflected on what he described as the errors and problems that occurred on Bloody Sunday.
I was terribly saddened that 13 people were killed, General Ford said. But unlike some other people, I understood why 13 were killed. In Belfast, in a similar situation, there wouldn t have been any innocent people killed they would all have been lying on the floor and out of sight. In Londonderry they weren t used to being shot at and I think probably a lot of innocent people were standing around.
He continued: So the operation wasn t a success it was a local success in that the amount of hooligan damage in the next month was almost nil. But that was really a very small reward for all the tremendous impact it had on the army and everything else.
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RMR Moose & Prince Andrew
23 October 2015: There was an RMR connection quietly keeping an eye on things as Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, was invited to officially open the new-look York Army Museum of the RMR s allied regiment in May 2015. The former Territorial Army drill hall has been transformed thanks to a 1 million Heritage Lottery Grant and is home to important UK regimental collections, including those of the Royal Dragoon Guards, the former Prince of Wales s Own Regiment of Yorkshire and The Yorkshire Regiment. The Yorkshire Regiment is the RMR s allied regiment, and the moose head was given as a present from the RMR when the ties were formalized in the 1920 s.
Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense.
- ^ invited to officially open the new-look York Army Museum (m.thenorthernecho.co.uk)