The long anticipated inquiry into the Bloody Sunday killings has resulted in newly elected British Prime Minister David Cameron issuing an extraordinary apology to victims for the British Army’s actions, and provided long-awaited vindication for the victims of one of Northern Ireland’s bloodiest and most bitter days.
The highly-anticipated Saville Report, revealed by the British government on Tuesday, stemmed from the events of Sunday, January 30, 1972, when the British Army killed 14 protesters and injured 29 who were on a civil rights march in the city of Derry.
Now, over 38 years’ later, the British government has finally acknowledged that their troops were in the wrong, as Cameron forcefully told the British Parliament on Tuesday.
“What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and hurt of that day – and with a lifetime of loss,” Cameron said.
“Some members of our Armed Forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces.
"It's not for politicians to talk in terms of murder or unlawful killing. You don't defend the army by defending the indefensible or hiding from the truth. It is clear that the events of Bloody Sunday were in no way justified.”
The report was unequivocal in its blaming of the British soldiers for the deaths of the protesters.
"The firing by soldiers of one (paratrooper) on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury," the report said, adding that “the immediate responsibility for the deaths and injuries on Bloody Sunday lies with those members of Support Company whose unjustifiable firing was the cause of those deaths and injuries."
The report vigorously refuted the long contested allegation that the protesters fired back on the Army with force. “Despite the contrary evidence given by soldiers, we have concluded that none of them fired in response to attacks or threatened attacks by nail or petrol bombers.”
The report described how the soldiers tried to make out that all shots fired were in response to aggression from the protesters, but rejected this claim.
“All the soldiers who in our view were responsible for the casualties on Bloody Sunday sought to justify their shooting on the grounds that they were sure when they fired that they had targeted and hit someone who was armed with a firearm or a nail or petrol bomb...which they had not,” the report said.
The paragraph went on to conclude that this lie undermined the credibility of any evidence tendered by the soldiers during the official inquiries into the matter.
It was found that “on balance,” the first shot was fired by one of the British soldiers, that none of the protesters were carrying weapons at the time, and that the deaths were unjustifiable.
The Saville Report was the long awaited repudiation of an earlier report, the infamous British Army commissioned Widgery Report, which had accused the protesters of starting the violence and carrying weapons.
Tuesday’s report found that in clear breach of the soldiers’ training, no warning had been given by them before they opened fire on the crowd. The soldiers, the report said, “reacted (to the protesters) by losing their self-control,” and carnage was the result.
The soldiers’ shooting on the crowd was described by the report as a “serious and widespread loss of fire discipline.”
Though there was shooting by Republican paramilitaries close to the scene “none of this firing provided any justification for the shooting of civilian casualties,” the report said.
Martin McGuinness, now deputy first minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, was present at the rally, the report found, and was also armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun, but it could not be proved whether he fired his weapon. McGuinness, for his part, has denied carrying any weapon to the protest on the day.
Among the most damning indictments of the British soldiers found in the report was the finding that many of them filed false accounts in a desperate and frantic bid to justify their actions.
The report also found that many of those who lost their lives or were injured on Bloody Sunday were attempting to flee or trying to go to the aid of other injured parties at the scene. Many victims, the report said, were also shot in the back.
The inhuman shooting of one man by British troops as he crawled along the ground, trying desperately to escape a bloody scene of carnage, was gruesomely depicted.
The 5,000 page report goes into exhaustive and often graphic detail of each shooting. The soldiers are depicted throughout as jumpy, headstrong and unreliable as they continuously shirk orders and act on impulse.
Lord Saville, the report’s head author, and a retired judge of the U.K. Supreme Court, concluded, “What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased Nationalist resentment and hostility towards the army and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed. Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland.”
The £191 million report included 30 million words of testimony and took 12 years to complete. When ordered by Tony Blair in 1998 it was due to take just two.
Victim and survivor groups have greatly welcomed the report’s conclusions. Their lawyers are expected to press for those who opened fire to be prosecuted before the courts, though independent legal analysts have already signaled that this is highly unlikely.
There were emotional scenes in Derry on Tuesday afternoon, with many victims of the tragedy feeling that the report had brought them at least a small measure of vindication, though equally many remained disappointed by the report’s refusal to categorize the soldiers’ actions as unlawful.
Representatives addressed a crowd of thousands in Derry after televised footage of Cameron addressing the U.K. Parliament was transmitted around the world.
"The great lie has been laid bare. The truth has been brought home at last," said one such representative, Mickey McKinney, whose brother Willie was among the dead. The crowd reacted with cheers.
Another victim’s relative told the crowd, “It can now be proclaimed to the world that the dead and the wounded of Bloody Sunday, civil rights marchers, one and all, were innocent, one and all, gunned down on their own streets by soldiers who had been given to believe that they could kill with perfect impunity,”
Martin McGuinness, for his part, denied the report’s findings that he was armed on the day in question, and welcomed the publication of the report’s findings.
The jubilant scenes in Derry continued throughout the afternoon on Tuesday. Family members of victims described how they felt that the day has been finally “put to rest” by the report. Crowds marched through the city carrying larger-than-life portraits of the victims, and survivors’ representatives delivered elegant eulogies to the dead.
Despite the general feeling of satisfaction, there was also a palpable measure of disappointment. Saville’s refusal to categorize the killings as “unlawful” seems to have stirred the victims’ ire further, with some calling the report “disappointing” on that basis.