Yesterday, British Prime Minister David Cameron belatedly apologized for the death of 14 civil rights demonstrators who were killed by British soldiers in Northern Ireland in 1972, after a long-awaited report was released confirming the soldiers culpability. The victim’s families have campaigned for 38 years to bring to light the truth of what happened on what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Here are five things you need to know about Bloody Sunday and its fact-finding missions.
On January 30, 1972, in Derry, Northern Ireland, 14 unarmed civil rights demonstrators, including seven teenagers, were shot dead by the British Army. The demonstrators, all Northern Catholics, were marching in protest of the British policy of internment of suspected Irish nationalists. British authorities had banned the event, which was organized by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, but the protesters marched anyway. Troops from the British 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment, were sent to confront the protesters. The march was prevented from entering the city center by British soldiers. The main body of the march then moved to Free Derry Corner to attend a rally but some young men began to throw stones at soldiers. The soldiers responded by shooting rubber bullets and using tear gas and a water cannon on the protesters. A riot broke out and lasted 25 minutes, during which 13 unarmed demonstrators were shot dead by British soldiers. Another died six months later from his injury.
The Widgery Report
The report released yesterday, known as the Saville Report, was not the first fact-finding operation commissioned by the British government. The 39-page Widgery report was conducted by English judge Lord Widgery in 1972 and was released 11 weeks after Bloody Sunday. The report stated that the British soldiers’ gunfire “bordered on the reckless” but said there would have been no incident if there had been no march. It also claimed the British soldiers had been fired on first. Widgery said he suspected that some of those killed “had been firing weapons or handling bombs in the course of the afternoon.” There were inconsistencies in the report, and no conclusive evidence that the victims had any firearms. British soldiers were the only people to testify for Widgery; protesters’ accounts were not included.
The Saville Report
The Saville report was released Tuesday, June 15, 12 years after it was commissioned by former Prime Minister Tony Blair. The colossal report, named after its chairman, senior British judge Mark Saville, is based on evidence from 921 witnesses, 2,500 written statements and 60 volumes of written evidence, at a cost of almost £200 million. Among the witnesses to give evidence were soldiers, civilians, police, politicians, forensic experts, journalists, civilians, priests and members of the IRA, including Martin McGuinness, the Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister. The report came to the conclusion that all those killed were unarmed and that soldiers had lost control and opened fire without warning. Some protesters had been trying to flee when they were shot and soldiers had made up false accounts to cover up their actions. The commissioning of the report was a vital part of the process that led to the historic 1998 peace agreement that saw the near cessation of violence between Republicans (the Irish nationalists) and Loyalists (those loyal to the British Crown). The release of the report was greeted by loud cheers and applause by family members and their supporters gathering outside the Guildhall in Derry.
The premiers and the reports
There has been quite an evolution of British prime ministers’ feelings toward the fact-finding mission. Before the Widgery inquiry began, then Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath told Lord Widgery, “It has to be remembered that we are in Northern Ireland fighting not only a military war but a propaganda war.”
Tony Blair announced the new investigation in 1998, less than a year after he became prime minister, saying the Widgery Report was not an in-depth investigation and that new evidence had come to light in the decades since the killings.
These fact-finding missions have been such a sensitive issue that former Prime Minister Gordon Brown delayed publication of the report until after the May 6 general election this year, out of concern that the findings might stir up a political debate and undermine the power-sharing government established in Belfast under the 1998 Good Friday agreement.
Prime Minister David Cameron said in response to the report, “There is no doubt, there is nothing equivocal, there are no ambiguities, what happened on Bloody Sunday was unjustified. It is clear that the events of Bloody Sunday were in no way justified.” Cameron also apologized on behalf of the British Government by saying he was “deeply sorry.”
While the report has given closure to the families of the victims, it has also created tension for others. Some Loyalists argue that it would only be fair if another report was conducted into Republican killings during Bloody Sunday.
The report could form the foundation of a criminal prosecution against former British soldiers involved in the incident. Many lawyers from the Bloody Sunday families plan to press for those who opened fire to be prosecuted for murder. If there is no criminal prosecution, that could lead to anger among the Republican community.
Read the full Saville Report.