After 12-year probe, Northern Ireland’s disputed ‘Bloody Sunday’ killings face moment of truth

By Shawn Pogatchnik, AP
Friday, June 11, 2010

‘Bloody Sunday’ in NIreland faces moment of truth

DUBLIN — “Bloody Sunday,” the 1972 atrocity when British soldiers gunned down 13 Catholic demonstrators in bitterly disputed circumstances, faces a moment of truth when a 5,000-page report that cost 200 million pounds ($290 million) and took 12 years to produce is finally unveiled next week.

Politicians and analysts said Friday they expect the lead investigator, an English judge named Lord Saville, to conclude that soldiers committed illegal killings of unarmed Catholic civilians. That would confirm the long-held views of thousands of witnesses, two British governments and even some of the testifying soldiers that the 1st Battalion of the elite Parachute Regiment went wild on the streets of Londonderry 38 years ago.

The Bloody Sunday killings — combined with Britain’s insistence at the time that the soldiers were defending themselves from weapons-wielding Irish Republican Army members — infuriated the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland and spurred the outlawed IRA into its own increasingly brutal acts. The year 1972 became the deadliest turning point of a four-decade conflict.

But the key question today is whether Tuesday’s release of Saville’s epic fact-finding exercise, the biggest in British legal history involving 921 oral witnesses and 250 volumes of evidence, will heal communal wounds in support of Northern Ireland’s peace process — or just stir up more courtroom fights.

Saville gave the paratroopers who opened fire that day anonymity in the witness box and broad protections from criminal charges. But legal experts say wiggle room remains for prosecutions and civil lawsuits against retired soldiers now in their 60s and 70s, particularly if lawyers can demonstrate the soldiers told lies to Saville.

The Guardian newspaper reported Friday that families of Bloody Sunday victims are particularly hopeful of pursuing a former paratrooper identified only as Soldier F who stands accused of committing perjury during his Saville testimony. Soldier F is suspected of shooting four to six civilians.

But the surviving Bloody Sunday victims publicly stress the need for vindication of the dead, not vengeance against their killers.

“Saville is about setting the truth free. We want a declaration of innocence for our people,” said John Kelly, whose 17-year-old brother Michael was shot to death on Bloody Sunday.

“I never stop thinking about it for a single day,” said Linda Roddy, whose 19-year-old brother Willie Nash was killed that day. Her father, Alex, was wounded by gunfire as he tended to his dying son. “I just want this inquiry to say publicly that my brother and my father were not gunmen or bombers.”

The original 1972 investigation by another English judge, Lord Widgery, took barely two months to produce a 39-page report that chided soldiers for gunfire that “bordered on the reckless.” But Widgery accepted soldiers’ claims to be responding to IRA attacks and said he suspected — despite any solid forensic or witness evidence beyond the soldiers’ own claims — that some of those killed “had been firing weapons or handling bombs in the course of the afternoon.”

David Trimble, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who led Protestants into Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord, told The Guardian newspaper he had long opposed the idea of a new Bloody Sunday inquiry because it would be certain to provide fresh ammunition for those seeking to convict or sue the soldiers involved.

Trimble was quoted as saying he advised then-British prime minister Tony Blair not to throw out Widgery’s verdict, because “if you moved one millimeter from that conclusion, you were into the area of manslaughter, if not murder.”

No soldiers suffered injuries during the 30-minute shooting, which took place at the end of a banned march by 10,000 Irish nationalists opposed to Britain’s then-policy of interning IRA suspects without trial.

Several IRA witnesses — including Martin McGuinness, who today is the senior Catholic in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government — testified to Saville that their members were unarmed on the day and did not shoot at troops.

Adrian Guelke, who teaches politics at Queen’s University of Belfast, said the Saville report would be certain to repudiate Widgery’s weak judgment, but stood little chance of ending wider arguments about the rights and wrongs of Bloody Sunday.

“Bloody Sunday was a watershed event because it represented the British government at its most aggressive. Britain wanted to suppress the civil rights movement because it didn’t want to fight a two-front war against both the IRA and popular demonstrations in the streets,” Guelke said. “But British policy changed remarkably quickly on several fronts after the tragedy. Britain never behaved that way again in Northern Ireland.”

He said the vast bulk of evidence collected by Saville suggests that the soldiers opened fire because of a mix of human factors including fear, anger and confusion — but does not support Irish nationalists’ accusations of an official murder conspiracy.

“Bloody Sunday was an accident. It was not preplanned. It was a tragedy waiting to happen,” Guelke said. “Britain certainly wanted to teach the Derry hooligans a lesson. That was not intended to translate into soldiers shooting unarmed demonstrators.”

On the Net:

Bloody Sunday Inquiry,

Bloody Sunday Trust,

Museum of Free Derry,

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