DERRY, Northern Ireland — The moment when the people of this city learned that their 38-year campaign to establish the innocence of the victims of Bloody Sunday came at 3.26 p.m. today, four minutes before it was officially announced. That was when a thumbs-up appeared from an aperture in a stained-glass window high in Derry’s Guildhall where relatives of the 14 dead had been given an advance view of Lord Saville’s 5,000-word report.
The response was a huge cheer from a crowd of 6,000 gathered in hot sunshine in Guildhall Square. A wave of emotion swept through the square and the packed nearby streets as more thumbs and waving hands appeared. The cheering continued until the British Prime Minister David Cameron appeared on a giant television screen at a half-past-three.
There was silence as Cameron announced to the House of Commons that the killings of civil rights demonstrators by members of Britain’s elite First Parachute Regiment on Jan. 30, 1972, were “unjustified and unjustifiable.”
This produced another prolonged cheer. Many people stood applauding with tears in their eyes. Justice had been done at last for the relatives of those whom the British Army had shot and then callously called bombers and gunmen. All of the 14 victims were exonerated from any blame.
Further cheers echoed across this walled city in northwest Northern Ireland as Cameron went on to say that none of the firing by soldiers was justified and that the report was a “shocking conclusion to read.” And then came the words from the British prime minister that the relatives had waited for during four decades of campaigning: “On behalf of the government and on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry.”
Bloody Sunday was the single most important event in “The Troubles” that afflicted Northern Ireland during the last decades of the 20th century. The killing of 14 demonstrators and the wounding of 14 more by the paratroopers resulted in the downfall of the Unionist-controlled government at Stormont eight weeks later and produced a wave of recruits to the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
The eight minutes of bloodshed led to profound outrage throughout Ireland and the burning down of the British Embassy in Dublin. It was one thing to kill innocent people, the relatives said, it was another thing for the British government to then call them terrorists.
None were terrorists, Lord Saville found. Some were shot lying on the ground — like Jim Wray, 22 — or in the back — like Patrick Doherty, 31, who was cut down by bullets as he tried to crawl to safety. For the first time, a British government had come to terms with deeds that, as Cameron admitted, “strengthened the Provisional IRA and was a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland.”
Derry is a close-knit community and the sense of outrage simmered over the fact that the victims had their reputations destroyed, first by Gen. Mike Jackson, who listed each victim as either a gunman or “nail bomber,” and then in a report by Lord Widgery in 1972 that exonerated the British army and accused the victims of illegal activities.
The damning conclusion of the Saville report has profound implications for the British establishment and its management of “The Troubles.” It leaves the reputations of the Parachute Regiment and Lord Widgery in tatters. Cameron disclosed that the soldiers were never under threat, even though Martin McGuinness, IRA commander in Derry at the time, now deputy chief executive of the Northern Ireland power-sharing government, had a submachine gun in his possession that day.
After Cameron’s address, relatives spoke one by one about the vindication of their sons, brothers and fathers. Kay Duddy — sister of Jackie Duddy, 17, who was the first to be killed, shot as he ran away beside Father Edward Daly — called on behalf of “the families of those murdered and injured on Bloody Sunday” for a minute’s silence for all those “killed in the conflict over the last 40 years.”
That 60 seconds when the throng stood quietly was like a bridge between Northern Ireland’s bloody past and a future secured by the peace process.
Speaking to GlobalPost, McGuinness said, “To be exonerated before the world means everything to the relatives and the people of Derry. The Parchute Regiment is not a peace-keeping force. It was sent to teach the people of Derry a lesson. The findings today come in the midst of the most important peace process in the world and can be a liberation for all of us.”
Earlier in the day thousands of people, many veterans of the original march, now in their 50s and 60s, paraded along the original route through William Street where they were prevented from reaching their destination by the British soldiers. This time there were no soldiers in sight and hardly any police, and they emerged triumphant onto Guildhall Square.
There, Tony Doherty, brother of victim Patrick Doherty, told them: “Unjustified! Unjustifiable! Those are the words we have been waiting to hear since 1972. The victims of Bloody Sunday have been vindicated and the Parachute Regiment disgraced.”
Catherine Kelly, sister of 17-year-old Michael Kelly, shot dead at a barricade in Rossville Street, declared, “I say now to my little brother Michael, he can rest in peace forever.”