The Bloody Sunday killings cast an indelible stain on British history and scarred the life of more than 30 families and the wider communities of Derry. A later inquiry unveiled an army cover-up and led to the first apology by a British prime minister. But there have been no prosecutions.
British soldiers shot 31 unarmed civilians who had gathered for a civil rights march through the small city to protest against discrimination against Catholics in housing and employment. Troops from the Parachute Regiment fired more than 100 times, killing 13 people. One of those injured died five months later. The army claimed they were acting in self-defence.
The day after, the home secretary announced an inquiry led by the lord chief justice, Lord Widgery. It was considered a whitewash by victims’ families, sitting for just three weeks in February and March of the same year with a report published in April, one of the fastest inquiries ever. It concluded there was “no reason to suppose” that the army would have opened fire unless it had been fired on first.
After decades of campaigning for the truth, the families got a new inquiry in 1998. The Saville investigation lasted 12 years, the longest and most expensive inquiry in recent times. It concluded the killings were “unjustified and unjustifiable” and that “none was posing any threat of causing death or serious injury. In no case was any warning given before soldiers opened fire”.
In a powerful watershed moment, the then prime minister, David Cameron, took the conclusions on board and stood in the House of Commons in 2010 to make a solemn apology for what had happened.
“The conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt, there is nothing equivocal, there are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.
“Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of our armed forces and for that, on behalf of the government – and indeed our country – I am deeply sorry,” said Cameron.
No. Eighteen former paratroopers were reported to Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service over the killings but none were tried. An agreement before the inquiry opened with the attorney general meant that none of the evidence given by soldiers could be used to incriminate them at a later stage.
In an interview screened last week with the BBC’s veteran journalist Peter Taylor, Saville described Bloody Sunday as “a catastrophe for Northern Ireland”, which had “put back any chance of a resolution to the Troubles by decades” and as “a very efficient recruiting sergeant”.