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Bloody Sunday victims can "rest in peace"

Cheers erupt in Derry as British government releases report on the 1972 killings.

Bloody Sunday Victims Relatives
Kay Duddy (with fist raised), sister of Bloody Sunday shooting victim Jackie Duddy, reacts as she leaves the Guildhall in Derry, Northern Ireland, after reading the Saville report on June 15, 2010. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

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."

(More on the events in London.)

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."