LONDON, United Kingdom — On Sunday, Jan. 30, 1972, British soldiers fired into a crowd of civil rights protesters in Derry, Northern Ireland. Thirteen people were killed, a 14th died in the hospital a short time later.
On Jan. 28, 1998, then-British Primer Minister Tony Blair announced that Lord Saville, one of Britain's most senior judges, would conduct an inquiry into what happened on that Bloody Sunday.
At 3:30 p.m. local time, today, June 15, 2010, British Prime Minister David Cameron stood in the House of Commons to announce Lord Saville's findings.
"I am deeply patriotic. I never want to believe anything bad about our country," the prime minister began before going on to criticize firmly and without hesitation the "unjustified" and "unjustifiable" killings of Bloody Sunday.
"It was wrong," said Cameron. "What happened should never, ever have happened." Then he said the words that Northern Ireland's Catholics have been waiting to hear from a leader of their government for 38 years: "On behalf of the government, I am deeply sorry."
David Cameron was 5 years old on Bloody Sunday. It's a measure of the mythological power of those deaths in Derry — 14 of 3,500 during the three decades of Northern Ireland's "Troubles" — that Cameron was forced to make the most dramatic speech of his young premiership.
(Read about the reaction in Derry, Northern Ireland.)
In some ways the facts have always been clear. Bloody Sunday happened when a Catholic civil rights march through the working class Derry neighborhood of the Bogside was broken up by Support Company of Britain's elite First Parachute Regiment. The scale of the killing was unprecedented in 20th-century British history. You had to go back to 1819 and the Peterloo Massacre to find the British government suppressing its own citizens with such lethal force.
The British government at the time, led by the Conservative Edward Heath, treated the event like the political hot potato it was. It immediately set up an inquiry under a top judge, Lord Widgery. Three months later Widgery produced a report blaming the protesters for their misfortune, saying there would have been no incident if there had been no march. He added insult to injury by claiming the paratroopers had been fired on first. All those who were on the receiving end of the soldiers' fire disputed that. Bloody Sunday and the Widgery report proved to be the single greatest recruiting tool the Irish Republican Army (IRA) ever had.
In the early 1990s, when the political process in Northern Ireland got under way in earnest, it was clear that a proper accounting of what happened on Bloody Sunday was critical to its success. When Tony Blair announced Lord Saville's inquiry in January 1998, the political process was approaching the end game. Blair set up the inquiry against strong opposition from the protestant Unionist community. Yet less than three months later, despite loud protests about Saville's Inquiry, David Trimble, leader of what was then the largest protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, signed the Good Friday Agreement. There have been many bumps along the way but that agreement has provided the framework for the more peaceful Northern Ireland of today.
The scale of the Saville Inquiry is astonishing. It took 12 years to complete and cost 191 million pounds, (about $283 million). About half that money went to lawyers. There were a lot of them. 2,500 people gave evidence, 922 gave oral testimony. The inquiry gathered 30 million words of testimony, 13 volumes of photographic evidence plus audio and video evidence. Altogether there are 160 volumes of data collected by Saville's team. The final report condenses this into 5,000 pages in 10 bound volumes.
The purpose of such thoroughness was to leave no doubt about what happened and who was to blame. Certainly, David Cameron's performance today made it clear that he believes the account to be definitive. His stance will make some of his own Conservative backbenchers uncomfortable. There is more than one former army officer serving as a Conservative MP. Cameron's unwillingness to offer immunity to any army personnel to legal charges arising from the report's findings won't have pleased them. At the very least, it is clear that some soldiers perjured themselves in their testimony. More damning are Saville's findings that all of the dead were unarmed and posed no threat to the soldiers at all. Saville's report shows some were effectively executed on the spot.
Saville also deals with the big question on the Unionist side of the ledger: What was Martin McGuinness doing that day? Today McGuinness is deputy first minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the legislature set up by the Good Friday Agreement. On Bloody Sunday he has admitted he was second in command of the Derry Brigade of the IRA. Cameron told the House of Commons that Saville said, despite the "probability" that McGuinness was armed with a submachine gun, he never gave any indication of using it.
So what next? Whether prosecutors in Northern Ireland choose to bring charges against anyone is open to question. The Saville Report says, "Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland." Will more decades of prosecutions do any more than extend the catastrophic martyrology of Bloody Sunday?
Cameron closed his remarkable speech by saying "we must never forget or dismiss" the past but "we must also move on."
Moving on has never been a part of life in Ulster. Those who could understand the concept "move on" — Protestant and Catholic — did precisely that and over the centuries left Ireland altogether, mostly for the United States. Those who remain in Northern Ireland are descended from people constitutionally incapable of forgetting. As for forgiveness, well that depends on their interpretation of scripture.
Cameron can only hope that his unprecedented words, "On behalf of the government, I am deeply sorry," will create an unprecedented degree of acceptance and new trust in their government from the people of Derry and the Bogside.