Bloody Sunday: ‘I think it’s likely there will be prosecutions’
Denis Bradley, who was present in 1972, on the importance of soldiers facing justice
Hugh Gilmore, third left, clutching his stomach after being shot during Bloody Sunday. Photograph: PA/PA Wire
By the time the shooting stopped in Derry on January 30th, 1972, Denis Bradley knew that everything had changed.
Thirteen people lay dead and a 14th would die later, all shot by the British army’s elite parachute regiment after they opened fire on an anti-internment march in the Bogside.
Bradley – then a young priest – watched the bullets ricocheting around him; nearby was the rubble barricade, where six people died, including Michael McDaid and William Nash.
“Both of them were shouting, and somebody said they stopped me going out [to them]. I don’t know if that’s true. I was petrified.
“Had I walked out from behind that gable end, I think I would have been dead.”
That night Bradley walked through the city with another priest, his friend Tom O’Gara.
“I remember the eeriness, how quiet the city was, and obviously we were both highly emotional – I don’t like the word ‘traumatised’ – and we were quiet in our own ways too, and reflective.
“We both agreed that the civil rights movement was finished, and we were into a completely new era. In crude political terms you would say we had moved from troubles into war.”
Until that day, Bradley, O’Gara and others had been among those, as Bradley puts it, “Trying to live in that space between civil rights and the growing threat of violence”.
“I would have known young people who were either in or on the verge of thinking about the IRA, and there was always this movement to be a counterbalance to that,” he says. “My memory of that night is that both of us knew that day had come and gone. In the following weeks they would have run over you, they would have walked over you to join.”
Shortly afterwards he became part of a secret back channel between the IRA and the British government, which led ultimately to a six-month ceasefire in 1975-1976.
“It politicised me,” he says, “in the sense that I was of the conclusion that this could now only be dealt with by getting the two killing machines – the British army and the IRA, as they became after Bloody Sunday – into a room and talking to each other. There was no other way through it.”
If Bloody Sunday changed Bradley; so too did the discredited Widgery report, which exonerated the soldiers and was widely regarded by nationalists as a whitewash.
“I remember thinking to myself, I will fight as long as I have breath in my body to undo the double hurt and the double insult of the deaths followed by Widgery.”
This, says Bradley, is why Bloody Sunday was different: “As far as I’m aware, Bloody Sunday was the only time when the British judicial system decided people were guilty, and that’s the reason it had to be fought against for all those years, because it had to be overturned.
“There was no option but to have a Saville-type situation.”
I began to think that we will not get through the politics of this situation unless we have some mechanism of dealing with it
Mark Saville’s inquiry opened in Derry in 1998. His report, published in 2010, found that none of the victims posed a threat when they were shot. In the centre of Derry, a crowd of thousands cheered the then UK prime minister, David Cameron, as he apologised. The deaths had been “unjustified and unjustifiable”, he said. “I am deeply sorry.”
For Bradley it was a key moment. “I think a lot of healing came out of the Saville result.”
He had left the priesthood years before. He helped found the Bogside Community Association and the Northlands addiction rehabilitation centre, and went on to become vice-chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board and, with Robin Eames, co-chairman of the Consultative Group on the Past.
In 2009 they recommended, among other proposals, an independent Legacy Commission as well as a Reconciliation Forum, and a “recognition payment” of £12,000 to acknowledge the suffering of families who lost loved ones in the Troubles.
“I went into the past fairly cynical as to whether anything should be done,” says Bradley. “What changed me was that I began to think that we will not get through the politics of this situation unless we have some mechanism of dealing with it.
“I keep using the image of a mucky field – it’s a swamp we won’t be able to get through, and that’s kind of where we are at the moment.”
The Eames-Bradley proposals were not implemented; nor were the provisions contained in the Stormont House agreement in 2014; the UK government is currently considering more than 17,000 responses to a legacy consultation.
According to Bradley, “the change that stuck was when you had the two governments deciding to go there and agreeing to go there, whether that was the Good Friday [Belfast] agreement itself or decommissioning or policing.
“The difficulty with the past and the reason we’re still suffering is that the two governments have not gone there.”
Calls for resignation
Most controversial is the issue of prosecution of British soldiers. Last week the North’s Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, apologised amid calls for her resignation, after she said in the House of Commons that killings by soldiers during the Troubles were not crimes.
Tomorrow the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland will announce whether or not it will recommend prosecutions against up to 17 soldiers – and two former members of the Official IRA – for their actions on Bloody Sunday. The potential charges faced by the former soldiers include murder, attempted murder and perjury.
“I think it’s likely there will be prosecutions,” says Bradley, “and that’s right and proper. The British have to face that.”
After Saville, there was a palpable sense in Derry that something had changed, and though it “cannot be on that scale”, tomorrow’s decision may yet prove no less significant.
“[Saville] was the lifting of a communal injustice. The prosecutions are more individualistic, they’re more about my family, my father, my brother, but that has to be respected, and that is just as important.”