"On behalf of our country I am deeply sorry" – British prime minister David Cameron
AT 3.25PM yesterday, with the sun beating down on a packed Guildhall Square in Derry, a pair of hands poked through the metal grille covering the windows high up in the building.
By this stage the families of the 14 victims of Bloody Sunday and at least 15 others who were injured on that January day in 1972 had been locked in the building for five hours, a precaution designed to stop leaks of the 5,000-page Saville report.
“It must be good news, it must be good news,” whispered a female relative, watching the hand signals from the square.
The thumbs-up sign was instantly interpreted as “innocent, they are all innocent”, words that spread like a balm through the emotional crowd before the conclusions of the report were officially announced.
Beaming faces began to appear at the windows as relatives waved the 60-page summary out the window.
It seemed deeply appropriate given their 38-year-long struggle for justice that the families broke the news first.
Minutes later, British prime minister David Cameron appeared on a screen in the square on a live link from the House of Commons, declaring that, according to the report, the killings and shootings were “both unjustified and unjustifiable”.
It was official confirmation that at last the truth of the innocence of their relatives would be known by the world.
“We have overcome,” sang a group of women at the front of the crowd, adapting the words of the song that was sung on the civil rights march that sparked the shootings.
From early morning, as 500 journalists gathered in Derry, the families had repeated their desire for the truth – a truth known to them for the past 38 years, but one that had been tainted in the Widgery report in 1972 in which it was suggested that some of the dead were armed.
The slogan, their plea, was on T-shirts and banners all over the city yesterday: “Set The Truth Free.”
Mr Cameron’s statement, which lasted 11 minutes and 17 seconds, did just that.
“What happened should never, ever have happened,” he said. “Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces. And for that, on behalf of the government, indeed on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry.”
At the start of this extraordinary day in Northern Ireland’s history, it would have seemed unthinkable that one of the biggest cheers would come in response to a statement by a British prime minister.
But when Mr Cameron apologised those cheers seemed to shake the Derry walls.
The jubilation intensified when Mr Cameron quoted the report as finding there was no evidence that any of the victims had been armed.
Speaking afterwards up on the city walls, retired bishop Edward Daly, the man shown waving a white handkerchief while tending to victims in some of the most iconic Bloody Sunday images, described Mr Cameron’s statement as “powerful”.
“It’s wonderful to see somebody stating quite clearly that these people weren’t posing any threat and were not guilty of any offence and that the killing was unjustifiable,” he said, adding that he believed the book was now closed on Bloody Sunday.
When Mr Cameron’s statement ended and the families finally emerged from the Guildhall, the scenes were reminiscent of innocent prisoners released from jail.
The families threw victorious fists in the air, they pointed and shouted and smiled at the crowd, clutching the report as if they would never let it go.
There was a minute’s silence to remember all those who died during the Troubles, as giant black-and-white banners featuring all 14 who died were held aloft behind their relatives. They spoke one by one, reiterating the innocence, as found by Lord Saville, of their loved ones.
The Widgery report was torn to pieces by one relative, Jean Hegarty – the infamous publication turning to blue confetti that swirled in the air. Widgery was now old news.
Lord Saville had told the world what the people of Derry have known for 38 years: the victims of Bloody Sunday were innocent, all innocent.