The day they said sorry


IT MAY have taken 38 years, but the British government has finally confronted its responsibilities to civil society and to the rule of law by addressing one of the darkest moments of the Northern Ireland Troubles and condemning the killing of innocent civilians on the streets of Derry in 1972. Prime minister David Cameron formally apologised in the House of Commons for the unjustified and unjustifiable killing of 14 civilians by British soldiers and said he was deeply sorry.

For the British government to formally acknowledge that troops from the Parachute Regiment opened fire and killed innocent civilians in contravention of their orders and then lied about it, will have been deeply unsettling. That acceptance — based on the comprehensive and unambiguous findings by Lord Saville in a 5,000-page report — marks a watershed. It provides the people of Northern Ireland with absolute clarify concerning a divisive and traumatic event, along with an opportunity for reconciliation. And it reflects undertakings in the Belfast Agreement for both governments to exercise their powers with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people.

The findings of this second official inquiry into what really happened on Bloody Sunday were always going to be controversial, not least because of its cost and the time involved. The key issue, however, was whether the conclusion of the initial Widgery investigation — that the soldiers had obeyed standing orders and that some of those killed may have fired weapons or handled bombs — would be set aside. It also considered whether blame for the killings should be laid on British army commanders or on individual soldiers from the Parachute Regiment.

Lord Saville’s report is stark in its conclusion that there had been a widespread loss of discipline. Soldiers opened fire on civilians who were not posing a direct threat to them in contravention of their standing orders. The immediate responsibility for what transpired lay with the paratroopers. Those killed had done nothing to justify a lethal response. He found no evidence of a conspiracy by senior politicians or army commanders to use unwarranted lethal force to cow the local population.

As might be expected, some military and political figures have criticised the investigation as unbalanced and damaging and likely to cause renewed friction. That has traditionally been the response by certain elements in authority that wish to avoid unpalatable truths.

Rather than generate inter-communal friction, however, these findings should bring closure to a dreadful chapter in Derry’s history while providing assurance to the families of victims that truth can eventually prevail.

Bloody Sunday represents a horrible legacy from a terrible past. In all truth, it probably garnered recruits for the Provisional IRA. The establishment of the Saville inquiry coincided with the Belfast Agreement. Today, there is a functioning, powersharing Executive and an elected Assembly. The past is a separate country and the acts of violence that scarred it should be left there.