|A mural in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, shows the 14 victims of the 1972 Bloody Sunday clash with British soldiers. The results of an inquiry on the killings will be released Tuesday. (Cathal Mcnaughton/Reuters)|
1972 ‘Bloody Sunday’ report due
Analysts expect British soldiers to be held at fault
DUBLIN — “Bloody Sunday,’’ the 1972 atrocity in which British soldiers gunned down 14 Catholic demonstrators in bitterly disputed circumstances, faces a moment of truth when a 5,000-page report that cost $290 million and took 12 years to produce is finally unveiled this week.
Politicians and analysts said last week that they expect the lead investigator, an English judge named Lord Saville, to conclude that soldiers committed illegal killings of unarmed Catholic civilians. That would confirm the long-held views of thousands of witnesses, two British governments, and even some of the testifying soldiers that the 1st Battalion of the elite Parachute Regiment went wild on the streets of Londonderry 38 years ago.
The Bloody Sunday killings — combined with Britain’s insistence at the time that the soldiers were defending themselves from weapons-wielding Irish Republican Army members — infuriated the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland and spurred the outlawed IRA into its own increasingly brutal acts. The year 1972 became the deadliest turning point of a four-decade conflict.
But the key question now is whether Tuesday’s release of Saville’s epic fact-finding exercise, the biggest in British legal history involving 921 oral witnesses and 250 volumes of evidence, will heal communal wounds in support of Northern Ireland’s peace process — or just stir up more courtroom fights.
Saville gave the paratroopers who opened fire that day anonymity in the witness box and broad protections from criminal charges. But legal analysts say wiggle room remains for prosecutions and civil lawsuits against retired soldiers now in their 60s and 70s, particularly if lawyers can demonstrate the soldiers told lies to Saville.
The Guardian newspaper reported Friday that families of Bloody Sunday victims are particularly hopeful of pursuing a former paratrooper identified only as Soldier F who stands accused of committing perjury during his Saville testimony. Soldier F is suspected of shooting four to six civilians.
The surviving Bloody Sunday victims publicly stress the need for vindication of the dead, not vengeance against their killers.
“Saville is about setting the truth free. We want a declaration of innocence for our people,’’ said John Kelly, whose 17-year-old brother Michael was shot to death that day.
The original 1972 investigation by another English judge, Lord Widgery, took barely two months to produce a 39-page report that chided soldiers for gunfire that “bordered on the reckless.’’ But Widgery accepted soldiers’ claims to be responding to IRA attacks and said he suspected — despite any solid forensic or witness evidence beyond the soldiers’ own claims — that some of those killed “had been firing weapons or handling bombs in the course of the afternoon.’’
David Trimble, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who led Protestants into Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord, told The Guardian newspaper that he had long opposed the idea of a new inquiry because it would be certain to provide fresh ammunition for those seeking to convict or sue the soldiers involved.
No soldiers suffered injuries during the 30-minute shooting, which took place at the end of a banned march by 10,000 Irish nationalists opposed to Britain’s then-policy of interning IRA suspects without trial.
Several IRA witnesses — including Martin McGuinness, who today is the senior Catholic in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government — testified before Saville that their members were unarmed.
Adrian Guelke, who teaches politics at Queen’s University of Belfast, said the Saville report would be certain to repudiate Widgery’s weak judgment, but stood little chance of ending wider arguments about the rights and wrongs of Bloody Sunday.
“But British policy changed remarkably quickly on several fronts after the tragedy. Britain never behaved that way again in Northern Ireland,’’ Guelke said.