LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland (AP) — Relatives of 13 Catholic demonstrators shot to death by British troops on Northern Ireland’s Bloody Sunday cried tears of joy Tuesday as an epic fact-finding probe ruled that their loved ones were innocent and the soldiers entirely to blame for the 1972 slaughter.
The investigation took 12 years and nearly 200 million pounds ($290 million), but the victims’ families and the British, Irish and U.S. governments welcomed the findings as priceless to heal one of the gaping wounds left from Northern Ireland’s four-decade conflict that left 3,700 dead.
Thousands of residents of Londonderry — a predominantly Catholic city long synonymous with Britain’s major mass killing from the Northern Ireland conflict — gathered outside the city hall to watch the verdict come in, followed by a lengthy apology from Prime Minister David Cameron in London that moved many locals long distrustful of British leaders.
The probe found that soldiers opened fire without justification at unarmed, fleeing civilians and lied about it for decades, refuting an initial British investigation that branded the demonstrators as Irish Republican Army bombers and gunmen.
Cameron, who was just 5 years old when the attack occurred, said it was “both unjustified and unjustifiable.”
“I couldn’t believe it, I was so overjoyed,” said Kay Duddy, clutching the handkerchief used to swab blood from her 17-year-old brother’s body that day. Jackie Duddy, the first of the 13 killed, was shot in the back.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I ever envisage a British prime minister would stand up in Parliament and tell the truth of what happened on Bloody Sunday,” Duddy said.
“David Cameron told the world and its mother that Jackie Duddy and the rest of the deceased and injured were innocent people. They were totally exonerated today,” she said.
One by one, relatives of the 13 dead and 15 wounded went to a podium, huge black-and-white pictures of their dead or wounded relative displayed on a massive television screen. Each declared their relief that the demonstrators were found innocent and the elite soldiers of the Parachute Regiment solely to blame.
“Thirty-eight years ago a story went around the world … that there was gunmen and bombers on our streets, and they were shot and killed. Today that lie has been uncovered,” said Kate Nash, whose 19-year-old brother William was shot fatally once through the chest.
“Unjustified and unjustifiable. Those are the words we’ve been waiting to hear since January the 30th of 1972,” said Tony Doherty, whose father, Patrick, was fatally shot as he crawled away from gunfire. The fact-finders rejected soldiers’ claims that Doherty had been carrying a gun by digging up photos of Doherty seconds before he was hit and showing he was unarmed.
“The victims of Bloody Sunday have been vindicated, and the soldiers of the Parachute Regiment have been disgraced. Their medals of honor have to be removed!” Doherty declared to cheers.
The Bloody Sunday Inquiry, authorized by then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998 in the run-up to the negotiation of the Good Friday peace accord that year, was led by English judge Lord Saville. He gave the ex-paratroopers, now in their 60s and 70s, broad protections from criminal charges as well as anonymity in the witness box, citing the risk that IRA dissidents might target them in retaliation.
Some legal experts, however, said wiggle room remains for prosecutions and, more likely, civil lawsuits against retired soldiers, particularly because some of the them were found to have lied to Saville.
The 5,000-page report is based on evidence from 921 witnesses, 2,500 written statements and 60 volumes of written evidence.
Cameron apologized on behalf of the British government and summarized its findings: The soldiers never should have been ordered to confront the protesters, they fired the first shots and targeted unarmed people who were clearly fleeing or aiding the helpless wounded. None of those killed or wounded that day in Londonderry had posed a threat to the soldiers, Saville concluded.
Saville’s conclusions included damning new findings, including that soldiers fired twice at 22-year-old James Wray — once as he ran away, a second fatally after he was on the ground.
“As he lay there, defenseless and dying, he was deliberately shot again. The Saville report stated clearly that there was no justification for either of these two shots,” said his brother Liam.
The demonstrators were protesting the internment without trial of IRA suspects. The report said some soldiers fired knowing their victims were unarmed, and may have concluded all protesters were tied to IRA factions and therefore legitimate targets.
“It is at least possible that they did so in the indefensible belief that all the civilians they fired at were probably either members of the Provisional or Official IRA or were supporters of one or other of these paramilitary organizations, and so deserved to be shot,” the report said.
The report did find that one demonstrator killed, 17-year-old Gerald Donaghey, was a junior Provisional IRA member who was carrying four homemade grenades, called nail bombs, in his pockets. But it said Donaghey was running away when shot and posed no risk to soldiers.
Bloody Sunday justice campaigners long had claimed that the nail bombs, photographed inside the pockets of Donaghey’s jacket at an army morgue, had been planted by soldiers trying to justify their shooting.
Saville also concluded that former IRA commander Martin McGuinness, now the senior Catholic in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, probably was carrying a submachine gun during Bloody Sunday, based on other witnesses’ testimony. The judge said, however, that no evidence existed to suggest that McGuinness had used the gun in a manner “that provided any of the soldiers with any justification for opening fire.”
McGuinness, who in sworn testimony said he was unarmed, rejected Saville’s charge. “I am absolutely denying that,” he said.
Analysts said Saville’s finding appeared likely to stir tensions between McGuinness and Protestants in the 3-year-old coalition, the centerpiece of the Good Friday peace deal.
The inquiry was originally budgeted to cost 11 million pounds and report findings by 2002. Instead, the final bill was estimated at nearly 200 million pounds — making it the longest and most expensive inquiry in British legal history. Cameron said Britain would never attempt anything like it again.
Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen praised the report. “From this day forth, history will record what the families have always known to be true. … They were innocent,” he said in Dublin.
“It is our hope that the scale of the inquiry, the quantity of material available, and its findings will contribute to greater understanding and reconciliation of what happened on that tragic day,” U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in Washington.
Saville said Bloody Sunday represented a watershed event in the decades-old Catholic-Protestant conflict over Northern Ireland, a British territory now governed by a power-sharing coalition. It drove 1972 to be the conflict’s deadliest year with more than 470 dead.
“What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased (Irish) nationalist resentment and hostility towards the army, and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed. Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland,” Saville said.
The judge took evidence from former British government officials, the soldiers who opened fire that day and IRA members involved in the protest. He ruled that a few IRA men did come armed to the demonstration, but the soldiers fired the shots that started the one-sided bloodbath.
The No. 2 army officer on the scene on Bloody Sunday, retired Gen. Sir Mike Jackson, offered what he called a “fulsome apology” — but described the killings as an exceptional aberration.
“Over the 38 years of the army’s operational deployment in the province, the vast majority of the some 250,000 soldiers who served there behaved admirably, often in the face of severe provocation, and with the loss of several hundred lives and over 6,000 wounded,” said Jackson, who was a captain and second in command of the Parachute Regiment’s 1st Battalion in 1972. He fired no shots that day.
Saville’s findings declared that several soldiers who opened fire concocted cover stories to justify shooting unarmed people in the back. But he cautioned that each soldier’s testimony to the inquiry could not be used “to incriminate that witness in any later criminal proceedings.”
“This does not rule out the possibility of future criminal proceedings against an individual, but only means that their own evidence to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry cannot be used against them,” Saville wrote.
All families of the dead said it was too early to predict whether they would file lawsuits against any of the former soldiers.
The original 1972 investigation by another English judge, Lord Widgery, took barely two months to produce a brief report that chided soldiers for gunfire that “bordered on the reckless.” But Widgery accepted soldiers’ claims that they had been responding to IRA attacks, and said he suspected — despite any solid forensic or witness evidence beyond the soldiers’ claims — that some of those killed “had been firing weapons or handling bombs in the course of the afternoon.”
David Stringer reported from London. Shawn Pogatchnik reported from Dublin.
Bloody Sunday Inquiry report, http://report.bloody-sunday-inquiry.org/