The day that justice died

Thirty years after Bloody Sunday, relatives of the victims are hoping two new films will bolster their campaign for truth - and even advance the peace process.
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Tears are welling up in the eyes of Leo Young. Intermittently, he dabs them with a handkerchief. A white-haired 57-year-old coal merchant from Derry, he has just been through an experience no one would envy: watching a two-hour docu-drama about the day his 17-year-old brother died on a civil rights march. John Young, an apprentice tailor, was one of 13 unarmed civilians shot dead by British Paratroopers on 30 January 1972, a day that has been seen as a watershed in the Troubles: Bloody Sunday.

We are at a reception in Derry following a showing in the local museum of Sunday, Jimmy McGovern's searing account of the events of that tragic day. At several points during the screening, the sound of sobbing is clearly audible in the darkness. "Watching that film made me feel I was nearly dying with emotion," says Young, pausing frequently as the enormity of the occasion threatens to overtake him.

Standing beside him, his sister Maura Duffy, says, "The experience of seeing the film was overwhelming. It's our story up there on the screen. The last time I cried like that was in 1972, when John died. This brought it all back. Within the space of just 15 minutes, Bloody Sunday destroyed so many lives."

Young and Duffy have memories of the day that will never leave them – and that have been painstakingly recreated in the film. As the Paras started shooting, Young desperately tried to find his younger brother in the mêlée. In his increasingly panic-stricken search, Young himself came under fire. He was then persuaded by a doctor to ferry a seriously wounded young man to hospital. However, their car was stopped at a British Army roadblock, and Young was arrested and held overnight for questioning.

The same night, Duffy had to identify John's body at the local hospital and pass on the news of his death to her inconsolable parents.

Young only discovered John's fate the following morning from a callous officer. "He asked me how many brothers I had," Young recalls. "I said 'two', and he replied, 'You've only got one now'."

Thirty years have done nothing to dull Young's pain. "For a long, long time after Bloody Sunday, I didn't exactly have a breakdown, but I was very depressed," he says. "Even now, I still have a great sense of guilt about leaving John. I should never have gone in the car. I always torture myself about that because my mother's last words that morning were 'look after John'. I feel I let my family down. That will haunt me till the day I die."

McGovern's film shows exactly why Young and Duffy (played in the drama by Ciaran McMenamin and Eva Birthistle) are still traumatised by that day. Four years in the making, Sunday draws on more than 100 interviews with eyewitnesses, relatives and soldiers, as well as sworn testimony to the ongoing Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday, to build up a meticulously researched – and breathtakingly powerful – view of what happened.

But however moving the human stories are, Bloody Sunday is still a contentious political issue, and McGovern is bracing himself for attacks from the right-wing press. (Bloody Sunday, a rival film to be screened on ITV1 next Sunday, was last week dubbed "Bloody Fantasy" in the Daily Mail – a description that precipitated a poster campaign in Derry urging people to boycott the paper).

"We knew what we were getting into," McGovern says with a wry grin. "We don't expect plaudits from those quarters."

But the threat of a monstering from the Daily Mail was never going to deter the writer from trying to tell the Bloody Sunday victims' stories. After all, he has experience in this area; he made a huge impact when he recounted the events of Hillsborough in a film of the same name. A man of burning commitment, McGovern launches into an explanation of why he was impelled to write Sunday. "I'm patriotic. I love my country instinctively, and I look to my country to prove itself worthy of my love. The way it does that is by upholding truth and justice. On Bloody Sunday, I believe it spat on those principles.

"Remember, the victims were British citizens. They paid the wages of the blokes who shot them. One of the victims was even a tax collector – he collected the money that paid the wages of the bloke who shot him.

"There is now the prospect of peace and reconciliation throughout the north of Ireland. The Saville Inquiry is fundamental to that process. But this film, too, might play a small part in all that. For 30 years, truth has been suppressed and justice denied. That is wrong. If Britain does not believe in truth and justice, it is no longer worthy of our love."

People in Derry still feel betrayed by the original 1972 inquiry into Bloody Sunday by Lord Chief Justice Widgery, which exonerated all the soldiers and may have driven hundreds of embittered young men into the arms of the IRA. Joe Friel, who survived being shot in the chest on Bloody Sunday, and at the reception shows me the scars to prove it, jokes that, "I'm surprised Widgery didn't conclude it was mass suicide."

Stephen Gargan, the film's co-producer, and a Derry resident, hopes the drama will spark debate by showing the human cost of the tragedy. "It's difficult to get the British public to engage with the subject of Ireland," he sighs. "It's been a 30-year conflict and in Britain it's just seen as a turn-off. We felt that for a long time the dead were just statistics – they weren't seen as real people. So it was important to communicate that these were good people who had families that loved them and communities that valued them."

Duffy believes that the film is a vital part of the peace process. She sees it as a way of coming to terms with the decades of strife in the province that Bloody Sunday precipitated. "People in mainland Britain have forgotten about Bloody Sunday," she says. "This will bring it home to them. There will be mothers and fathers and sons and daughters who will all relate to our situation and see that an injustice was done. The film is part of the healing process. We feel a wee bit stronger because now we're sharing it with everyone. We can't achieve closure until the whole truth is out."

By the same token, the fact that there are two films about Bloody Sunday going out within eight days of each other is welcomed by the victims' families. "The people of Derry must be saying 'you wait 30 years for a film about Bloody Sunday and then two come along at the same time'," McGovern smiles. "Still, the families wanted two films because they thought it would have twice the impact. I never wanted this to be reduced to a couple of Englishmen fighting over an Irish bone."

So what does McGovern hope his film will achieve? "My ambition was achieved when I saw the relatives' reaction," he says. "I hope the film will be watched in Britain, but I wrote it hoping that it would be accepted by the families who have campaigned for truth and justice for the past 30 years. If the people of Derry attest to the truth of our film and think it's a fitting requiem for the dead, that's the greatest tribute."

Duffy makes a final point about how the film might help their campaign to right the wrongs of Bloody Sunday. "I don't want revenge, I want justice. Anyway, what would [revenge] achieve? It would never soften my feelings of grief." She pauses, before adding in a quiet voice, "And it would never bring back John."

'Sunday' is on C4 on Monday 28 January. 'Bloody Sunday' is on ITV1 on Sunday 20 January