There was a sense in the air yesterday that a longstanding injustice had been put right. It had taken 38 years of campaigning, two inquiries and £195m. But when the innocence of the dead of Bloody Sunday was formally proclaimed by the Saville inquiry at 3.30pm on a sunny afternoon there could be no doubt that a major step had been taken along a long road towards truth and reconciliation.
Nationalist Derry reacted with a unique mix of relief, jubilation and sheer delight. While full reconciliation lies a long way off, nationalists and republicans hailed the report's unequivocal conclusions as a hugely important step along the long road to truth.
A number of other inquiries, much smaller than Bloody Sunday, are under way. But it is regarded as particularly important, since so many died at the hands of the security forces, and since the authorities have long been said to be guilty of a lack of candour.
Of particular significance was David Cameron's statement in the Commons that "on behalf of the Government, indeed on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry".
The Saville report overturned the assertions of the original report into Bloody Sunday, delivered by Lord Chief Justice Lord Widgery in 1972, that some of those shot by paratroopers were terrorist bombers and gunmen. Relatives have long regarded his characterisations as an affront.
Widgery's findings that Paras had been justified in killing and wounding 27 men and youths were flatly contradicted by Saville, who said none of the casualties had guns. In findings which the Prime Minister described as shocking, the judge said 1 Para company had lost their self-control, "forgetting or ignoring their instructions and training and with a serious and widespread loss of fire discipline".
Saville further concluded that many of the soldiers put forward false accounts to seek to justify their firing.
In other findings, the judge endorsed the longstanding claims of eyewitnesses that some of those shot were clearly fleeing or going to the assistance of others who were dying.
He found that one person was shot while crawling away from the soldiers, while another was in all probability shot as he lay mortally wounded on the ground. The report also refers to a father who was injured by Army gunfire after going to the aid of his son.
Saville in essence reached exactly the opposite conclusions to those of Widgery. He largely accepted the versions of marchers and other non-military eyewitnesses and rejected the claims of soldiers that they were reacting to heavy attack by bombers and gunmen.
One local claim he refused to accept, however, was that of Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister, who admitted at hearings that he had been second-in-command of the IRA in Derry on Bloody Sunday.
In a passage which Mr McGuinness will have found most unwelcome, Saville did not accept his claim that he was present but unarmed, saying he probably had a Thompson sub-machinegun which he had possibly fired before soldiers moved in. The judge added however that he was sure the politician had not engaged in any activity that provided any soldiers with justification for opening fire.
Asked last night if he had carried a sub-machinegun, Mr McGuinness replied: "No." He added that the Saville report "fully pointed the finger of blame for what happened directly at the British Parachute Regiment".
Decisions on whether to prosecute soldiers – or indeed Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister – have yet to be taken. Those giving evidence at the Saville inquiry had immunity against self-incrimination, but it is possible for evidence given by others to be used against them.
Last night the Northern Ireland DPP, Sir Alasdair Fraser, said it was not practical to say when such decisions would be taken but they would be considered "as expeditiously as possible". He is to have talks with Chief Constable Matt Baggott.
Opinion among Bloody Sunday relatives seems divided, some insisting that charges of murder should be brought against troops. It will take some time for a clear view to emerge from this quarter, given yesterday's atmosphere of celebration and vindication. Some may feel that the declarations of innocence are the most important thing for their long campaign, while others may seek to press ahead along legal routes.
Unionist opinion, which has never approved of the Saville inquiry, yesterday meanwhile criticised the costs of the investigation, which amounted to almost £200m. Gregory Campbell, Democratic Unionist MP for East Londonderry, said: "People will be glad that this sorry saga of a report is finally over and done with.
"I want to place on record our thanks and appreciation to the entire Army for the role they played in defeating terrorism and bringing peace and stability to Northern Ireland."
David Cameron's apology was endorsed by Chief of the General Staff General Sir David Richards, who said: "The report leaves me in no doubt that serious mistakes and failings by officers and soldiers on that terrible day led to the deaths of 13 civilians who did nothing that could have justified their shooting."
Tony Clarke, a one-time paratrooper, was critical of former comrades, saying: "Members of 1 Parachute Regiment deployed on Bloody Sunday damaged the reputation of those who served with honour. I am glad that the truth is out and glad for the families who waited for so long."
Colonel Richard Kemp, who served in Northern Ireland, said: "I think it's tragic it has taken so long for the truth to come out for the relatives and the soldiers."
Stephen Pollard, a solicitor representing the soldiers, said Saville did not have the justification for his findings and accused him of "cherry-picking the evidence." He added: "There is just as much evidence for the opposite conclusion."
By contrast Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen declared: "Today is the day when the truth has been set free in the city of Derry. This is not about the re-opening of old wounds, but rather it is about the healing of the gaping wounds of injustice left behind by the terrible events of Bloody Sunday." He commended "the brave and honest words of David Cameron" which, he said, "would echo around the world".
The inquiry: The Saville report: our executive summary
* The firing by soldiers of the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment caused the deaths of 13 people and injured a similar number, "none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury". The report added: "We found no instances where it appeared to us that soldiers either were or might have been justified in firing."
* Despite evidence to the contrary given by soldiers to the inquiry, Saville concluded that none of them fired in response to attacks or threatened attacks by nail or petrol bombers. The report added that no one threw, or threatened to throw, nail or petrol bombs at soldiers.
* Saville found that a number of soldiers had "knowingly put forward false accounts" of what happened on the day to the inquiry. However, he said this did not imply that they had intended the shooting at the outset – rather the accounts were attempts to mitigate what eventually had happened.
* Members of the so-called Official IRA fired a shot at troops, but missed their target, though crucially it was concluded it was the Paratroopers who shot first on Bloody Sunday.
* The report recounts how some soldiers had their weapons cocked in contravention of guidelines, and that no warnings were issued by Paratroopers who opened fire.
* Speculation that unknown IRA gunmen had been wounded or killed by troops, and their bodies spirited away, is also dismissed. There was no evidence to support it, and it would surely have come to light, the report said.
* Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, second in command of the Provisional IRA in Derry in 1972, was "probably armed with a Thompson submachine gun" at one point in the day, and though it is possible he fired the weapon, this cannot be proved. But the report concluded: "He did not engage in any activity that provided any of the soldiers with any justification for opening fire."
* Nail bombs had been found in the pockets of 17-year-old Gerald Donaghey, sparking claims they were planted by security forces. The report concludes the nail bombs were "probably" in his possession when he was shot, but adds: "However, we are sure that Gerald Donaghey was not preparing or attempting to throw a nail bomb when he was shot; and we are equally sure that he was not shot because of his possession of nail bombs. He was shot while trying to escape from soldiers."
* Lord Saville concluded the commander of land forces in Northern Ireland, Major General Robert Ford, would have been aware that the Parachute Regiment had a reputation for using excessive force. But he would not have believed there was a risk of Paratroopers firing unjustifiably.
* The commanding officer of the Paratroopers, Lt-Colonel Derek Wilford, disobeyed an order from a superior officer not to send troops into the nationalist Bogside estate; while Lord Saville found his superior, Brigadier Patrick MacLellan, held no blame for the shootings since if he had known what Colonel Wilford was intending, he might well have called it off.
* No blame was placed on the organisers of the march, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.
* Neither the UK nor Northern Ireland governments planned or foresaw the use of unnecessary lethal force.
* Saville said the organisers of the march bore no responsibility for the deaths. March organisers must have realised there was going to be trouble, but had no reason to believe and did not believe this was likely to result in death or injury from unjustified firing.
... and what Widgery said in his 1972 report
* There would have been no deaths if those who organised the illegal march had not created a highly dangerous situation in which a clash between demonstrators and the security forces was almost inevitable.
* There is no reason to suppose that the soldiers would have opened fire if they had not been fired upon first.
* There is a strong suspicion that some (of the deceased or wounded) had been firing weapons or handling bombs in the course of the afternoon.
* There was no general breakdown in discipline.