It is most unlikely that the Saville Report, published yesterday, will draw a line under Bloody Sunday. In the House of Commons discussion of the report, Harriet Harman claimed that it spoke for itself, but running to more than 5,000 pages and 10 volumes, it would seem more likely that it will unleash a sadly predictable reaction from many quarters, who will find sufficient in its findings to justify the flogging of traditional hobby horses.
David Cameron's summation can't be expected to be congenial to many of those who have expended much time and effort to establish a premeditated plan by senior politicians and members of the armed forces to shoot rioters on 30 January 1972. His statement that the report established that neither the UK and Northern Ireland governments nor the Army countenanced the use of illegal force is a direct challenge to the self-justificatory narrative of Sinn Fein. And the finding that Martin McGuinness was probably in possession of a sub-machine gun on the day – although it was not used – is a reminder of the common IRA practice of using rioters as cover for deadly attacks on the Army.
Saville's clarity on the innocence of those killed and his forthright criticisms of the soldiers in the Support Company who ignored their training and discipline in opening fire will do something to address the demands of the families of the victims, as will the Prime Minister's apology yesterday. But the fact that the report does not use the terms "murder" or "unlawful killing" will disappoint some of the families.
Bloody Sunday is now commonly referred to as a tragedy for the city as well as the families, and in the sense that the action of the soldiers accelerated the descent into violence which was to make 1972 the bloodiest year of the Troubles, with 497 deaths, that is undoubtedly true. But at the time and since, it has not been experienced as a common tragedy.
Many Protestants accepted the Widgery report and blamed the marchers and the victims. Yesterday BBC Northern Ireland interviewed one of the few Protestants to turn up for the reception of the report in Derry's Guild Square. She told the interviewer she had not wanted to be there but felt an obligation to witness it on behalf of Protestant victims of IRA violence. She still bears the scars of a no-warning car bomb placed in the Londonderry village of Claudy by the IRA on 31 July 1972 in which nine people died. As she pointed out, these deaths were largely forgotten and she was typical of many Protestants who feel Saville represented a massively costly investment in the creation of a hierarchy of victims.
I was 24 at the time of Bloody Sunday. As an undergraduate at Queen's University Belfast, I had participated in the marches that marked the beginning of the civil rights movement. By 1972, as a postgraduate in England but with an active political interest in unfolding events in Northern Ireland, I had witnessed the pace of events being increasingly determined by intensifying communal strife and paramilitary violence.
On the day of the march I was over to visit my mother and watched the unfolding tragedy on her TV. I still vividly remember the profound shock I felt as the first shots were fired and then the mounting toll of deaths was broadcast. It is clear, despite an almost ritualised history of confrontations between a hard core of "Derry Young Hooligans" and the Army, that many of the thousands who attended the march were also totally unprepared for more than the usual aggravation.
By the beginning of 1972 it was obvious that the future of the Unionist government of Brian Faulkner was hanging by a thread as the British Prime Minister, Edward Heath, and his closest colleagues considered a radical initiative to counteract the massive Catholic alienation from the state that had been produced by the introduction of internment without trial the previous August. The abolition of Stormont and the introduction of direct rule from London were on the cards before a shot was fired on Bloody Sunday, and although the deaths accelerated its introduction they also served to undermine the positive effects in ending Catholic alienation which had been hoped for. They gave a major fillip to recruitment for both the Official and Provisional IRA.
But the intensity of attacks of the Provisional IRA had been increasing markedly in the weeks leading up to the march. Three days before the march, the Derry Provisionals had shot dead RUC Sergeant Peter Gilgunn, a 26-year-old Catholic father of one, and David Montgomery, a 20-year-old Protestant. They were the first policemen to be killed in the city during the Troubles. The Provisionals' bombing campaign had reduced much of the city centre to a building site. The two main working-class areas in the city, the Bogside and the Creggan, had become effective "no-go" areas for the security forces.
Despite this, the Cabinet's Northern Ireland committee had noted at a meeting on 5 January 1972 that Lord Carrington, the Defence Secretary, had stated that "the Bogside and the Creggan should only be entered by troops on specific information and for a minimum of routine patrolling".
This was indicative of the policy of Army restraint which had been followed in Derry from the weeks after internment until Bloody Sunday and which had been criticised by local traders and unionist politicians. The reasons why this was brutally set aside by the Paratroops was one of the central issues which Lord Saville and his colleagues had to address, together with the truth or otherwise of the belief, strongly held by nationalist Ireland, that the responsibility for the deaths extends to the highest level of the British state.
The British and Northern Irish governments still face the daunting challenge of how to avoid Northern Ireland being constantly dragged back into competitive and divisive struggles over victimhood. The Eames-Bradley report on dealing with the past itself became something to be squabbled over. Yesterday David Cameron ruled out more open-ended and costly enquiries. Some way of addressing the multitude of victims of the Troubles still needs to found.
Henry Patterson is Professor of Politics at the University of UlsterReuse content