The Saville report and David Cameron's response to it represent honourable attempts to put right things which went grievously and fatally wrong almost four decades ago. Bloody Sunday should never have happened, and Lord Chief Justice Lord Widgery should never have professed to believe that the soldiers involved told him the truth. He should not have implied that some of the dead were active terrorists.
Saville's efforts have been criticised because his proceedings took so long and cost so much. Everyone can think of far, far better uses to which £200m could have been put, especially at this time of severe economic difficulty. But the truly spectacular cost overruns should not obscure the fact that this is an impressive piece of work with a ring of truth to it and with much potential to improve the standing of justice.
It was done with a degree of thoroughness which we shall not see again, for there is practically universal agreement that future investigations must take a more cost-effective form. New regulations to achieve this have already been put in place. The Saville report had to be thorough because Lord Widgery's was not. Widgery's was hurried and slanted; it verged on the dishonest; its purpose, now painfully obvious, was not the pursuit of the facts but the protection of erring troops. There was much conflict going on at the time; Derry's Bogside had a strong republican presence; Martin McGuinness's IRA unit had proved highly proficient at shooting and bombing. Paratroopers going into the area had every reason to be apprehensive about being sent into an unfamiliar war zone.
Yet within a short time of the incident it was clear that this had not been a two-way firefight but a one-way shooting gallery. The Widgery report, which was an attempt to disguise this, persuaded few otherwise. If the authorities had taken the pain back in 1972, the relatives would have been spared a great deal. So would Britain, in terms of its national image and indeed in terms of money. The Widgery report shows what can happen when truth is not told. The evident integrity of Saville's report does much to put things right. His criticisms concentrate on the soldiers who pulled the triggers, together with reproaches for some of their commanders. This was not the only time that Paras acted in a particularly aggressive way: sometimes they seemed to have a different ethos to other regiments.
Saville was right not to strive for a synthetic balance in which the marchers might have been equated with the Paras, for in this case there was no equivalence of belligerence. At the same time it was found that there were some illegal guns around. The most politically significant of these is a sub-machine gun which Saville concluded was probably in the hands of Martin McGuinness, today Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.
Saville is sure, however, that nothing the Deputy First Minister did provided soldiers with justification for opening fire. It now falls to the Northern Ireland DPP to consider whether any prosecutions should follow. It would be best if he decides to let matters rest, and avoids wearisome legal proceedings which might well not result in convictions. The Saville report cleared the dead of Bloody Sunday and said that what the Paras did was unjustified. It stated this with complete clarity, as did the Prime Minister, who in the Commons commendably sought no refuge in ambiguity. It should suffice if dignified expressions of regret are voiced, healing efforts made and perhaps compensation offered. This was never about money, of course: it was about justice and truth and about the crusade of the relatives to have those who were shot declared innocent. Since these are finally on offer, a start can be made to consigning Bloody Sunday to history.