It led to 1972 becoming the worst year for deaths – 479 – during the three decades of the Troubles.
Northern Ireland fell close to full-scale civil war, and many in the British establishment privately concluded that the province was ungovernable, the only solution for a united Ireland.
Still today, with the suspension of devolved government at Stormont and the re-emergence of low-level “IRA” activity as the Brexit crisis jeopardises the Good Friday Agreement, the sectarian shocks are still reverberating. Bloody Sunday is not over yet.
Two public inquiries and countless campaigns, parliamentary questioning and journalistic investigations later, the families feel that they have no justice.
Even the first official report into the affair, by Lord Widgery, which was widely regarded as a whitewash, said the soldiers’ behaviour was “bordering on the reckless”.
The later, more thorough, Saville report went much further, indicating how individual British troops had been responsible for specific injuries and deaths, with varying degrees of probability. It stated: “No one threw or threatened to throw a nail or petrol bomb at the soldiers on Bloody Sunday.”
Now one soldier will be prosecuted. The authorities have found “insufficient” evidence about the others. The families are disappointed – and understandably so. It seems disproportionate to the scale of what may be fairly described as an atrocity, and short of what was reasonably expected after the findings of fact in the Saville inquiry.
The armed forces are asked to make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of the country, and war is a messy and confusing business. There has been much sympathy in some quarters for the aged ex-soldiers who have had to account for their actions. Very well; they can make their case for mitigation in court.
The prime minister said recently it is “unfair” that the ex-soldiers are being pursued while terrorists have been released. Yet those attacked on that Sunday in January 1972 were not terrorists.
There can never be any justification for attacks on innocent civilians, whether in Northern Ireland or in subsequent engagements in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
Like any other crime, there can be no “statute of limitations” when it comes to justice.
The Saville inquiry’s findings are clear, and it is worth recalling the plain speaking of Theresa May's predecessor, David Cameron: “There is no doubt, there is nothing equivocal, there are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong”.
The quest for justice continues.
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