Nearly 40 years after British soldiers shocked the world by shooting to death 14 protesters in Northern Ireland, an official investigation concluded Tuesday that the demonstrators posed no threat and that the killings were completely unjustified.
The massacre on the streets of Londonderry on Jan. 30, 1972, was seared into the British and Irish consciousness as Bloody Sunday and marked one of the most important turning points in the conflict in the British province of Northern Ireland. The incident radicalized Roman Catholic republican activists and ratcheted up the level of sectarian violence in “the Troubles,” which ultimately claimed more than 3,000 lives.
Tuesday’s long-awaited report overturned a government inquiry conducted immediately after the shootings, which acknowledged that the security forces’ actions might have “bordered on the reckless” but alleged that the victims had been armed with guns and homemade bombs.
The new investigation rejected that accusation and harshly condemned paratroopers for using excessive force. The report says the soldiers opened fire without provocation, gave the protesters no warning, shot people who were clearly fleeing and afterward lied to investigators about the incident.
The report stops short of labeling the deaths state-sanctioned murder, and under the terms of the investigation, it will be difficult to mount criminal prosecutions of the soldiers involved.
But relatives of the victims were jubilant over finally having their loved ones’ names cleared and the circumstances of their deaths officially recognized. They ripped up copies of the previous government investigation and shouted “Innocent!” to hundreds of cheering supporters in Londonderry who retraced the steps of the 1972 march.
“The victims of Bloody Sunday have been vindicated, and the parachute regiment has been disgraced. Their medals of honor have to be removed,” said Tony Doherty, whose father, Patrick, was killed while trying to crawl to safety. “The truth has been brought home at last.”
It took far longer and cost much more than anyone ever expected. The investigation was commissioned by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998 as part of the peace process that eventually resulted in today’s power-sharing government in Northern Ireland.
What was supposed to take two years turned into the longest-running and most expensive legal inquiry in British history, lasting 12 years and costing taxpayers a staggering $280 million. More than 900 witnesses were called, and the exhaustive report issued Tuesday weighs in at about 5,000 pages.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who was not even a member of Parliament when the investigation was commissioned, said he accepted its “shocking conclusions” and issued an official apology that many in Londonderry had waited 38 years to hear.
“What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable.… There is no point in trying to soften or equivocate what is in this report,” Cameron told an unusually hushed House of Commons. “On behalf of the government, and indeed our country, I am deeply sorry.”
It was a sensitive moment for the newly minted Conservative prime minister.
In office only a month, Cameron sought to condemn what happened on Bloody Sunday without alienating the military or unionists in Northern Ireland who call it unfair to focus so much on one event in which Catholic protesters died, to the exclusion of the violent deaths of Protestant loyalists and British soldiers.
Cameron was forthright in his criticism of the shootings but did not call for the prosecutions that some victims’ families want. He also noted that the investigation found no evidence of any premeditation or conspiracy on the part of senior government officials or military leaders at the time.
“I am deeply patriotic. I never want to believe anything bad about our country,” Cameron said. “But … you do not defend the British army by defending the indefensible.”
A lawyer for the soldiers involved contested the report’s findings as unsupported by the evidence but did not say whether his clients would take any action.
Gen. David Richards, the army’s chief of general staff, echoed Cameron’s apology and said that “lessons have been learned.”
Many historians believe the slaughter in Londonderry spelled the death of the nonviolent movement for civil rights in Northern Ireland by hardening nationalist sentiment and galvanizing young activists, who joined militant groups such as the Irish Republican Army. Thirteen people lay dead before Bloody Sunday was over; another victim died in a hospital a few months later.
It would be 26 more years before the Good Friday agreement in 1998 formally ended the armed conflict.
“Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland,” the report says.
The events of that day became the subject of a protest anthem by the Irish rock band U2 and a critically acclaimed movie by British director Paul Greengrass.
One of the most enduring images of footage of the massacre showed a priest waving a bloody handkerchief to keep soldiers from shooting at protesters who were carrying away the body of a mortally wounded teenager.
The priest, Edward Daly, who is now retired, on Tuesday told the BBC in Londonderry that the new report had given him “a sense of enormous relief that this burden has been lifted from my shoulders and off the shoulders of the people of this city. It’s wonderful when the truth emerges.”