Londonderry (Northern Ireland): The British soldiers who killed 13 Catholic demonstrators in Northern Ireland during "Bloody Sunday" nearly four decades ago committed "unjustified and unjustifiable" killings of unarmed and innocent victims and then lied about it, a fact-finding investigation concluded Tuesday after a 12-year hunt for the truth.
More than 1,000 Londonderry residents applauded, hugged and cried outside city hall as the long-awaited verdict was announced live on a huge television screen. They had campaigned for 38 years for the victims — originally branded as Irish Republican
Army bombers and gunmen — to have their good names restored and the guilt of the soldiers proved beyond doubt.
"Unjustified and unjustifiable. Those are the words we`ve been waiting to hear since January the 30th of 1972," Tony Doherty, the son of one Bloody Sunday victim, told the crowd to cheers. He was one of dozens of relatives who took turns declaring the innocence of lost loved ones to the crowd as the TV screen displayed black-and-white portraits of each of the 13 dead and 15 wounded.
"The victims of Bloody Sunday have been vindicated, and the soldiers of the Parachute Regiment have been disgraced. Their medals of honor have to be removed!" Doherty declared to more cheers.
In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron said the investigation — based on evidence from 921 witnesses, 2,500 written statements and 60 volumes of written evidence — demonstrated that the soldiers` shooting into the crowd protesting the internment without trial of IRA suspects was "both unjustified and unjustifiable."
Cameron apologized on behalf of the British government, and summarized the findings of English judge Lord Saville: The soldiers never should have been ordered to confront the protesters, they fired the first shots and targeted unarmed people who were clearly fleeing or aiding the helpless wounded. None of those killed or wounded that day in Londonderry had posed a threat to the soldiers, Saville concluded.
The report did find that the youngest fatal victim, 17-year-old Gerald Donaghey, was a junior IRA member who was carrying four homemade grenades, called nail bombs, in his pockets — but was running away when shot and posed no risk to soldiers.
Bloody Sunday justice campaigners long had claimed that the nail bombs, photographed inside the pockets of Donaghey`s jacket at an army morgue, had been planted by soldiers trying to justify their shooting.
The Bloody Sunday Inquiry, authorized by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998 in the run-up to the negotiation of the Good Friday peace accord that year, was originally budgeted to cost 11 million pounds and report findings by 2002.
Instead, the final bill was estimated at nearly 200 million pounds ($290 million) — making it the longest and most expensive inquiry in British legal history. Cameron said Britain would never attempt anything like it again.
But the British, Irish and US governments welcomed the findings as priceless to heal one of the gaping wounds left from Northern Ireland`s four-decade conflict that left 3,700 dead.
"From this day forth, history will record what the families have always known to be true. ... They were innocent," Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen said in Dublin.
"It is our hope that the scale of the inquiry, the quantity of material available, and its findings will contribute to greater understanding and reconciliation of what happened on that tragic day," US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in Washington.
Saville said Bloody Sunday represented a watershed event in the conflict, driving 1972 to be the conflict`s deadliest year, with more than 470 dead.
"What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased (Irish) nationalist resentment and hostility towards the army, and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed. Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland," Saville said.
The judge took evidence from former British government officials, the soldiers who opened fire that day, and IRA members involved in the protest. He ruled that a few IRA men did come armed to the demonstration, but the soldiers fired the shots that started the one-sided bloodbath.
The No. 2 army officer on the scene on Bloody Sunday, retired Gen. Sir Mike Jackson, offered what he called a "fulsome apology" — but described the killings as an exceptional aberration.
"Over the 38 years of the army`s operational deployment in the province, the vast majority of the some 250,000 soldiers who served there behaved admirably, often in the face of severe provocation, and with the loss of several hundred lives and over 6,000 wounded," said Jackson, who was a captain and second in command of the Parachute Regiment`s 1st Battalion in 1972. He did not fire shots that day.
Saville gave the paratroopers broad protections from criminal charges as well as anonymity in the witness box, citing the risk that IRA dissidents might target them in retaliation. But some legal experts said wiggle room remains for prosecutions and, more likely, civil lawsuits against retired soldiers now in their 60s and 70s, particularly because some ex-soldiers were found to have told lies to Saville.
Saville`s findings declared that several soldiers who opened fire concocted cover stories to justify their shooting of unarmed people in the back. But he cautioned that the inquiry`s evidence could not be used "to incriminate that witness in any later criminal proceedings."
"This does not rule out the possibility of future criminal proceedings against an individual, but only means that their own evidence to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry cannot be used against them," Saville wrote.
The original 1972 investigation by another English judge, Lord Widgery, took barely two months to produce a 39-page report that chided soldiers for gunfire that "bordered on the reckless." But Widgery accepted soldiers` claims that they had been responding to IRA attacks, and said he suspected — despite any solid forensic or witness evidence beyond the soldiers` claims— that some of those killed "had been firing weapons or handling bombs in the course of the afternoon."
Several IRA witnesses — including former IRA commander Martin McGuinness, now the senior Catholic in Northern Ireland`s power-sharing government — had testified to Saville that their members were unarmed and did not shoot at troops.
Saville concluded, however, that McGuinness was probably carrying a submachine gun during Bloody Sunday, based on other witnesses` testimony.
The judge said no evidence existed to suggest that McGuinness had used the gun in a manner "that provided any of the soldiers with any justification for opening fire."
But analysts said the finding — contradicting McGuinness` sworn testimony that he was unarmed — appeared likely to stir tensions between McGuinness and Protestants in the 3-year-old coalition, the centerpiece of the Good Friday peace deal.
McGuinness said Saville had "used words like `probable` and `possible`" when describing his alleged carrying of the gun. And he rejected the charge. "I am absolutely denying that," he said.