The Bloody Sunday inquiry promised to give bereaved families closure. They're no closer to achieving it today
Now that one former soldier involved in the killings has been charged, it’s clear there’s still a long way to go before those involved will feel like justice has been served
The historic inquiry into the Bloody Sunday killings, one of the most violent, emotive and painful episodes of recent British history, began in March 2000, with a public promise that the truth shall be sought whatever the political consequences.
Lord Saville of Newdigate’s investigation, seeking to answer how and why 13 civilians were shot dead by paratroopers on the streets of Derry, was then the biggest in British legal history and hugely controversial; it reopened old wounds and rekindled memories of a violent time when a part of the United Kingdom was effectively in a state of war.
Many prominent Conservative and Unionist politicians as well as senior army officers saw the tribunal, 28 years later, as a betrayal of the armed forces and pandering to republicans.
An inquiry by Lord Widgery soon after the 1972 shooting exonerated the British army. Many Irish nationalists, for their part, believed that the new hearing, too, would end in a whitewash.
I covered that inquiry, which turned the Guildhall in Derry into one of the most high-tech courts in the world, filled with television screens and equipment for the sound system. Among the innovations was a virtual reality model of the Bogside the way it had been on that fateful day.
There were 70 lawyers, among them some of the most eminent QCs in the land. Friends and relations of those killed on Bloody Sunday all sat on one side of the Guildhall. Unlike the rest of the court, not one of them rose when the judges entered. This, after all, was “Free Derry”.
After 116 days and 600 hours of evidence, at a cost of £200m, Lord Saville’s 5,000-page report concluded that none of the casualties was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury to the British soldiers and, damningly, that some of the paratroopers had lost their self-control.
David Cameron, prime minister at the time, made a public apology and a police investigation was launched. Police eventually sent a file, 125,000 pages long, to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) in November 2016.
That report has resulted in the decision today to charge a former soldier with two counts of murder and four of attempted murder. The PPS said there was enough evidence to prosecute this “Soldier F” for the murders of James Wray and William McKinney. He also faces charges for the attempted murders of Patrick O’Donnell, Joseph Friel, Joe Mahon and Michael Quinn.
The PPS said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute 16 other soldiers and two Official IRA men who were also allegedly involved in the bursts of shooting that day.
The decision brought to the surface, once again, the deep divisions over what had happened.
Stephen Herron, director of the PPS, acknowledged: “It has been a long road for the families ... and today will be another extremely difficult day for many of them. We wanted to meet them personally to explain the decisions taken and to help them understand the reasons.”
Herron continued that the decisions to prosecute “relate only to allegations of criminal conduct on Bloody Sunday itself”.
“Consideration will now be given to allegations of perjury in respect of those suspects reported by police,” he said.
But James Wray’s brother Liam said that he was “very saddened for the other families” of those killed on Bloody Sunday. “There are a lot of sad and heartbroken people today. It has been a sad day but the Wray family are relieved,” he added.
For those of us covering the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the legacy of Bloody Sunday was only too clear to see. The bereaved families who we spoke to wanted justice. Their mood was not vengeful, but they held the belief that those deemed responsible must be brought before a court.
But there is great bitterness among many in the British military about what has happened. Some of the paratroopers who were there that day gave vivid descriptions of the confusion and the threat they perceived they were under.
They also expressed anger that while those convicted of terrorist offences – republican and loyalist – were freed under the Good Friday Agreement and, indeed, some went on to pursue successful careers in politics, old soldiers now faced the possibility of spending their remaining years behind bars.
Sitting outside the Maze prison with other journalists and seeing the prisoners, some convicted of mass murder, come out grinning and with fists pumping, one can understand that anger. However, one also has to accept that prison releases were one of the key conditions of the Good Friday Agreement which, apart from sporadic acts by dissident republican groups, has held until now.
The sense of persecution in the forces has been reinforced by the prosecutions brought over operations in Afghanistan and Iraq – the latter a war that many in the military felt deep unease over.
Most of these have ended in acquittals, and questions have been raised over the charges. Phil Shiner, a solicitor who was prolific in bringing cases on behalf of Iraqi clients, was struck off the roll of solicitors two years ago over misconduct relating to false claims of abuse against British troops.
There are moves to restrict the scope for prosecution of military personnel, past and present.
The defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, wants a time limit on charges.
He said today: “We are indebted to those soldiers who served with courage and distinction to bring peace to Northern Ireland.
“The welfare of our former service personnel is of the utmost importance... the Ministry of Defence is working across government to drive through a new package of safeguards to ensure our armed forces are not unfairly treated.
And the government will urgently reform the system for dealing with legacy issues. Our serving and former personnel cannot live in constant fear of prosecution.”
Any such move, however, will be deeply contentious and undoubtedly lead to protests. The Bloody Sunday inquiry, it was said during the opening all those years ago, would lead to a sense of closure for that painful day. That prospect, with the latest development, seems far away.