The shooting lasted less than 10 minutes. But the events of Bloody Sundaywhich took place 50 years ago this weekend, would go down in history as one of the worst atrocities in Northern Ireland’s three decades of problems – and would change the whole course of the conflict.
When the British Parachute Regiment took to the streets of London, also known as Derry, on 30 January 1972, the red beret-carrying force was supposed to be on hand in the event of a civil rights march against a new policy of arresting suspected nationalists and internment they became ugly without trial.
Instead, soldiers in the British-controlled region indiscriminately opened fire on the crowd, firing more than 100 shots and killing 13 men and teenagers; a 14th victim later died of his injuries.
Nearly a quarter of a century since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which put an end to the conflict between Republicans fighting for a united Ireland and loyalists struggling to keep Northern Ireland British, the commemoration is particularly moving.
It comes as London pushes ahead with a planned amnesty for all crimes in the Troubles era, which protects security forces as well as paramilitaries on both sides from persecution. The move united union members, nationalists and politicians in opposition, similar to the protest that this week greeted the waving flags of the Parachute Regiment in some parts of Derry.
However, the relatives of Bloody Sunday victims are still fighting for prosecution. Many of their family members were shot in the back as they fled. One man was mowed down by a soldier while he was already on the ground. Another was shot in the head after he went to the aid of a dying man and said, “If I take a white hanky and go out, they will not shoot me.”
“I honestly believed they enjoyed every second of that day,” said John Kelly, who helped his 17-year-old brother Michael in an ambulance after he was fatally shot. “They also knew they would be protected.”
The atrocity was whitewashed in the first official investigation in April 1972, which concluded that some “bordered on the reckless”, but that paratroopers were “shot first”. It took a further 38 years for a new investigation to release the victims and for then-Prime Minister David Cameron to tell parliament in 2010 the shootings “should never, ever have happened. . . I am deeply sorry ”.
“There are so many, many people [in Northern Ireland] who can not just draw a line and forget, ”says Maeve McLaughlin, manager of the Bloody Sunday Trust, which was set up on the 25th anniversary of the atrocity to support family members in their quest for justice.
She called the amnesty plans “shameful”. “For so many families, it’s about putting the truth there, about allowing the truth to be told,” she added.
Molly Carson, project manager at Families Acting for Innocent Relatives, a group representing victims of atrocities perpetrated by the nationalist paramilitary Irish Republican Army, said some family members and survivors believe official British letters issued to suspected IRA members after the Good Friday agreement that told them they would not be prosecuted meant that “in a way the government has already offered those IRA members an amnesty”.
She added: “BURDLY victims do not want to see the perpetrators of heinous crimes on an equal footing with police officers or soldiers trying to keep peace in a time of unrest and chaos in Northern Ireland.”
Conservative MP Sir Mike Penning, who served in Northern Ireland, appealed to the government to expedite its implementation of the amnesty, which the government describes as a “prescription”. “We must have no delay. . . to come to a conclusion on this so that veterans. . . “they can live their lives in peace, rather than in fear of being dragged before the courts,” he told parliament this week.
Northern Ireland’s Foreign Secretary Brandon Lewis insists the government’s amnesty plans are meant to “move things forward” and ensure people have access to the truth. The government hopes to introduce legislation ahead of the region’s elections in May.
“People should not wait decades for information,” he told Westminster. The government argues that there is a declining prospect of successful prosecution as the years go by. “[We] must be honest with people about what is achievable and the reality of what we can do, ”Lewis added.
However, Colin Harvey, a professor of human rights law at Queen’s University Belfast, described the government’s approach to amnesty as “extremely reckless and irresponsible” and said it was “essential that we never forget where this society came from and the legacy of the conflict and what happened here ”.
Kelly said he could still see his younger brother’s face while seeking help for him, adding: “I remember every second”. He fears that the government’s plans “are about protecting soldiers, it’s as simple as that”.
The Bloody Sunday march in 1972 culminated in the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, in a city whose majority of Catholics were crammed into inadequate housing and were mostly denied the right to vote because only taxpayers were allowed to vote.
In August 1969, British troops were deployed to Northern Ireland after three days of rioting in Derry, known as the Battle of the Bogside. In August 1971, while soldiers were trying to crush the IRA by gathering suspected nationalists and imprisoning them without trial, the Parachute Regiment nine people shot dead in Ballymurphy in Belfast.
Many saw that incident as a trigger for a tragic chain of events that strengthened support for and recruitment in the IRA. Like Bloody Sunday, Ballymurphy was initially reported by the British military as an IRA shootout and the victims were only declared “all innocent of any offense” in May last year.
None of the soldiers involved in any of the incidents were prosecuted and last July Northern Irish authorities dropped the prosecution of the only British soldier charged with the Bloody Sunday murders, and believes it would not be possible to secure a conviction.
Some believe that too much time has passed for perpetrators of atrocities in the troubled era – whether security forces, the IRA or loyalist paramilitary groups – to be placed behind bars.
“We have to put an end to this somehow,” said one Derry official who asked not to be named. “Very few people still want to see people go to jail. There is nothing to win. ” He added that if convictions could be assured “it is a punishment in itself”.
Additional post by George Parker in London