The final judgement of the Saville inquiry into the deaths of 14 people on Bloody Sunday took me back to a day in the summer of 1994.
I was sitting in the front room of John Kelly, the brother of Michael, 17 when gunned down by the paratroopers on 30 January 1972.
John and the whole Kelly family wanted justice for Michael. It was 22 years since that horrific day but the family remained almost in a time warp unable to grieve or move on because justice had been denied them. Michael’s picture hung on the wall, a memory of a life destroyed.
Later I met with other relatives of the Bloody Sunday victims at the Pat Finucane Centre in Derry. They all had similar stories to tell of loved ones lost and the need to attain truth and justice before they could move on.
The declared aims of the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign at the time were that the British government admit that all those killed were innocent, that the Widgery Inquiry report be repudiated and that those responsible for the murders be brought to justice.
The relatives though were a long way from attaining those aims. Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford, the officers commanding 1 Para on Bloody Sunday, had recently bragged that “quite honestly I owned the Bogside in military terms. I occupied it.” The one admission that the campaign had attained came in a letter from then Prime Minister John Major to SDLP leader John Hume that the victims “should be regarded as innocent of allegations that they were shot whilst handling firearms or explosives.”
The marches continued through the London streets every January to mark the atrocity of Bloody Sunday with similar events taking place in Derry every year. The relatives continued to represent their case to ministers in the North and London. Media interest ebbed and flowed. Channel 4 News did some good revelatory investigations. Derry based journalist Eamonn McCann produced his excellent book Bloody Sunday in Derry. Then came Don Mullan’s Eyewitness Bloody Sunday and the films followed. The pressure was building at the same time as the peace process was gaining momentum. It was made clear to Tony Blair by the Irish government that Bloody Sunday remained a road block on the path to peace process.
For many in the North, Bloody Sunday had become symbolic of the whole Troubles period. The protest had been organised by the civil rights movement against internment. It drew on the peaceful protest of other similar movements in America and beyond. The brutal actions of the army on that day in murdering 14 civilians effectively marked the end of peaceful protest. As has been well documented, in the days that followed Bloody Sunday young men were queuing up to join the IRA. The conflict was to last another 25 years, claiming 3,500 lives.
The big breakthrough for the relatives came when in 1998 as part of the choreography for the Good Friday Agreement, Prime Minister Tony Blair set up the Bloody Sunday inquiry to be led by Lord Mark Saville.
The inquiry initially took evidence in Derry, then moved to London because the soldiers were concerned for their safety in the North. John Kelly and the other relatives attended Westminster Central Hall over the period of a year, when the inquiry took the soldier’s evidence and that of a number of politicians, including Edward Heath, the Prime Minister at the time of Bloody Sunday.
The relatives at this time struggled, juggling jobs and home life as they shuttled between London and Belfast to hear the testimonies of those who killed their loved ones. The Irish community in London did much to support the relatives at this time.
I met John Kelly again at Westminster Central Hall when he heard testimony from Solider F who shot dead Michael. It was a difficult day but John felt better for at last having heard and seen the man who killed his brother.
That was all some years ago. The relatives have been kept waiting a long time to learn the findings of Lord Saville and his fellow judges. At last on 15 June the report was published. The blame was laid fully at the door of the British army. Soldiers were judged to have shot down innocent civilians. Some were said to have lied to the inquiry. The Widgery Inquiry, set up after Bloody Sunday, and widely regarded as a whitewash was totally repudiated. The British government accepted responsibility for the killing of its own citizens by its employees. Prime Minister David Cameron apologised, expressing his deep sorrow and declaring the killings to be “unjustified and unjustifiable.” Effectively, the demands of the Bloody Sunday Justice campaign had been achieved. The one question remaining was whether those responsible for the killings had been brought to justice. Some relatives want to see the soldiers concerned in the dock, prosecuted for the crime of murder. For others the findings of Lord Saville have so comprehensively put the blame on the army and repudiated the victims that they feel enough is enough.It has been a long hard struggle for the relatives of those who died on Bloody Sunday but at last they have achieved justice and truth. The question is where next? It has been suggested that some sort of truth and reconciliation process maybe needed on a wider scale. This no doubt would help the healing process but needs to be handled very carefully, with different groups all too willing to adopt their own hierarchies of suffering. Only time will tell, but for the meantime all credit has to go to the relatives who campaigned so long for justice – their success is something that people in struggle everywhere should share.