The British government, in an effort to provide a boost to the Northern Ireland peace talks, announced Thursday a new judicial inquiry into the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” killings in which British paratroopers shot dead 14 Roman Catholic demonstrators in Londonderry.
Speaking a day before the anniversary of the killings, Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons that three judges, two of whom likely will be from countries of the British Commonwealth, would conduct the probe, with full powers to subpoena documents and witnesses. The decision reversed a 26-year position held by British governments that no further investigation was needed.
“Bloody Sunday was a tragic day for all concerned,” Blair said. “We must all wish it had never happened. Our concern now is simply to establish the truth and close this painful chapter once and for all.”
Blair stopped short of apologizing for the killings. British officials said any such move would await completion of the inquiry. But Blair’s announcement helped address many of the concerns of Northern Ireland’s Catholics who have insisted the original investigation was a whitewash.
No one was prosecuted for the shootings, which the British government has maintained were triggered by gunmen firing on the troops. Catholic witnesses accused the soldiers of firing in an unprovoked attack. British officials said decisions on whether prosecutions might now occur would be up to the tribunal.
Officials said the inquiry is intended as a “confidence-building” measure to further progress in the all-party peace talks that began last year, and which in recent weeks have lurched from crisis to crisis.
It follows public pressure from the Irish government and an almost nonstop campaign since 1972 by families of the victims, some of whom were watching from the gallery in the as Blair made his announcement.
John Hume, head of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, which represents moderate Catholics in Northern Ireland and has pressed for the inquiry, praised Blair’s move, calling it something that “no reasonable person could oppose.”
But any gesture to the Catholics risks alienating the British province’s majority religious group, the Protestants. David Trimble, head of the Ulster Unionist Party, the largest Protestant party, immediately criticized the decision. “Opening old wounds like this is likely to do more harm than good,” he said.
Protestants contend that the Bloody Sunday dead are being elevated above the many Protestants who have died from bombs and bullets of the Irish Republican Army, the outlawed Catholic paramilitary group that wants to end British rule in Northern Ireland and reunite the province with the Irish Republic to the south.
Blair, however, told the House of Commons, “Bloody Sunday was different because, where the state’s own forces are concerned, we must be sure of the truth.”
Captured by television cameras and witnessed by thousands, the 20 minutes of shooting in Londonderry that Sunday changed the course of the conflict in Northern Ireland. As a result, Britain disbanded the provincial parliament in Belfast and imposed direct rule from London. A generation of young Catholics came to view British troops as the enemy, driving many toward the IRA.
“Bloody Sunday was a turning point in people’s lives,” said Paul O’Connor, who was in the crowd on Jan. 30, 1972, and now works for a group called the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign. It was “an atrocity carried out by the state.”
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