LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland – Relatives of 13 Catholic demonstrators shot to death by British troops on Northern Ireland’s Bloody Sunday cried tears of joy Tuesday as an epic fact-finding probe ruled that their loved ones were innocent and the soldiers entirely to blame for the 1972 slaughter.
The investigation took 12 years and nearly $300 million, but the victims’ families and the British, Irish and U.S. 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.
Thousands of residents of Londonderry gathered outside the city hall to watch the verdict come in, followed by a lengthy apology from Prime Minister David Cameron in London that moved many locals long distrustful of British leaders.
The probe found that soldiers opened fire without justification at unarmed, fleeing civilians and lied about it for decades, refuting an initial British investigation that branded the demonstrators as Irish Republican Army bombers and gunmen. Cameron, who was just 5 years old when the attack occurred, said it was “both unjustified and unjustifiable.”
“I couldn’t believe it, I was so overjoyed,” said Kay Duddy, clutching the handkerchief used to swab blood from her 17-year-old brother’s body that day. Jackie Duddy, the first of the 13 killed, was shot in the back.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I ever envisage a British prime minister would stand up in Parliament and tell the truth of what happened on Bloody Sunday,” Duddy said.
One by one, relatives of the 13 dead and 15 wounded went to a podium, huge black-and-white pictures of their dead or wounded relatives displayed on a massive television screen. Each declared their relief that the demonstrators were found innocent and the elite soldiers of the Parachute Regiment solely to blame.
The Bloody Sunday Inquiry, authorized by then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998 in the run-up to the negotiation of the Good Friday peace accord that year, was led by English judge Lord Saville. He gave the ex-paratroopers, now in their 60s and 70s, broad protections from criminal charges as well as anonymity in the witness box, citing the risk that IRA dissidents might target them in retaliation.
Some legal experts, however, said wiggle room remains for prosecutions and, more likely, civil lawsuits against retired soldiers.
Cameron apologized on behalf of the British government and summarized its findings: 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 demonstrators were protesting the internment without trial of IRA suspects. The report said some soldiers fired knowing their victims were unarmed, and may have concluded all protesters were tied to IRA factions and therefore legitimate targets.
The report did find that one demonstrator killed, 17-year-old Gerald Donaghey, was a junior Provisional IRA member who was carrying four homemade grenades, called nail bombs, in his pockets. But it said Donaghey was running away when shot and posed no risk to soldiers.
Saville also concluded that former IRA commander Martin McGuinness, now the senior Catholic in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, probably was carrying a submachine gun during Bloody Sunday, based on other witnesses’ testimony. The judge said, however, that 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.”
McGuinness, who in sworn testimony said he was unarmed, rejected Saville’s charge. “I am absolutely denying that,” he said.