LONDON/LONDONDERRY (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron apologized on Tuesday for the 1972 killings by British troops of 13 protesters on Northern Ireland’s Bloody Sunday after a long-awaited report said all those shot were unarmed.
Cameron told parliament the Saville report unequivocally showed there was no justification for the shooting of civilians during a civil rights march in the city of Londonderry.
“What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong,” Cameron said.
“For that, on behalf of the government, and indeed our country, I am deeply sorry.”
A huge crowd watched Cameron’s statement on a giant screen in Londonderry’s Guildhall Square, the intended destination of the 1972 march. They cheered when he made the apology.
Bloody Sunday changed the course of the violent “Troubles” that erupted in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s.
The conflict pitted nationalists, mostly Catholics, who wanted the province to secede and become part of the Republic of Ireland, against unionists, mostly Protestants, who wanted it to remain part of the United Kingdom.
On Sunday January 30, 1972, British troops opened fire during an unauthorized march in the Bogside, a nationalist area of Londonderry. They killed 13 people and wounded 14 others, one of whom died later. The victims were all unarmed Catholics.
The report said the first shots were fired “possibly in panic or fear” and other soldiers reacted to the sound of gunfire “by losing their self-control and firing.”
The killings drove hundreds of new volunteers into the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) armed group, which stepped up its campaign of bombings and shootings. It was not until 1998 that a peace deal was brokered in Northern Ireland.
Responding to the report, army chief David Richards said he accepted its findings and supported Cameron’s apology. He said that most of the soldiers deployed in Northern Ireland over 38 years had behaved professionally, and 651 had been killed.
After Cameron spoke, victims’ relatives addressed the crowd in Londonderry. One of them tore up a copy of a discredited 1972 official report that had exonerated the troops.
“The great lie has been laid bare. The truth has been brought home at last,” Mickey McKinney, whose brother Willie was among the dead, told the crowd to huge cheers.
The report says Martin McGuinness, then a senior IRA commander and now deputy first minister of Northern Ireland in a power-sharing government of nationalists and unionists, was in the area and probably armed with a sub-machinegun on the day.
But it said he did not engage in any activity that provided the soldiers with any justification for opening fire. After this was made public, McGuinness denied he was armed that day.
The Saville report was 12 years in the making and the costliest in British legal history at close to 200 million pounds ($293 million). Chaired by Lord Saville, a British judge, the inquiry took evidence from 2,500 people from 1998 to 2004.
The report describes jumpy soldiers charging into hostile streets and going into a shooting frenzy that left 13 dead in less than 10 minutes.
Harrowing scenes include the shooting of a man as he crawled away from the troops, and of another as he lay mortally wounded.
Critics of the Saville inquiry, particularly from the military and the unionist camp, fear that some families may try to use the report to have the soldiers prosecuted.
That would be controversial after many killers from all sides of the Northern Ireland conflict were freed from prison as part of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
Editing by Andrew Roche