June 11, 2010 / 11:43 AM / 9 years ago

Bloody Sunday probe could fuel North Irish tensions

LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland (Reuters) - Relatives of 14 people shot dead by British troops in Northern Ireland in 1972 hope the release of an inquiry into the killings next week will lead to the prosecutions of soldiers and their political masters.

There have been concerns that the 5,000 page report could destabilize a peace process that has largely ended the bloodshed and brought greater prosperity to Northern Ireland.

The killings, known as Bloody Sunday, turned a simmering feud between Catholics and Protestants into three decades of “Troubles” in the British-ruled province, which left 3,600 dead.

Prime Minister David Cameron will on Tuesday make a statement to parliament in London on the conclusions of the inquiry led by English High Court judge Lord (Mark) Saville which has been 12 years in the making and has cost some 200 million pounds.

The Guardian newspaper reported on Friday that Lord Saville had found some but not all of the deaths were unlawful. The report was branded “unhelpful speculation” by the British government’s Northern Ireland Office.

On January 30 1972, soldiers from the elite 1st Parachute Regiment opened fire on a civil rights march being held unlawfully in Londonderry killing 13 and injuring another 14, one of whom died later.

Bloody Sunday proved a recruiting agent for the Provisional IRA, fighting to end British rule of Northern Ireland and for unity with the Republic of Ireland.

Mark Durkan, local member of parliament for the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, said he hoped the report would not unsettle the power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland.

“It is going to be a day filled with emotion but there is no reason why it should prove divisive, why should the truth be divisive. I would say there is an opportunity for more healing.”

The executive is balanced between pro-British loyalists and republicans and nationalists who want a united Ireland.

BLAIR’S INTERVENTION

The troop were largely exonerated in a swift and short inquiry by Lord (John) Widgery published a few months after the killings, but victims’ families said they hoped the new inquiry would say the dead were unlawfully killed.

Britain was ruled by a Conservative government under Prime Minister Edward Heath at the time of the killings. Heath testified to the inquiry before his death in 2005 as did former Defense Secretary Lord Peter Carrington, who is now 91.

Carrington told the inquiry that it was ridiculous to suggest that there was an army plot to shoot civilians.

Mickey McKinney, whose brother was among those shot dead, told Reuters: “I hope and expect Lord Saville to conclude that all the people who were shot on Bloody Sunday were innocent and I expect him to lay the blame at the doorstep of the British government at the time and the British Parachute Regiment.”

“I am hoping he will say it was unlawful killing — murder is another term for it which I prefer — I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t make such a finding.”

“I was there that day, 27 people shot, 13 killed, in the space of six and a half minutes,” he said.

Such a verdict would leave prosecutors in Northern Ireland with the difficult decision of whether to pursue legal action and risk fuelling sectarian tensions.

The then prime minister, Tony Blair, set up the Saville inquiry in 1998, amid pressure from campaigners and in an attempt to stabilize the then developing peace process in Northern Ireland, on the grounds there was evidence which had not been available to Lord Widgery in 1972.

The inquiry sat in Londonderry and London between April 1998 and November 2004 receiving statements from around 2,500 people and hearing oral evidence from over 900 witnesses.

Soldiers who gave evidence to the inquiry, identified only by a single letter of the alphabet, were not given immunity from prosecution, but were told nothing they said would be used against them in any later court action.

Editing by Keith Weir

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