Boston, Amritsar, Derry; names of places and events that the British Army would rather forget. For although the events that occurred in these places span the centuries, they have one thing in common; soldiers opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing them.
Yesterday, after twelve years of deliberations and at a cost of nearly £200 million, the Saville Inquiry published its findings on the shootings of thirteen unarmed civilians in the Catholic district of the Bogside in the city of Derry in Northern Ireland in 1972. The findings will provide solace to the families of those who fell victim to bullets from the 1st Parachute Division, which had been sent into what had become a ‘no-go’ area for the security forces. They also open up very deep wounds, while reminding others that justice has taken a long time coming and at a cost.
The Inquiry was devastating in that it was adamant that an operation to control rioting in the aftermath of a civil rights march through the area, had got out of control. Although orders had been given to arrest and shoot IRA members who might take advantage of the peaceful march to launch their own attacks on British patrols, the soldiers shot first, and in the chaos that ensued, responded to one IRA sniper shot, with a volley of live rounds, killing young and old alike, all of whom, according to Saville were running away from the scene. In short, operational control had been lost on the ground, and the British soldiers had been given the impression that it was acceptable to shoot members of the IRA. For many of those soldiers it was apparent that anyone out on the streets of the Bogside that day were members of the IRA.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister, David Cameron apologised for the actions of the Parachute Regiment all of those years ago, although he seemed more angry at the time and cost of the process that had finally and forensically pieced together everything that happened that fateful day. ‘Bloody Sunday’, as the Bogside shootings came to be remembered, was the catalyst for much that was to follow – nearly forty years of what were to be euphemistically described as the ‘troubles’, when the North of Ireland was wracked by terrorism and conflict, terrorism that occasionally found its way over to the mainland. Many died on both sides of the divide, Catholics and Protestants, and for the latter the final reckoning over ‘Bloody Sunday’ leaves them still feeling bitter. There will be no expensive public inquiry for the hundred of Protestants who lost their lives.
But then ‘Bloody Sunday’ was different. The shootings in the Bogside were not the result of a sectarian battle, but by soldiers, representative of the State. Many of those soldiers, it would appear from the Saville Inquiry, subsequently lied under oath. And while there will be call for prosecutions, I suspect that the final findings of the Inquiry are also intended to be cathartic.
Derry – or Londonderry if you are a Protestant Loyalist – is a very different city today. But if only walls could speak to walls, what would we learn and what could we have avoided! The walls of the old Orange fortress of Protestant Londonderry, where the Apprentice Boys still march, look down on the Bogside, the Nationalist Catholic District, which as its name suggests was built on a stinking Marsh. Down below is another wall, a gable end of a terrace of slums now long gone, which reads simply “You are now entering Free Derry”.
Perhaps at long last, the people of Derry can put their past behind them and finally be freed of the haunting memories of a conflict that took so many lives.