On a bright January day in 1972, more than 10,000 people gathered to join a civil rights protest in Derry against an internment without trial policy used to detain and interrogate civilians suspected of IRA involvement.
Diverted by the army, the march made its way to Free Derry Corner to await a speech from young MP and activist Bernadette Devlin. Some broke off and began pelting stones across the barriers, where a Parachute Regiment of British soldiers was stationed. A derelict building occupied by a few of the soldiers became the protesters’ target; soldiers fired live rounds into the crowd in response, wounding two unarmed men.
The full truth of what happened next was not officially acknowledged for decades. Thirteen people were shot dead that Sunday. When an order was given for soldiers to cross the barriers, platoons in armoured vehicles chased people to houses in the Bogside, the heart of a nationalist area claimed as Free Derry, and proceeded to shoot unarmed people running and crawling away.
Their first victim was 17 year old John “Jackie” Duddy, shot in the back as he fled through a residential car park. The soldiers shot more than a hundred rounds at civilians, some bullets ripping through the body of one person and hitting another. A father was shot trying to reach his dying son.
On Thursday families gathered in the City Hotel in Derry to hear that Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service will charge one of the 19 suspects – 17 former British soldiers and two alleged official IRA members – for the Bloody Sunday killings. Director of Public Prosecutions Stephen Herron said there was “sufficient available evidence” to prosecute Soldier F for the murder of James Wray and William McKinney and for the attempted murders of Joseph Friel, Michael Quinn, Joe Mahon and Patrick O’Donnell.
He added that the decision not to prosecute others “in no way diminishes any finding by the Bloody Sunday Inquiry that those killed or injured were not posing a threat to any of the soldiers.”
Julieann Campbell, the niece of Jackie Duddy, had been cautiously hopeful. She acknowledged before the decision that there wouldn’t necessarily be justice for every family, but wanted to see the prosecution of Soldier F. “One soldier is for all families”, she said.
Speaking in the Guildhall shortly after the decision, Mickey McKinney, an activist with the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign, said the decision “does not mean that those soldiers did not act in an undignified and inappropriate way”.
Another relative speaking at the Guildhall said the decision was “further vindication of our decades long campaign to clear the names of our loved ones”.
But for many of the families, some of whom had been on the 1972 march and witnessed the shootings themselves, the single prosecution will be a disappointment.
The British government has held two investigations since Bloody Sunday. The first, chaired by John Widgery, ruled there was “strong suspicion” the civilian victims were themselves firing weapons or handling bombs. Soldiers were exonerated, but many believed it was a cover-up.
Widgery allowed soldiers to testify anonymously and neglected evidence from civilian witnesses. Campaigners later found a declassified memo that revealed Prime Minister Edward Heath told John Widgery the UK was “fighting not only a military war but a propaganda war.” A press release issued by the army after Bloody Sunday said soldiers “came under nail bomb attack and a fusillade of fire” – these claims have since been refuted.
While paratroopers involved in the Bloody Sunday shootings still remain anonymous, one Sergeant O, the commander of Mortar Platoon in the second vehicle that arrived in the Bogside, later told the BBC that soldiers had been under fire. “We started looking for targets and started dropping them,” he said. “The mood between the blokes was not elation, but a job well done.”
A second inquiry into Bloody Sunday in 1998, chaired by Mark Saville, found paratroopers falsely accused Bogside victims of being armed, to justify their shootings. The inquiry ruled that none of the civilians killed posed any immediate threat. Sergeant O said he felt no guilt when presented with findings proving victims were innocent.
Saville observed that the events of Bloody Sunday helped escalate the conflict in Northern Ireland and strengthen the hand of the provisional IRA. It was a “catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland,” he added. The inquiry acknowledged that soldiers “gave knowingly false accounts of the circumstances in which arrests were made”.
The 5,000-page Saville report revealed that Robert Ford, commander of land forces in Northern Ireland, visited Derry on the month of the protest and wrote a confidential memo concluding the only way to confront a group known as the “Derry Young Hooligans” was to shoot selected ringleaders. He ordered 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment, known for its excessive use of force, to be stationed in Derry.
“What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable,” former Prime Minister David Cameron stated in an official apology in 2010. “The Government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of our armed forced.”
But Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley has since undermined his apology, claiming in March that killings by security forces “were not crimes”. Liam Wray, whose brother Jim was shot twice and died on Bloody Sunday, told RTÉ radio that Bradley’s comments sounded “like some colonial governor of the past”. Bradley has since apologised for her comments.
In January 2019, hundreds of people retraced the steps of the 1972 march to the Guildhall in Derry, its original destination, to mark the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. They called for the men who gave the orders to be held responsible – not only those who pulled the trigger.
While families on Thursday welcomed the prosecution of Soldier F as an historic achievement and vindication of their long campaign, many will feel, 47 years on, that justice should have been done long ago.