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How Bloody Sunday still haunts Northern Ireland, 48 years on

At the first commemoration since a former British paratrooper was charged with two alleged murders, families spoke of their enduring anguish over the 1972 killings

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On a recent blustery afternoon, outside the Museum of Free Derry in Northern Ireland, a group of young people huddled together having just toured murals of slain civil rights demonstrators who took their last breath on the pavement nearby. What is history to some is still fresh in the minds of many.

Across the road, in front of a low block of flats, a grey obelisk bears the names of the 13 innocent civilians killed 48 years ago in the Bloody Sunday massacre on 30 January 1972, as well as a fourteenth who died months later from his wounds.

By 4pm, nearly a hundred people were gathered around the monument, many of them relatives of the dead. A young mother stood inside the gate of the memorial, rocking a pram back and forth. These are the people who Conservative politicians, including in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech, have called “vexatious” for seeking answers over Bloody Sunday.

With a black ribbon pinned to his top, 23-year-old Rossa Ó Dochartaigh, the grandson of Patrick Doherty, who was shot dead on that day, read out the names of those killed and injured. He led the gathered crowd in a minute’s silence, their heads all bowed.

This year was the first commemoration since a former British paratrooper, known only as “Soldier F”, was charged with the alleged murder of two men on Bloody Sunday and the attempted murder of four more. He was the only one of 17 British soldiers involved to be charged. Families are contesting the decision not to prosecute nine of those soldiers, as well as the decision not to charge Soldier F with three more alleged murders and two more attempted. 

No soldier has been charged over the death of Ó Dochartaigh’s grandfather. “Due to an alleged lack of evidence.” his grandson said. “Even though it was a public execution witnessed by countless numbers of people.” 

Ó Dochartaigh hopes Soldier F is convicted of the two alleged murders but expects he will be found innocent. “I’ve got no faith in it whatsoever,” he said of the Northern Irish justice system. “They haven’t got the best track record.”

On 30 January 1972, more than 10,000 people packed the streets of Derry, marching against a British internment policy used to detain and interrogate civilians suspected of IRA involvement without trial in prisons. The march made its way to Free Derry Corner in the nationalist Bogside area, diverted by the army. When a derelict building occupied by members of the Parachute Regiment of British soldiers became the target of stone pelting, soldiers fired live rounds into the crowd, wounding two unarmed men. Soldiers then crossed the barricades and pursued the civilians trying to flee. Armoured vehicles chased people into residential areas and soldiers gunned them down.

Four soldiers with the anti-tank platoon pursued civilians into Glenfada Park, the small square surrounded by flats where the  Museum of Free Derry is now. Within a few seconds, the soldiers had fatally shot 26-year-old William “Willie” McKinney and 22 year-old Jim Wray. Both were shot in the back. Wray, likely already on the ground, was then shot a second time. Four other men were also shot and injured, none of them facing the soldiers or posing a threat: Joe Friel (20), Michael Quinn (17), Joe Mahon (16) and Patrick O’Donnell (41). Mahon was likely wounded by a bullet that passed through Willie’s body.

It took decades for the UK government to admit the shootings were an “unjustified and unjustifiable” attack on innocent civilians by British soldiers. In 2010, after the release of the Saville Inquiry, prime minister David Cameron apologised for what happened. “You do not defend the British Army by defending the indefensible,” he told the House of Commons.

The soldiers had claimed that the civilians they opened fire on were IRA members in possession of bombs and firearms. The initial tribunal failed to hold either the soldiers or the British government accountable and supported these false claims. The extensive Saville Inquiry found that these claims were deliberately false and the people killed were innocent. They were unarmed and running away.

“It [the UK government] slandered their good names,” says John McKinney, Willie’s younger brother. “He was passionate about civil rights,” McKinney adds of Willie, who loved music, always dressed in a smart suit and was at the beginning of a promising career as a video journalist, often covering demonstrations for the local Derry Journal. “He was always going to do well.”

John remembers being an eight year-old boy asking to join his older brother on the march that Sunday. The youngest of nine, he stood with his mother at the door of their house in Creggan, Derry, watching Willie, with his distinctive thick-framed glasses, heading off down the street. He had a camera slung over one shoulder, ready to capture the events. Willie used to make home videos of his siblings playing in the fields. He would set up a screen inside the house for the family to watch. He was recording the protest with his hand-held camera on Bloody Sunday. John says the footage cut out as soldiers started shooting. He remembers his father coming home to tell the family and neighbors gathered inside that Willie was dead.

The lack of justice in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday led many people to join republican paramilitary groups. John had friends who were killed and imprisoned in the decades that followed. But he saw the impact of the death of his brother (an innocent civilian) on his parents and promised to never get involved. He remembers how surreal it was when U2 released their 1983 single “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and people stood up in pubs, pumping the air with their fists and singing along. His family just wanted the truth.

“I’d challenge them to come here and meet the relatives,” McKinney says of the political figures calling his family’s wish for justice “vexatious”.

Late last March, Soldier F was charged with the alleged murder of McKinney’s brother. The trial began in September and at the last hearing the judge considered moving the case to Belfast, causing further hurt to families. “Bloody Sunday happened in this city,” John McKinney told the commemoration. “Put the families and the people of Derry first, not Soldier F.” 

“It just goes on hurting,” 73-year-old Kay Green told me. At the commemoration, with several generations of her family, she took me by the hand as we spoke, a big navy beanie on her head, blue eyes looking out from behind glasses. Her “wee brother” was Jackie Duddy, the first person killed on Bloody Sunday, when soldiers from the Mortar Platoon opened fire on civilians in the car park of Rossville Flats. Duddy was shot while fleeing. He was only 17.

Nearly five decades feels like a blink of an eye. Green was in her early 20s and was the family member who answered the phone when the call came to inform the family Duddy was dead. The image of a local priest waving a bloodstained white handkerchief in the air, trying to shield the body of the dying young man being carried down the street, came to define that day. She and her family have had to see it repeatedly in the years since.

“My mammy always thought their conscience would get the better of them,” Green says of the soldiers responsible. When it was announced that no soldier would be charged over Duddy’s death, it was another blow. “You know what you done, you know he was innocent,” she wants to say to the man who fired the shot. “Please some day tell the truth.”

Conservative politicians have denounced the prosecution of former soldiers as “a witch-hunt”. Boris Johnson has promised to amend the Human Rights Act so that it no longer applies to deaths during the Troubles, and to introduce new legislation to end “unfair trials” of veterans. 

This has reinforced a sense that the lives and rights of people in Northern Ireland are not respected. Though some argue that prosecutions have been skewed against British military veterans, the historical investigations also address cases of people killed by republican paramilitaries. The new deal that returned power-sharing to Stormont last month includes a commitment to “address the legacy of the past”.

A 15-minute walk from the Bloody Sunday memorial, running through the centre of Derry, lies a small housing estate called The Fountain. The edges of the pavement are painted the colours of the Union Jack. A loyalist mural on a wall in front of the Babies and Waddlers nursery reads: “STILL UNDER SIEGE NO SURRENDER”.

In a black leather jacket, a 63-year-old Fountain resident named Albert spoke of his time as a soldier in the British Army stationed in Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. “I was brought up a Protestant and was always taught we were in a British state,” he says. He signed up at the age of 17 to escape being drafted into the loyalist paramilitary groups. Some questioned his decision. “Sure you kill in the army,” they said. “That’s not the same,” he would respond. I asked whether it was wrong that unarmed civilians were killed on Bloody Sunday. “Not wrong,” he says, arguing it was an illegal parade. “I was always brought up to believe that they were born terrorists.”

On Brexit Day (31 January), a 17-year-old from Derry, in her deep green school blazer and yellow-striped tie, spoke about the impact of Brexit on her city. She went to school in the republican neighborhood of Creggan and lived in the mainly unionist area of Waterside. She has an Irish passport and often visits her granddad across the border in Donegal, Ireland, though she wants to attend university in Liverpool, which could mean crossing a border in the Irish Sea. She has had “taig” (an anti-Catholic slur) shouted at her in some areas. “Young children still have an idea that there’s a difference between us.” Park worries that Brexit might lead to a resurgence of violence. “It’s my future,” she says. “I would have voted to stay in the EU.”

Many of the families of those killed on Bloody Sunday stopped marching in the commemorative parade after the Saville report declared their loved ones to be innocent but it takes place each year. On Sunday (2 February), hundreds took to the streets to call for justice for those killed on Bloody Sunday, tracing the steps of the march, following the lead of a line of young people holding white crosses. Stephen Travers, a survivor of the Miami Showband massacre on 31 July 1975, who opposes sectarianism, gave the main address at the end.

The dissident republican Tommy Roberts/Stevie Mellon Republican Memorial Flute Band took part for the first time, to the outrage of some. It is less than a year since 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee was shot dead in Derry by a member of the New IRA while standing next to a police vehicle during rioting in Creggan. In 1990, a 16-year-old called Charlie Love was killed while attending the Bloody Sunday commemoration by an IRA bomb targeting security forces. Love was remembered in the Museum of Free Derry this year in a special exhibition on children killed during the Troubles, based on the book by Freya McClements and Joe Duffy”.

Families of those killed on Bloody Sunday want to see those in higher command face justice, particularly the former head of the British Army, general Mike Jackson, who was second in command on the day and has been accused of responsibility for a cover-up that placed blame on the victims. Jackson has also been questioned over an alleged cover-up of the 1971 Ballymurphy massacre, in which soldiers shot dead 10 people, with an inquest ongoing (he has dismissed this as a “preposterous allegation”).

The lack of accountability, coupled with the refusal of successive British governments to release information on the collusion between state forces and loyalist paramilitaries, creates an ongoing sense of injustice among even young generations. It fuels a lasting distrust of security forces and hostility towards British influence on both sides of the Irish border. Brexit, meanwhile, which the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against, has reignited calls for a border poll on reunification. Many now see a united Ireland as an achievable reality in their lifetime

“It’s a total lack of confidence in Britain and their involvement in Ireland,” says Rossa Ó Dochartaigh, who will never forget how his granddad was killed. “This is the period in time when a united Ireland has become a real issue and not just a dream.”

Caelainn Hogan is an Irish journalist. She is the author of Republic of Shame and writes for the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s and the Washington Post.