Bloody Sunday report: Derry's moment of truth | Editorial

The Saville inquiry certainly took too long and cost too much. But its conclusions simply cannot be ducked

During the last decade it has gradually become the default position of many in Britain that the Saville inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday had become an absurdity. However important the events of 30 January 1972 may have been, ran the argument (and at 38 years' stretching distance, even that point was not always conceded), they could not justify the 12-year-long, £195m inquiry under Lord Saville which finally reported yesterday in 10 volumes. The inquiry, it was implied, was a trophy concession that Tony Blair granted too recklessly to nationalist Ireland in 1998. Far from laying Bloody Sunday finally to rest, it would give it fresh life, sowing new discord just as Northern Ireland is finally moving on. As late as yesterday morning, the Daily Mail lamented the "brave British soldiers about to be branded as criminals".

The Saville inquiry certainly took too long and cost too much. But the report is devastating. Its conclusions simply cannot be ducked. Nor, to his great credit, did David Cameron attempt to duck them yesterday. They were absolutely clear, the prime minister confirmed, and not open to doubt. Bloody Sunday was not a premeditated state conspiracy, Saville finds. But the main actors were not brave British soldiers but, too often, trigger-happy paratroopers. The parachute regiment went into Derry's Bogside in response to an order that should not have been given. They fired the first shots at civilians who had been taking part in a civil rights march. The people at whom they fired were unarmed and in some cases fleeing. A few victims were shot on the ground. None of the dead or wounded was doing anything that justified their being shot. The soldiers gave no warnings. They lost their self-control. Then some of them lied about it afterwards. For all of which, Mr Cameron said, the British government and people were deeply sorry.

These were powerful, moving and fully justified words by the prime minister. Across the water in Derry people had been waiting long years to hear them, not least because the perfunctory 1972 Widgery tribunal had added to the original affront of Bloody Sunday itself. Yesterday, in the sunshine outside the Derry Guildhall, a crowd finally heard the words they deserved, with Mr Cameron's speech relayed on a big screen and applause greeting several of the prime minister's clear statements. A few minutes later, relatives of the victims emerged to trumpet the innocence of their loved ones. Inevitably there was some political grandstanding – both the SDLP and Sinn Féin have worked hard in their own ways for this moment. But the most striking impression from Derry was not of implacable triumphalism but of long-suffering people finally awarded the vindication and justice which they should have had years ago. The potent and emotionally charged scenes in both Westminster and Derry put most of the objections to the inquiry into proper perspective.

They also underscored why Bloody Sunday matters so much. In the two centuries since the Peterloo massacre, this was the worst example of unprovoked and unjustified killing of civilians by the military in this country. Though British governments have long acknowledged that the victims were innocent, yesterday was a climactic moment of truth. With goodwill, it can now be a cathartic one too, enabling Derry and, more widely, the people of these islands to resume the work of political reconciliation of which Saville has, after all, proved to be such an important part. Yet in the end the state must always uphold the law, not break it. If it kills its citizens, the state and its servants must answer for their actions. Saville's findings are part of that process. But the cases must also be properly examined by the prosecution authorities. If the evidence permits, which at this distance it may not, those who killed the innocent in Derry in 1972 should be prosecuted. No amount of political convenience should be permitted to stand in the way of justice.


The GuardianTramp

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