Bloody Sunday report: David Cameron apologises for 'unjustifiable' shootings

Prime minister 'deeply sorry' for killings by British paras as Saville report opens possibility for prosecution of soldiers

David Cameron today issued a formal, state apology for the "unjustified and unjustifiable" killing of 14 civil rights marchers by British soldiers on Bloody Sunday in Derry 38 years ago.

The prime minister said Lord Saville inquiry's long-awaited report showed soldiers lied about their involvement in the killings, and that all of those who died were innocent.

He said the inquiry was "absolutely clear" and there were "no ambiguities" about the conclusions.

Cameron told the Commons: "What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong."

Relatives cheered as they watched the statement, relayed to screens outside the Guildhall in Derry.

Bloody Sunday, as the events on 30 January 30 1972 came to be known, was one of the most controversial moments of the Troubles. Paratroopers opened fire while trying to police a banned civil rights march.

They killed 13 marchers outright, and, according to Saville, wounded another 15, one of whom subsequently died later in hospital.

The 5,000-page, 10-volume report, which took 12 years to compile at a cost of almost £191m, concludes there was no justification for shooting at any of those killed or wounded on the march.

"None of the firing by the Support Company [Paratroopers] was aimed at people posing a threat or causing death or serious injury."

The shootings "were not the result of any plan to shoot selected ringleaders," the report said.

In the Commons, the prime minister began his statement by saying he was "deeply patriotic" and did not want to believe anything bad about his country. But he said that the conclusions of the 12-year inquiry were "absolutely clear". He went on to outline the findings of the inquiry before making the apology.

"The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces, and for that, on behalf of the government and on behalf of the country, I am deeply sorry."

The Saville inquiry found that the order sending British soldiers into the Bogside "should not have been given", said Cameron.

It concluded that none of those killed by British soldiers was armed with firearms and no warning was given by the soldiers.

Cameron said the casualties were caused by the soldiers "losing their self control".

Saville uses the word "unjustifiable" repeatedly throughout his report to describe the fatal shootings carried out by the parachute regiment – a judgment that opens up the possibility of legal action against soldiers involved in the atrocity.

But the eagerly awaited report does not hold the British government at the time directly responsible for the atrocity. The report found that there was "no evidence" that either the British government or the unionist-dominated Northern Ireland administration encouraged the use of lethal force against the demonstrators.

It also exonerates the army's then commander of land forces, Major General Robert Ford, of any blame. Ford was in Derry on the day of the military operation. He had agreed to deploy the parachute regiment in the city.

The report concludes that "he neither knew nor had reason to know at any stage that his decision would or was likely to result in soldiers firing unjustifiably on that day."

Most of the damning criticism against the military was directed at the soldiers on the ground who fired on the civilians. Saville said that "Lance Corporal F" – who was identified as shooting between four to six of the Bloody Sunday victims – had "falsely claimed" that he had shot a nail bomber.

"Lance Corporal F did not fire in panic or fear ... we are sure that he instead fired either in the belief that no-one at the rubble barricade was posing a threat of causing death and serious injury, or not caring whether or not anyone there was posing a threat," the report said.

Saville finds that one senior officer, Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford, ignored instructions from his brigadier that he should not order troops to go deeper into the Bogside, where the protest was taking place.

"There was thus no separation between peaceful marchers and those who had been rioting and no means whereby soldiers could identify and arrest only the latter," the report said.

Wilford's fateful decision to order the paratroopers into the Bogside was unjustified because "it would run a significant risk that people other than those engaging the soldiers with lethal force would be killed or injured by army gunfire".

Saville says that on Bloody Sunday there had been "a serious and widespread loss of fire discipline among the soldiers".

Saville also concludes that many of the soldiers lied to his inquiry: "Many of these soldiers have knowingly put forward false accounts in order to seek to justify their firing."

Under the rules of the inquiry this conclusion means that soldiers could be prosecuted for perjury.

The report also focuses on the actions of two Republican gunmen on the day and said that the Official IRA men had gone to a prearranged sniping position.

But Saville found that their actions did not provoke in any way the shootings by the parachute regiment.

On the actions of Martin McGuiness, now the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, Saville said that he "was probably armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun" but said that there was no evidence he fired the weapon and that this provided no justification for the soldiers opening fire.

There are no direct recommendations for prosecutions in relation to the soldiers but the continued use of the term "unjustifiable" will open up the possibility of legal action, campaigners vowed today.

Cameron sidestepped the question of prosecutions when pressed in the Commons by acting Labour leader Harriet Harman.

He said the decision should be "entirely independent".

Survivors and relatives welcomed Saville's findings as they left the Guildhall.

A minute's silence was held as thousands of supporters filled the square outside, waiting to be told about the report's contents.

A representative of each of the families spoke in turn, and a copy of the hated report by Lord Widgery which, in 1972, accused the victims of firing weapons or handling bombs was torn apart by one of the families' representatives.

Denis Bradley, who played a key part in secret talks that brought about the IRA ceasefire of 1994 and who was on the Bloody Sunday march 38 years ago, welcomed the report's findings.

The former Derry priest, who narrowly escaped being shot on the day, said he was "amazed" at how damning the findings were against the soldiers. He said: "This city has been vindicated, this city has been telling the truth all along."


Henry McDonald and Owen Bowcott in Derry, and Hélène Mulholland

The GuardianTramp

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