Bloody Sunday: Soldiers may face prosecution over 'unjustifiable' killings

David Cameron apologises for killings by British paras as Saville report opens possibility for prosecution of soldiers

Prosecutors in Northern Ireland are considering whether to bring charges against British soldiers involved in the Bloody Sunday killings after a damning report by a senior judge concluded the shooting dead of 14 people in Derry 38 years ago was "unjustified and unjustifiable".

David Cameron issued the first formal apology on behalf of the British state as he announced the publication of Lord Saville's long-awaited report into the day that became the catalyst for 30 years of violent conflict in Northern Ireland.

Drawing on the conclusions of the 5,000-page, 10-volume report, Cameron said the government was "deeply sorry" for the conduct of the soldiers who opened fire while trying to police a banned civil rights march on 30 January 1972.

On the day, 13 marchers died and another 15 were wounded, one of whom died later in hospital.

The prime minister said the Saville inquiry 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. "What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong," Cameron told the Commons.

The prosecution service in Northern Ireland said tonight it was considering the implications.

"The director of public prosecutions, together with the chief constable, will consider the report to determine the nature and extent of any police inquiries and investigations which may be required to enable informed decisions as to prosecution to be taken," it said in a statement.

Cameron began his Commons statement by saying he was deeply patriotic and did not want to believe anything bad about his country. But he said the conclusions of the 12-year inquiry were absolutely clear.

The Saville inquiry found:

• the order sending British soldiers into the Bogside should not have been given.

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

• "on balance", British soldiers fired the first shot.

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

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

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

Denis Bradley, a former priest who was on the Bloody Sunday march and played a key part in secret talks that brought about the IRA ceasefire of 1994, said he was amazed at how damning the findings were against the soldiers. "This city has been vindicated, this city has been telling the truth all along."

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

But the report does not hold the British government at the time directly responsible, saying there was "no evidence" that it encouraged the use of lethal force against the demonstrators.

Most of the damning criticism of 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 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 an instruction from his brigadier that he should not order troops to go deeper into the Bogside, the area of Derry where the protest took place.

The report 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 the soldiers were granted immunity from prosecutions resulting from their evidence, but they could be prosecuted for perjury.

The report also focuses on the actions of two republican gunmen and said that the Official IRA men had gone to a pre-arranged sniping position.

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

Amnesty International raised the possibility that Saville's conclusion that the shootings were unjustified could lead to legal action against the soldiers.

Kate Allen, Amnesty's UK director, said: "We shall be examining the detailed findings of the report. But the right to redress of the victims and their families is only partly met by establishing the facts about what happened that day; full accountability for any unlawful actions by state agents will also need to be ensured."

Cameron sidestepped the question of prosecutions when pressed by the acting Labour leader, Harriet Harman. He said the decision should be "entirely independent" and up to the director of public prosecutions.

Harman said a comprehensive process of reconciliation had to be able to address the "legacy issue of the Troubles". She asked Cameron whether he had been asked to consider the questions of immunity from prosecution "if we are instead to take things forward by a wider process of reconciliation?".

Sir Reg Empey, the Ulster Unionist leader, called for an end to Bloody Sunday-style inquiries: "Northern Ireland cannot endure an endless list of Saville-type inquiries. We cannot continually be dragged back to our darkest years. The question now facing Northern Ireland is whether we continue to pursue costly individual cases or are we, as a society, to concentrate on building a shared future, freed from the mistakes of the past?"

Lord Maginnis of Drumglas, an Ulster Unionist peer, said the report was "one-eyed" in its emphasis on just 14 of the 180 violent deaths in the province in the preceding year.

But Mark Durkan, the Derry MP and former SDLP leader, said the findings had finally cleared the names of the dead and wounded. "This is a day of huge moment and deep emotion in Derry. The people of my city didn't just live through Bloody Sunday, they lived with it since.

"This is a day to receive and reflect on the clear verdicts of Saville and not pass party verdicts on Saville."


Henry McDonald and Owen Bowcott in Derry, and Hélène Mulholland

The GuardianTramp

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