Amid the tears and cheers, a full stop to Britain's colonial experience in Northern Ireland

Simon Winchester was the Guardian's reporter in Derry on Bloody Sunday. Today, he returned to the city to see its victims vindicated at last
Front page of the Guardian, 30 January, 1972
Front page of the Guardian, 30 January, 1972. Photograph: Guardian Photograph: Guardian

We first knew that something truly remarkable, something historic, was in the offing when the hands began to appear, squeezing through the window-grilles of the old Guildhall. First one, then three, then 10 – and as they eased their way painfully under the barely-open Victorian stained glass, so all raised up their thumbs, pointing to the sky.

They were the hands of the victims' relatives, of men and women from the Creggan and the Bogside who had been allowed in early to read the long-awaited report. There was a brief moment of bewilderment below – then suddenly the crowds realised and, as one, they went wild in a paroxysm of uncontained joy: the Saville report had vindicated the victims. Lord Saville had pronounced his verdict: the dead and the injured were all innocent, the soldiers had done them a terrible wrong, and a foul crime had been committed on the streets of Derry, 38 years before.

Minutes later, in perhaps the most hauntingly memorable of all of Britain's post-imperial moments, the prime minister got to his feet in the Commons and publicly apologised for what his country's soldiers had done, all those years ago. It was impossible to defend the indefensible, he said.

Men of the support company of the 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, had shot without justification. Victims had been shot in the back, or while they crawling away, Soldiers had lied under oath. The episode would never be forgotten, could never be forgotten.

There was a roar of cheering at the high points of Cameron's speech – and barely no jeering, even during the obligatory utterances of praise, destined for the shires, for other soldiers in other places. But when it was over, the square was filled with a vast silence. It was as though they could scarcely believe what they had just heard, a British prime minister, a Tory at that, offering a formal and sincerely-meant apology for what his soldiers had done nearly four decades ago to men and women who were guilty only of protesting at the excesses and longevity of British colonial rule of Ireland. It was a speech unprecedented in its tone, its scope and its content.

For the 30 minutes following, and in an episode for which one can forgive the slick choreography, the victims' closest surviving relatives spoke, one by one, quoting from the report and then ending with one cry: innocent!

There were fists punched in the air, whoops of joy – and tears. Many, many tears. I met an elderly lady, white-haired, cardiganned and dignified, spilling out of the square, weeping uncontrollably. I smiled at her, and she grinned back. "We did it!" was all she said, dabbing at her cheeks.

And someone had the good sense and taste publicly to tear up the blue-backed copy of the Widgery Report, the 1972 travesty, a document giving politically-motivated credence to the soldiers' now proven lies, and produced by the Lord Chief Justice of England, a man of shameful memory. The woman who tore it into shreds then tossed it into the air like confetti. It drifted down in front of the Guildhall doorway, allowing us to see the motto carved on the lintel a century and a half ago: Vita. Victoria. Veritas, it read. Life. Victory, Truth.

While today's crowds formed on a day of warm Irish sunshine, on that Sunday 38 years ago, it was cold and clear, and the road over the Glenshane Pass from Belfast was slick with ice. I was driving fast and nearly lost control of the car, even before I reached Derry.

The political auguries were similarly bad. It had already been a dreadful month in Ulster, grim with killings. A foul mood had settled on Ulster's nationalists, following a deeply unpleasant incident a week earlier when the Civil Rights Association, had having discovered the existence of a secret internment camp at Magilligan strand, on the shore of Lough Foyle 10 miles from Derry city, had organised a march – despite a province-wide ban on demonstrations – to bring its otherwise clandestine existence to popular attention.

There, they were surprised to be met by an elite company of Paras and given a most horrible thrashing: rubber bullets fired in faces, heads broken with nail-studded batons, with dozens of battered and bleeding protesters being hauled out of the water before they drowned. I watched and was horrified. My children were there – it was, after all, the seaside.

Reaction was swift; on Tuesday the CRA announced that a protest would take place in Derry the following weekend. "This latest act of violence," a statement from the Bogside said, "strengthens the will of the people of Derry to march in peaceful protest on Sunday next."

I was up early on Sunday morning for what we all knew would be a very big story. Police and army roadblocks were everywhere; on the radio the more rabid loyalists were predicting civil war. But I had been told by my contacts among the Provisional IRA that they were moving their weapons away from the Bogside for the weekend: their brigade commander told me he assumed that British army snatch squads would use the occasion to search for guns, and they didn't want theirs found. So there would be an almighty riot that afternoon, that was certain. But I doubted if much firepower would be deployed, by anyone.

I told the news desk in Manchester to expect a probable candidate for page one. And then I sauntered in to the Bogside and the Creggan estate, past the barbed-wire barricades that the Royal Green Jackets were rolling into place. Inside, the crowds were assembling, and the speakers warming up at the microphones, mounted on the back of McGlinchey's coal lorry.

At one point, I thought I might get a better vantage point from where the troops were milling. But when I tried to go back outside the perimeter at the notorious flash point known as Aggro Corner, flashing my press card, the soldiers refused to let me through. "You stay and take what's coming, you!", one snarled, and pushed me back into the crowd of young Bogsiders.

The shuddering unfolding of that next 90 minutes will stay with me for as long as I live. The first shot that I noted was fired at 4.05pm, I believed from within the crowd; Saville, however, concluded today that it was the paratroopers who opened fire first.

But there is no doubt about what happened next. Just a few moments after the shot, and as I was making my way towards where the speeches were starting, there came a sudden rising howl of screams, and then shouts and running and hysteria. "The soldiers, the soldiers!" people started shouting – and then, screeching into the lanes came lines of armoured cars and lorries, and I could see paratroopers, the same men from Magilligan, throwing themselves to the ground. And then, incredibly, they starting firing, firing, firing in our direction. I was too stunned to wonder why: all I knew was that I had to get out of the lines of fire, and quickly.

I ran and then, as bullets whizzed above me, dropped face down into a puddle of broken glass. A man fell beside me, blood gushing from his leg. I could see the soldiers taking up new firing positions, moving in a fan towards the crowd. I got up, raced toward a row of rubbish bins and dropped behind them, heart pounding. There was more firing. People were sobbing, cursing. I crawled, crab-like, into an alleyway; then with others I got up and ran again, stopped, breathing heavily, in a doorway. Two men lay motionless on the ground. A priest was moving past the blocks of flats with a small gaggle of men, carrying a wounded figure. He was waving a blood-stained white handkerchief.

A youngster of 16 or so was with me, terrified. At one point, the two of us managed to crawl on hands and knees up a slight rise, to a point below the city walls. I remain convinced that at this point a soldier fired at the two of us: I saw a soldier on the ground suddenly point his rifle at me, and his arms jerked, twice. I dived, and skittered up the laneway to a church, dived through the doorway, to be greeted by the keening wails of scores of men and women, sheltering in the pews, white-faced and terror-struck by what was happening outside.

And then, at around 4.20pm, the gunfire stopped, more or less. I left the church and walked down towards where they were now loading bodies and the wounded into cars. "Look at what they've done to us," said one demonstrator to me, in tears.

Maybe four or five had died, I thought. It was a terrible, terrible thing. There seemed no good reason for it. If the Paras had blazed in, even as a reaction to a single shot, their sudden spasm of shooting was surely out of all proportion. Was there perhaps a more sinister reaction? Was it planned? In the end I doubted it. I thought what had happened was simply, awfully, a needless loss of discipline, by soldiers made angry by the grind of their Ulster duties.

Nothing prepared me for the moment, at around 6pm, when I called the Altnagelvin Hospital to check on the final numbers, so I could write my piece. I can still remember standing shivering in the telephone box outside the City Hotel and being put through to a Mr Thompson, the hospital secretary.

"I have seen 12 bodies in here that have all most probably been killed by gunfire," he said. "There are 16 people in the wards. Fifteen of these have gunshot wounds, and one of them is a woman." He paused, spoke to someone in muffled tones. "I am sorry. There are 13 dead now. I have just been told."

I rang the news desk in Manchester, staffed that Sunday by a laconic, seen-everything old-timer. I told him the number of casualties. "My God!" he said, over and over. "My God!"

The repercussions we know about. In the short term, the burning of the British Embassy in Dublin, the fall of Stormont eight weeks later, the effective displacement of the reasonable men of the CRA by the stony-faced zealots of the IRA.

And there was Lord Widgery, author of the contemptible first report on the shootings: it still rankles when I think of how the London press officers banned me from attending the briefing on his infamous report, reserving it only for accredited defence correspondents.

And then there were the longer-term consequences, of which the Good Friday agreement must necessarily be one – to the same degree that Brigadier Dyer's excesses at Amritsar were bombing a crucial step on the road to India's independence, and the bombing of the King David Hotel part of the pathway to Israeli sovereignty.

Nine hundred witnesses came to Lord Saville's inquiry; I was one. How would I possibly remember the colour of a coat that had been worn by a dead man, 30 years before? Or whether I stood in the doorway to the left side or the right; or how easily I could identify the difference between the sound of an SLR and a heavy machine gun?

But for all the inadequacies of my own testimony, Saville, with his astonishing care and attention to detail, seemed to me at the time, and still seems today, a profoundly good idea: a proper full stop and colophon to Britain's unlovely and untidy colonial experience in Ireland.

For this, today, has been a true imperial moment, part of a colonial endgame, in its own way as symbolically important as all those lowering-of-flag ceremonies and the doffings of goose-feather helmets in tropic climes.

It was only tragic that such a moment should be required in the first place – serving as it does as a reminder of the lines from Auden:

Acts of injustice done,

Between the rising and the setting sun,

In history lie like bones, each one.

Simon Winchester

The GuardianTramp

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