Amnesty line darkens 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland
The shoot lasted less than 10 minutes. But the events of Bloody Sunday, which took place 50 years ago this weekend, were to go down in history as one of the worst atrocities of Northern Ireland’s three-decade Troubles – and would change the whole course of the conflict.
When the British Parachute Regiment took to the streets of Londonderry, also known as Derry, on January 30, 1972, the red-bereted force were meant to be on hand in case a civil rights march against a new government policy arresting suspected nationalists and interning them without trial has become ugly.
Instead, soldiers from the British-ruled area opened fire indiscriminately into the crowd, firing more than 100 rounds and killing 13 men and teenagers; a 14th victim later died from his injuries.
Almost a quarter of a century since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the conflict between Republicans fighting for a united Ireland and Loyalists fighting to keep Northern Ireland British, the anniversary is particularly poignant .
It comes as London pushes ahead with a planned amnesty for all Troubles-era crimes, protecting security forces as well as paramilitaries on either side from prosecution. The move united trade unionists, nationalists and politicians in opposition, similar to the opprobrium that greeted the flying of Parachute Regiment flags in parts of Derry this week.
However, relatives of the Bloody Sunday victims are still fighting for prosecution. Many of their family members were shot in the back as they fled. A man was finished off by a soldier when he was already on the ground. Another was shot in the head after coming to the aid of a dying man saying, “If I take a white handkerchief and go out, they won’t shoot me.”
“Honestly, I think they enjoyed every second of that day,” said John Kelly, who helped his 17-year-old brother Michael into an ambulance after he was shot and killed. “They also knew they would be protected.”
The atrocity was whitewashed by the first official investigation in April 1972, which concluded that some “shootings bordered on recklessness” but that paratroopers “were the first to fire on them”. It took another 38 years for a new inquest to exonerate the victims and for then-Prime Minister David Cameron to tell Parliament in 2010 that the shooting “should never have happened. . . I am deeply sorry.”
“There are so many people [in Northern Ireland] who can’t just draw a line and forget,” said Maeve McLaughlin, director of the Bloody Sunday Trust, which was set up on the 25th anniversary of the atrocity to support loved ones in their quest for justice.
She called the amnesty plans “shameful”. “For so many families, it’s about telling the truth, allowing the truth to be told,” she added.
Molly Carson, project manager at Families Acting for Innocent Relatives, a group that represents victims of atrocities perpetrated by the nationalist paramilitary Irish Republican Army, said some relatives and survivors believed official British letters had been sent to alleged IRA members after the Good Friday Agreement telling them they would not be prosecuted meant that “in a way the government has already offered amnesty to these IRA members”.
She added: “The victims of FAIR do not want to see the perpetrators of heinous crimes seen as equals as police or soldiers trying to keep the peace at a time of rioting and chaos in Northern Ireland. .”
Tory MP Sir Mike Penning, who served in Northern Ireland, has called on the government to speed up the implementation of the amnesty, which the government describes as “statute of limitations”. “We must not be late. . . come to a conclusion on this so veterans . . . can live their lives in peace, rather than fear being dragged into court,” he told parliament this week.
Brandon Lewis, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, insists the government’s amnesty plans are to “get things done” and ensure people have access to the truth. The government hopes to present legislation before regional elections in May.
“People shouldn’t wait decades for information,” he told Westminster. The government argues that the chances of successful prosecution diminish over time. “[We] have to be honest with people about what is achievable and the reality of what we can do,” Lewis added.
However, Colin Harvey, professor of human rights law at Queen’s University Belfast, blasted the government’s approach to amnesty as “grossly reckless and irresponsible” and said it was “essential that we never forget where this society comes from and the legacy of the conflict and what happened here”.
Kelly said he could still see his younger brother’s face as he sought help for him, adding: ‘I remember every second. He fears that the government’s plans are “to protect the soldiers, it’s as simple as that”.
The 1972 Bloody Sunday march came at the height of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, in a city whose predominantly Catholic population was crammed into inadequate housing and mostly disenfranchised because only taxpayers were allowed to vote.
In August 1969, British soldiers were deployed to Northern Ireland after three days of rioting in Derry, dubbed the Battle of the Bogside. In August 1971, as soldiers sought to crush the IRA by rounding up suspected nationalists and imprisoning them without trial, the Parachute Regiment shot dead nine people at Ballymurphy in Belfast.
Many saw this incident as the trigger for a chain of tragic events that boosted support and recruitment into the IRA. Like Bloody Sunday, Ballymurphy was first presented by the British Army as an IRA shootout and the victims were only declared ‘all entirely innocent of any wrongdoing’ in May last year.
None of the soldiers involved in either incident have been prosecuted and last July authorities in Northern Ireland dropped charges against the only British soldier charged with the Bloody Sunday murders, believing he would not be not possible to obtain a conviction.
Some believe too much time has passed for perpetrators of Troubles era atrocities – whether security forces, IRA or loyalist paramilitary groups – to be put behind bars .
“We have to end this, one way or another,” said a Derry official who asked not to be named. “Very few people want to see more people go to jail. There is nothing to gain. He added that if convictions could be obtained “that is a punishment in itself”.
Additional reporting by George Parker in London