The news that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is to begin a murder investigation into the “Bloody Sunday” killings is both dramatic and mundane.
Dramatic because the terrible events of 40 years ago continue to echo. In all, twenty-seven men were shot by British paratroops while attending an anti-internment march in the centre of Derry on January 30th 1972.
Thirteen were killed outright, including seven teenagers. Five of the dead were shot in the back. A 14th man died of his injuries four months later. No soldiers were either shot or injured.
Mundane because this is surely the only conceivable outcome of Lord Saville’s mammoth 5,200-page report into the tragedy. In it, he exonerated all of the victims of any action which could have resulted in their death or injury and found there had been a ‘serious and widespread’ loss of control by the soldiers deployed to break up the march.
Among his damning conclusions, Lord Saville found soldiers: “…knowingly put forward false accounts in order to seek to justify their firing”.
David Cameron memorably described what happened on Bloody Sunday as “unjustified and unjustifiable” in a well-pitched statement in the House of Commons in 2010. At the time, he avoided commenting on whether charges should be brought in case this prejudiced subsequent criminal or civil action.
So this day was always coming, especially as the government signalled last September that it was looking to offer compensation to the victims and their families.
The announcement of a murder inquiry came at a routine meeting of Northern Ireland’s policing board. None of the main agencies: the Northern Ireland Office, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, or the Public Prosecution Service had any reports of the new police inquiry on their websites. This is usually the hallmark of an announcement that has slipped out, unprepared.
Indeed the timing is inept, coming as it does a week before the annual July 12th celebrations which culminate in Orange Order parades across Northern Ireland. A time of high tension, anything that fuels a sense of communal one-upmanship is unhelpful.
While mainstream unionist reaction was fairly muted at news of the investigation, familiar voices of discontent could still be found. With a characteristic lack of grace, the leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice party, Jim Allister, tweeted that the announcement was “another sop” (to Republicans) and that IRA victims were not similarly treated to lengthy investigation.
Police have not yet confirmed when the investigation will begin. The PSNI’s assistant chief constable, Drew Harris, said cryptically:
“[It will be] a large investigation, obviously and setting aside the resources to properly start that and take that forward is a corporate issue which is under investigation at this time.
“There is not the expertise free and available to undertake an investigation of this size and that is why we are faced with dilemmas around prioritisation.”
• Bloody Sunday’s unfinished business 23 Sep 2011
• The Saville Inquiry: what the media has to say 16 Jun 2010
• Ethos and Leadership failed Paras on Bloody Sunday 16 Jun 2010
• The Saville Report – an opportunity for reconciliation 15 Jun 2010
• The Bloody Sunday Inquiry’s zero-sum equation 11 Jun 2010
There is talk of a four-year investigation involving 30 officers. However this seems excessive given Lord Saville’s painstaking research. The major problem though, as the Independent’s David McKittrick points out:
“Witnesses were granted immunity from prosecution on the grounds of self-incrimination, which means that any testimony by troops cannot be used against them in future legal proceedings.”
But any perception of foot-dragging by the police – after deliberating about whether to launch an investigation for two years – will create a major political headache for the PSNI.
John Kelly, whose brother Michael was shot dead on Bloody Sunday, was expectedly more enthusiastic. He said:
“It certainly is good news but it was something we were expecting anyway. My view on it at the time was these soldiers should have been arrested straight away and prosecuted on what came out of the Saville report.
“But certainly after hearing what we heard today it’s a step in the right direction because myself, my family and most of the families want prosecutions.”
Meanwhile, Sir Desmond De Silva’s review of the murder of Belfast civil rights lawyer, Pat Fiuncane, is set to report in December. His remit is to provide a ‘full public account’ of any involvement by British military and intelligence assets in the targeting, assassination and cover-up of Finucane’s notorious killing.
Two previous inquiries found that collusion between British state agencies and loyalist paramilitaries did take place. Having watered-down a previous commitment to launch a full public inquiry, the prime minister will be left with a very messy problem if De Silva concurs with them.
As Left Foot Forward reported last week, deputy first minister Martin McGuinness has suggested his co-operation in attempts to find “true reconciliation” of The Troubles’ many deaths and atrocities.
Given unresolved history impacts on Northern Ireland’s ‘here and now’, the government should take up the offer.