“Bloody Sunday” was the name given to the events of Sunday 30 January 1972 when 13 unarmed demonstrators in the Bogside area of Londonderry, Northern Ireland, were shot dead by soldiers from the British Army’s 1st Parachute Regiment. One wounded man later died from an illness attributed to the shooting.
The demonstrators were taking part in a march to protest against the British government’s introduction of internment without trial in Northern Ireland on 9 August 1971.
The British government-appointed Widgery Tribunal found that the paratroopers were not guilty of shooting dead the 13 civilians in cold blood, and cleared the soldiers, who claimed that they were under fire.
In January 1998, however, British prime minister Tony Blair announced a new inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday.
This second commission of inquiry, chaired by Lord Saville, was a more comprehensive study than the Widgery Tribunal and included the interview of over 900 witnesses.
The inquiry concluded in November 2004 and by the time the Saville Report was published on 15 June 2010, it had reportedly cost £195 million. Latest government estimates put that figure at closer to £400 million.
The Ministry of Defence were criticised for being uncooperative as over 1,000 army photographs – and original army helicopter video footage – were never made available.
Additionally, guns used on the day by the soldiers were not provided as evidence in the inquiry. The MoD claimed the guns had all been destroyed, but some were subsequently recovered in Sierra Leone and Beirut.
The report concluded, “The firing by soldiers of 1 PARA on ”Bloody Sunday” caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury.” Saville stated that British paratroopers “lost control”, fatally shooting fleeing civilians and those who tried to aid the injured civilians.
The report stated, contrary to the previously established belief, that no stones and no petrol bombs were thrown by civilians before British soldiers shot at them, and that the civilians were not posing any threat.
It went on to say that British soldiers had concocted lies in their attempt to hide their acts.
The report concluded that an official IRA sniper did fire on the British soldiers, but that on the balance of evidence his shot was fired after the Army shots that wounded Damien Donaghey and John Johnston.
The Inquiry rejected the sniper’s account that this shot had been made in reprisal, stating the view that he and another official IRA member had already been in position, and the shot had probably been fired simply because the opportunity had presented itself.
In his speech to the House of Commons on the Inquiry, British Prime Minister David Cameron stated “These are shocking conclusions to read and shocking words to have to say. But you do not defend the British Army by defending the indefensible.”
He acknowledged that all those who died were unarmed when they were killed by British soldiers and that a British soldier had fired the first shot at civilians.
He also said that this was not a premeditated action, though “there was no point in trying to soften or equivocate” as “what happened should never, ever have happened”. Cameron then apologised on behalf of the British Government by saying he was “deeply sorry”.
Senior British defence officials emphasised that the events of Bloody Sunday were “a tragedy which belonged to another era” and should not reflect badly on present day’s Armed forces.