As the chaos of Brexit threatens to reignite community tensions in Northern Ireland, the ghosts of the past continue to resurface.
Forty-seven years after the Bloody Sunday massacre, which left fourteen people dead in Derry, a preliminary hearing of the one and only soldier to be prosecuted was held in September 2019. 50 years after the events, the outraged reactions of both sides remind us how badly the wounds have healed.
Sunday 30 January 1972. For three years, violence has been increasing in Northern Ireland. The republicans are revolting against the British “occupation” supported by the unionists. In Derry, a non-violent republican demonstration takes place. The army intervenes and fires on the crowd. Thirteen people are killed, a fourteenth dies of his wounds a few months later.
The military immediately claimed that the demonstrators were armed and that they had aimed at legitimate targets. A report, written by Lord John Widgery, confirmed this version of events a few months later, merely accusing the army of having acted “on the verge of irresponsibility”.
The massacre was a turning point in Northern Ireland. The Irish Republican Army (IRA), the paramilitary group, gains in popularity. Stormont, the Northern Irish legislature, in place since the 1920s, is suspended. London takes direct control of the region, and the ‘Troubles’ reach their worst period. Almost five hundred people died in 1972 alone.
For the families of the victims, a huge struggle for truth and justice began. They won a victory with the public when the Irish band U2 wrote their famous song Sunday Bloody Sunday in the early 1980s. “Broken bottles under children’s feet/Bodies strewn across the dead end street […] the real battle’s just begun”, sings Bono.
At the end of the 1980s, a collective of families was set up. After a long struggle for influence, and thanks to the climate calmed by the Good Friday Agreement, which put an end to the violence in 1998, Tony Blair’s government launched a major public enquiry into the massacre.
It would take twelve long years for the massive ten-volume report to be published, but it marked a symbolic victory for the victims. The army was responsible for the massacre and the protesters killed were unarmed, the findings say. Better still, David Cameron, then prime minister, makes an official apology. “It was unjustified and unjustifiable.”
The families got the truth and an apology. Now they are demanding justice. Their latest battle, so long after the fact, is particularly difficult. What evidence should they bring to a court of law? Were the soldiers just pawns in a scheme that went beyond them or can they be prosecuted individually?
Twenty cases, including those of eighteen soldiers and two IRA members, were examined by the courts. In 2022, it decided to limit the prosecution to one soldier, ‘Soldier F’, for two murders and four attempted murders. For the others, the evidence would not have been admissible in court, according to the prosecutors.
The decision has provoked strong reactions. “A deep disillusionment,” said the families’ spokesman. On the British side, too, the annoyance is palpable. When the prosecution was announced, the then Prime Minister Theresa May promised to take over the defence of the soldier. “The government will urgently reform the system that deals with historical cases,” added Gavin Williamson, her defence minister. Our current and former personnel cannot live in constant fear of prosecution.
The problem is further complicated by the fact that former IRA terrorists are now enjoying a quiet life. Some of them, accused of murdering soldiers, have received letters from the British government promising that they will not be prosecuted “in the absence of new evidence”. A gesture very close to amnesty.