Fifty years ago today, the Parachute Regiment of the British Army opened fire on an unarmed civil rights march in the Bogside in Derry.
And still the families of those murdered that day wait for justice.
It was a massacre. Thirteen lay dead after the soldiers stopped firing, and another man died four months later from his wounds. Twenty six people were shot, many left with life-long injuries, and Derry still bears the scars of the trauma inflicted on the city. All those shot were Catholics.
Of the thirteen who died on January 30th 1972, six were just 17 years old. Barely old enough to have sat their Leaving Cert. These days we’d say they were just kids.
John Young was one of those teenagers. Aged 17, he was shot in the face by a soldier as he crouched on the ground, trying to go to the aid of William Nash, a 19 year old who died after being shot in the chest.
Two others, John Duddy and Hugh Gilmour, were shot dead as they tried to run away from soldiers. They were both 17.
In fact, half of those murdered on Bloody Sunday were shot in the back or from behind. What kind of orders were given to make soldiers believe these acts would be condoned by their superiors? John Kelly, whose 17 year old brother Michael was shot dead, said: “Truthfully, I believed they enjoyed every second of that day.”
“They also knew they would be protected.”
108 rounds were fired by the soldiers in under 10 minutes: the indiscriminate shooting of panicked civilians meant the body count was horrifying.
The savagery was breath-taking, just as it had been some six months previously when an unimaginable spree of terror and murder was foisted upon the people in Ballymurphy over three days.
As many commentators have pointed out, if action had been taken after the massacre in Ballymurphy, Bloody Sunday might never have happened.
The horror of what happened to Bloody Sunday convulsed the nation. In Dublin, an angry crowd gathered at the British Embassy – which had been evacuated – and burned it down.
But the British Army – and the government in Westminster – was well versed in cover-up and contrivance. From the beginning they sought to deny justice to the families of those who had been shot. The narrative was tightly controlled, and not just in the British media. Many journalists in the south also failed the victims and the bereaved and shattered people of Derry.
The Widgery report was a disgusting whitewash, a set-up to defend the indefensible, where the only outcome was ever going to be to assert a lie and to blacken the names of the victims.
Their families had to fight for almost thirty years for the Saville inquiry, and another ten for the outcome of that investigation which found that the soldiers had “lost control” and caused the deaths of 13 people “none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury”. It also found that British soldiers had lied in an attempt to hide their actions.
Savile said that five British soldiers aimed shots at civilians they knew did not pose a threat, while two other soldiers shot at civilians suspecting they were gunmen but without being certain. In June 2010, British Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged that the soldiers actions were “unjustified and unjustifiable” and “wrong”.
He apologized for what had happened, and his apology was met with cheers in Derry. But in the ten years since that apology justice continues to be delayed and denied.
Now, even as the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday is marked, the exhausted families of the dead, and the relatives of those murdered in Ballymurphy, are forced, yet again, to raise their voices in public to ask that those who carried out the atrocity be brought to trial.
The British government is planning an amnesty for both the security forces and paramilitaries on either side during the conflict – shielding those involved from prosecution. The families say that it means those who killed their loved ones will not be brought to justice for their crimes. Unionists also oppose the amnesty, pointing to atrocities like Bloody Friday where 9 people, including 5 civilians were killed by IRA bombs.
For many onlookers in the south, Bloody Sunday has faded into the past, and I’ve heard more than one casual comment about families needing to ‘move on’ after the Saville Inquiry. Easy to say when it was not your brother lying bleeding in the dirt, or your community under fire not just from the Parachute Regiment but the UDR, the RUC and more.
The amnesty should be opposed, and the families should see those who murdered their loved ones brought to court to face the crimes. They have already waited 50 long, exhausting years. How can they ever have closure without justice?