David Cameron has delivered an unprecedented apology for the deaths of 13 people in Derry’s Bloody Sunday at the hands of British Army paratroopers who lost "self control" and killed unarmed civilians.
Northern Ireland’s’ Director of Public Prosecutions was last night considering charges relating to the killings after the Saville report concluded what the people of Derry had long held - that all those killed on Bloody Sunday were innocent.
On behalf of the Government and the country the Prime Minister said he was "deeply sorry" for the deaths.
The Commons chamber fell silent as Cameron read the devastating conclusions of the 12 year investigation into the shooting dead of 13 people, seven of them teenagers, on 30th January 1972.
In Londonderry, thousands followed the route of the Bloody Sunday martch and stood outside the Guildhall and on the spot where the men fell during a day of deep emotions that stretched back over 38 years.
Only one parent of the victims survived to hear the Prime Minister say that there is no doubt that what happened when rioters clashed with the army was "unjustified and unjustifiable".
He quoted directly a crucial passage from the Saville report: "None of the casualties was causing a threat of causing death or serious injury or indeed was doing anything else that could on any view justify their shooting."
There is no legal direction over charges of murder or unlawful killing in the report, these are matters for the legal system in Northern Ireland, said Cameron.
In Derry the families and relatives of the victims declared their innocence to a large crowd while in the Commons Mark Durkan, the SDLP MP for Foyle, read out the names of all the dead.
"These men were cut down when the marched for justice in their own streets," he said. He recited Seamus Heaney’s poem, the Road to Derry, with it’s line: "And in the dirt lay justice like an acorn in the winter".
Choking back tears, he concluded: "Perhaps the most important and poignant words from today will not be heard here or on the airwaves. Relatives will stand at the graves of victims and their parents to tell of a travesty finally arrested, of evidence vindicated and of promises kept.
"And when they do so, they can invoke the civil rights anthem We Have Overcome. We have overcome this day."
Above, in the visitors gallery the Rev Ian Paisley sat impassively. For David Cameron, who was only five years old at the time of Bloody Sunday, the speech was more than a presentational challenge.
The frank and uncompromising report risks for re-opening old wounds in Northern Ireland. Cameron himself, who wrote speeches for Ian Gow, the Tory MP murdered by the IRA, said he gave no quarter to terrorism but found the words of the report difficult to digest.
Tony Doherty, whose father Paddy died when paratroopers opened fire, said the victims had been vindicated and the Parachute Regiment, which had been sent into the Bogside against orders, had been disgraced.
The report, 5000 pages and ten volumes long, painted a picture of the British paratroopers going out of control as they encountered stone throwing protesters.
The exhaustive, minute by minute examination of the chaotic event showed soldiers in "a state of fear or panic" shooting dead people who were, in the main, running away from them.
Shots were fired "without warning" at unarmed civilians, Saville’s report concluded. Symbolically, the report overturned the conclusions of the infamous Widgery Inquiry that concluded in 1972 that the soldiers had been fired upon first.
Cameron said the first shot was fired by the British Army and that "in no case was any warning given before soldiers opened fire".
One person was shot while crawling away from soldiers and another Alexander Nash was killed while tending to his wounded son. Another was shot while lying mortally wounded on the ground as soldiers made their way through the low build housing estate, now demolished.
There was a "serious and widespread loss of fire discipline" among the troops and that none of the soldiers "fired in response to attacks or threatened attacks by nail or petrol bombs".
Further to that, many of the soldiers, identified only by alphabetical identidies, "knowingly put forward false accounts in order to seek to justify their firing" concluded Saville.
"Unjustified and unjustifiable," said Cameron. "What happened should never have happened"
Colonel Derek Wilford, who was in charge of paratroopers in Derry that day, was the senior officer singled out for criticism in the report.
It said he should not have launched an incursion into the nationalist Bogside estate, and that he either deliberately disobeyed orders from a superior officer not to enter troops into the housing estate in the shadow of the Derry walls. He is retired from the army and living abroad.
Saville found there was some firing by republican paramilitaries, the Provisional IRA, were on the scene but nothing they did justified the shooting of civilians.
The report stated that Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, second in command of the Provisional IRA in Derry at the time, was in the Bogside probably armed with a Thompson submachine gun on the day.
While it was possible he fired, there was insufficient evidence to make a finding on this. There were also Official IRA snipers in the area firing on soldiers.
The report found that 17-year-old victim Gerald Donaghy was found with four nail bombs in his pocket. There have always been questions over whether the canisters were on him when he was shot or had been planted on him later by the security forces. Saville concluded that he had not been shot because of his possession of nail bombs. He had been killed "while trying to escape from the soldiers"
The extraordinary report concluded with another widely held truth, that the events of Bloody Sunday were a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland" and acted as a catalyst for the IRA campaign that claimed over 3500 lives, the overwhelming majority of them killed by terrorists, over the next 25 years.
Lord Saville said: "What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the Army and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed."
The report was commissioned in 1998 by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair under the auspices of the Good Friday agreement which could not have been signed off by republicans without a re-examination of the event.
The Saville Inquiry took witness statements from hundreds of people and has become the longest-running and most expensive in British history, costing £195m.
David Cameron said that what was at stake was not the process, which the Tory party has criticised, but what Saville’s report concluded.
He acknowledged: "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. We do not honour all those who served with such distinction by keeping the peace and upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland by hiding from the truth."
It represented an opportunity for the communities on either side of the Northern Ireland divide "to acknowledge our shared history - even where it divides us".
He said: "This report and the inquiry itself demonstrate how a State should hold itself to account, and how determined at all times - no matter how difficult - to judge ourselves against the highest standards."
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