Michael Coren is the author of Epiphany: A Christian’s Change of Heart and Mind Over Same-Sex Marriage. His next book is Reclaiming Faith, to be published in October
On Jan. 30, 1972 in Derry, Northern Ireland, soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment shot 28 unarmed civilians, at a peaceful demonstration by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, a group inspired by U.S. civil right campaigns and which included both Protestants and Catholics in its ranks. Thirteen were killed, and one died four months later. Some of the dead were fleeing the situation or helping the wounded. This became known as Bloody Sunday.
The massacre tarnished Britain’s reputation internationally, but more importantly became a major recruiting tool for the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and also destroyed what were still some tenuous (if encouraging) links between the British military and the Roman Catholic population. From then on, Northern Ireland would be devastated by violence and terror.
On Thursday, the Public Prosecution Service in London ruled that there is sufficient evidence for one of the soldiers to be charged with murder. It also concluded that the evidence against 16 other soldiers, and two members of the Official IRA, was not strong enough to proceed. Soldier F (military personnel are granted anonymity) will stand trial for the murders of James Wray and William McKinney.
This comes after years of inquiries and hearings. There has been predictable outrage from tabloids, talk radio, and Tories. How, they ask, can former members of republican and loyalist paramilitary groups escape prosecution yet British soldiers face trial? In fact, former terrorists have indeed been prosecuted and convicted, and whatever their actions, the British army – representing the state – has to be held to a higher standard.
I reported from Northern Ireland in the 1980s. It was a dangerous, volatile time, with hunger strikes, deadly violence, and a sectarian insularity and animosity that most of us assumed would never end. Yet it did. Partly out of sheer fatigue, but also because a new generation began to emerge that simply didn’t hold to the old, often atavistic hatred that infected so much of the culture of the otherwise vibrant and fascinating place.
In my experience, most soldiers behaved relatively well, were reluctant to be there in the first place, had little sympathy with either side, and were ashamed of what happened in Derry in 1972. It was never a good idea to send paratroopers into the situation, as various officers had argued before the decision was made. They are trained for aggression rather than negotiation, and were notorious then and now in Northern Ireland.
In 2012, my friend Douglas Murray, hardly a figure of the left, wrote a book about the event and the subsequent investigation. Of the official inquiry he wrote, “In that quiet room, one and a half decades ago, the soldiers of 1 Para might have come clean and admitted what they had done before sinking back into anonymity and retirement. Instead they stuck to their lies.”
And lie they did. It is difficult to know exactly what happened that hideous day, and there were certainly armed IRA men present, including a sniper who fired on the army; but this seems to have been only after soldiers shot at protesters.
The greater point, however, is that firing on armed members of the IRA or in self-defence is not at all the same as killing unarmed civilians. British soldiers with extensive training took careful aim, targeted people, and then shot to kill. One man was even shot in the back. They may have lost control (which is in itself inexcusable), but claims that the paratroopers only fired on bomb-throwers and gunmen is ludicrous – as numerous photographs and witness statements made clear.
This prosecution clearly does not heal every wound. The families of the other victims feel betrayed and believe that more than one soldier should be charged. But it does help to bring at least some closure, and to show that those nations claiming to be lawful have to act accordingly.
The timing is also startling. Brexit will change all sorts of things, and one of them may well be the unification of Ireland. Not due to any armed struggle, but because the Protestants of the north have lost much of their zeal about the union with Britain. Further, the Roman Catholic church is no longer a dominating force across the border in Ireland, and the pull of Europe, via Dublin, is stronger for many than the ties to London.
If the unification does come about, it will have come at a terrible cost – and no court of law can ever properly compensate for that.