Death, pain and injustice: How British soldiers massacred scores of civilians in the UK
For the first time in 50 years, the crowds gathering in Derry this weekend to remember the events of the day forever known as Bloody Sunday will have some certainty. Certainty that the innocence of the 13 men and boys murdered on January 30, 1972 has been acknowledged, but also certainty that true justice has eluded them.
But that won’t stop the families of those killed and wounded by trigger-happy British Parachute Regiment soldiers in half an hour of bloodshed from celebrating what they’ve achieved in the years since. And it hasn’t stopped Enniskillen-born actor Adrian Dunbar, star of the hit TV police drama ‘Line of Duty’ from accepting an invitation to talk to his fellow Northern Irishmen and women on Sunday as they meet together to remember the past and pray for the future.
Among them will be Tony Doherty, who was just nine years old at the time. On the stone memorial at the foot of Rossville Street in Derry, his father’s name, ‘Patrick J. Doherty’, is at the top of the list of those mown down in the area of the city known as Bogside when the British Army opened fire on peaceful civil-rights marchers. Patsy Doherty was shot by a soldier as he attempted to crawl to safety. Thirteen died that day and a fourteenth succumbed to his injuries a few months later.
Speaking exclusively to RT.com this week, Tony said, “It was at the hospital that a lot of the families, who became known as the Bloody Sunday families, met one another for the first time, as the remains of their recently murdered loved ones were strewn throughout the morgue.”
His mother, Eileen, was among those identifying the bodies recovered from the street where they had fallen, having been notified that her husband had been shot. “When she first got the call, she didn’t know how badly my father had been hurt,” said Tony. “But when she got over to the hospital, she was only able to identify his body.”
That left the widow with a duty no parent ever expects or deserves. “She had to come back and tell her six children that their father had been shot dead,” Tony said.
“It's a bad memory and I try to keep it very safely in a box in my head and don’t open it up very often. It’s just not the type of memory that does your heart good. I suppose we all have our coping mechanisms. I don’t think about Bloody Sunday or the memories I have of that day very often because I think the more you think of them, the more difficult it is to lead your life in an ordinary sort of everyday sense.”
The crowd of 15,000 people who had gathered in the predominantly Catholic part of Derry that day were protesting against a decision that had been made by the UK government five months earlier to give the authorities powers to imprison people without trial – a process known as internment.
Against a backdrop of escalating violence and a number of bombings in Northern Ireland, it had been decided that this was the only way to restore order, but people from across the political spectrum hated the idea. Despite what was widely reported at the time, the march was not a Republican event – it was a civil rights protest. And those marching were not armed paramilitaries out for blood – they were regular folk looking to have their voices heard.
The march had begun peacefully, but when soldiers moved in to divert the protesters’ route, some of those marching remained behind to remonstrate with them and the situation quickly escalated between the opposing sides. For years, the paratroopers alleged they only began shooting live rounds into the crowd after being fired on by Republican paramilitaries.
No evidence has ever been found to support this allegation, but as recently as 2018, one former paratrooper was asked in a BBC interview about claims he had made in 1992 that the three people he had fired on were all armed and that the military response had been that it was “a job well done”. When pressed to confirm whether he still held that view, he replied, “I still believe that. They were not all innocent.”
What has long stood in the way of justice being served is this fundamental difference in the recollection of the events of that day. Serious attempts to reach a definitive narrative about exactly what happened and who might be to blame have proved problematic.
Hopes of an official inquiry finding answers were dashed after the initial investigation, announced by the government the day after Bloody Sunday by Lord Chief Justice Lord Widgery, essentially cleared the British soldiers of wrongdoing, although the tribunal did say the shootings “bordered on the reckless”. The families condemned the findings as a whitewash and demanded another inquiry.
That took 26 years. In 1998, then-prime minister Tony Blair had announced a new inquiry under a senior judge, Lord Saville, which – 12 years and £200 million later – found that none of the civilians who had been killed were posing a threat or doing anything that would justify their having been shot by the military personnel policing the march.
Lord Saville stated that no warning had been given to any civilians before the soldiers opened fire, and that none of the soldiers had fired in response to attacks by petrol-bombers or stone-throwers. Although there had been “some firing by Republican paramilitaries”, on balance, he said, the army had fired first.
The findings of the Saville Inquiry prompted the prime minister of the day, David Cameron, to apologise on behalf of the British government for the “unjustified and unjustifiable” killings and to launch a murder inquiry led by the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
Another six years on, in 2016, prosecutors announced that they would prosecute one British army soldier, known only as Soldier F, for the murders of James Wray and William McKinney and a five further counts of attempted murder. But in July last year, following a decision by Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service, it was announced that Soldier F would not face trial, after a ruling about the admissibility of evidence meant the test for prosecution required for proceeding to trial could no longer be met. It was a crushing blow for the Bloody Sunday families, and for Tony Doherty.
This was despite the earlier findings of the Saville Report, in which the judge had stated that there was “no doubt” that Soldier F had shot Patrick Doherty. He had fired “either in the belief that no-one in the area … was posing a threat, or not caring”.
“At times it is difficult – there’s no doubt about it,” said Tony. “But I tend to put the memory and experience in its rightful place in my head, and that helps me cope and get on with other aspects of my life, like my work and family life and all the rest of it.
“What actually does make things difficult, despite the best of intentions and plans, are the memories, the feelings, that are evoked by the existence of Soldier F."
“Soldier F was responsible for killing my father as well as four other men and boys within a space of 20 minutes, so it was a slaughter match and, when I think of him, it does still make me angry and anxious, given the fact that he’s a free man. He’s a mass murderer and he’s protected by the state. But I don’t think about that every day, because I don’t think it’s healthy for me.”
Tony has learnt this lesson the hard way. As a child left fatherless during the most violent years of the era euphemistically known as the Troubles, he joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as a channel for his anger. In 1981, aged 18, he was arrested after he attempted to fire-bomb a furniture store.
The bomb he planted failed to detonate and the fortunate staff escaped physical harm, but Tony was soon arrested and served four years in prison for the attack. In a 2017 interview he recalled the incident and said, “Sometimes I do think of the staff of the shop, who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I suppose if there’s any regret to be expressed, it probably needs to be expressed to them.
“I don’t know who they were or what their lives have been since, but I think in looking at where we’ve come from and all the difficulties and trauma and violence that we’ve come through, it’s people like that who were caught in the middle. I think they deserve an apology, and if I messed up their lives in any regard I’m sorry for that.”
Many might question how a quiet, working-class lad from a big Catholic home could end up joining the IRA, but for many people in Derry, the events of Bloody Sunday proved a clarion call, and membership of the organisation surged as outrage grew among the disaffected population. Ironically, the behaviour of the soldiers provided the impetus for the most effective recruitment campaign the paramilitaries could have asked for.
“I’m often asked if I regret joining the IRA,” said Tony. “But I don’t. When I look back now, it was a very natural and, in Derry terms, a very ordinary thing to do for a teenager growing up in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday and right through the 1970s, which was a gruesome period. It was a natural thing to do in response to the tyranny and brutality of the state. There’s no way you can describe [the effect of the] massacre. What I found out in the 1980s and beyond was the huge number of people who had ended up in prison as a result of Bloody Sunday. I was very, very surprised at the number of people – of all ages."
“I was only 18, but people would have been in their 20s, maybe early 30s, and they all cited Bloody Sunday as a turning point for them. And that’s obviously corroborated by the history of the conflict as well, because 1972 was the worst year of the Troubles.”
Official figures bear that out, with 479 deaths in Northern Ireland having been recorded that year – among them 130 British soldiers – and a staggering 4,876 people injured.
The past five decades have certainly been a rollercoaster ride for all those affected by the events in Bogside in January 1972, but following the decision not to pursue Soldier F and others last year, this year’s anniversary of Bloody Sunday will mark something of an end to a 50-year pursuit of justice.
However, although millions of pounds have been spent on two inquiries, there’s been a very public apology from a British prime minister, and it’s been officially acknowledged that armed paratroopers opened fire on unarmed civilians for no justifiable reason, no one will ultimately be held personally accountable for the death of 13 men and boys on that day.
And yet, while that does make Sunday still painful for many, there is an understanding that justice of some sort has been achieved and that, after years of turmoil, hundreds of deaths and communities having been torn apart, the years of the Troubles are now behind us. Tony has his own view.
“Never say never,” he said. “I think most of us believe we’re well over the worst of the conflict and the potential for conflict, but you just never know. These things can flare up depending on political and other circumstances. But I would like to think that people have learnt from the best and the worst of the history of Bloody Sunday since 1972. I would be very hopeful about the prospects of peace on the island of Ireland for a long time to come.”