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Explainer: Why, almost 50 years on from Bloody Sunday, ex-British soldiers could face murder charges

After years of investigations from the PSNI, soldiers are set to be told today whether they’ll face prosecution.

A mural depicting events of Bloody Sunday in Derry
A mural depicting events of Bloody Sunday in Derry
Image: Jonathan Porter DPA/PA Images

This piece was first published on Saturday 9 March

LATER THIS MORNING, a number of former British soldiers could find out if they are to be put on trial for murder in relation to the Bloody Sunday killings.

Almost 50 years on from the deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of British soldiers, the PSNI could be set to charge ex-army personnel for their role in the killings.

It comes many years after investigations into Bloody Sunday first got under way, and generated reaction on both sides of the Irish Sea.

But how have we got this far? And what happens next?

Bloody Sunday

On 30 January 1972, British soldiers fired into a crowd of unarmed civilians who were taking part in a civil rights march in the bogside in Derry.

In all, 28 people were shot. 13 died while another person succumbed to injuries sustained a number of months later. 

The shootings intensified the armed conflict during the Troubles, leading to a surge in anti-British sentiment in Ireland and boosting recruitment for the IRA.

An inquiry commissioned into Bloody Sunday by the British government of the day – dubbed the Widgery Tribunal – pinned the blame on the march organisers, and his main criticism of the army was limited to describing their firing as being “bordered on the reckless”.

Widgery’s report was widely denounced and dissatisfaction with these findings persisted throughout the peace process in the 1990s.

This led to British Prime Minister Tony Blair ordering a new inquiry in 1998.

This inquiry lasted a full 12 years before the Saville Report was published in 2010.

As well as savaging the result from the Widgery Tribunal, it was sharply critical of the soldiers who opened fire.

The report said: “The firing by soldiers of 1 PARA on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury.”

It also noted that these actions were “unjustifiable”, and that the soldiers had “lost control”.

Following the report, then-Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons he was “deeply sorry” and apologised for Bloody Sunday on behalf of the British government.

“It is clear from the tribunal’s authoritative conclusions that the events of Bloody Sunday were in no way justified,” he said. 

There is no doubt, there is nothing equivocal, there are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.

PSNI probe

In the wake of the Saville Report, a murder investigation was launched by the PSNI into the deaths of the civilians who were shot on Bloody Sunday.

In this case, like many others that occurred during the Troubles, no one has ever been prosecuted in relation to the deaths of these civilians.

In fact, roughly one-third of killings during this period are the subject of PSNI legacy investigations. This applies to cases where republican groups, loyalist groups and security services were believed to be responsible for the killings, but no one was ever convicted.

According to figures obtained by the BBC last year, the PSNI had 1,188 killings listed as legacy investigations. This included 530 attributed to republicans, 271 to loyalists and 354 attributed to security forces.

However, progress in this investigation was slow.

In 2014, families of those killed on Bloody Sunday challenged a decision to delay the PSNI inquiry, claiming it now appeared the statutory duty on the PSNI to investigate crimes “does not extend to murdered committed by the British army”. The probe recommenced in 2015.

After a 66-year-old former soldier was arrested by police in November 2015, a number of former members of the parachute regiment launched legal proceedings challenging the lawfulness of their potential arrest in Northern Ireland.

Then, in 2017, the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service was reported to be considering whether to prosecute 18 British soldiers for their role in Bloody Sunday.

And, in the past two weeks, media reports have indicated that four ex-British soldiers could be charged with the 1972 shooting of unarmed marchers in Derry on Bloody Sunday.

There were so many people killed during this time, and the PSNI is not investigating all of the 1,000+ cases at once.

To decide how cases are managed and progressed, it uses a case sequencing model which takes a number of factors into consideration.

For a case to be prioritised and progressed, the PSNI analyses four aspects of the case – contemporary persons of interest, forensic potential, criminal justice status and the progression of the case so far. 

In most cases, the PSNI said it will prioritise more recent cases as those who committed crimes “may be more likely to present a contemporary risk to public safety than those committed in the 1970s and 1980s”. 

Exceptions can be made, however, when the head of legacy investigations “has accepted the rationale for a variation on humanitarian grounds”. 

Last August, PSNI detective superintendent Ian Harrison said that the police had a “legal obligation” to investigate Bloody Sunday, after former head of the British Army Lord Bramall said it was “absurd and grossly unfair” to the soldiers involved. 

What’s happening now?

The issue around ex-soldiers being prosecuted for killings during the Troubles was put under fierce scrutiny this month, as British politicians expressed their anger at the idea of soldiers being prosecuted.

Firstly, Conservative MP Boris Johnson suggested that soldiers could be charged with murder for political reasons. 

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Johnson claimed that there would be “a storm of utter fury” if the four men were charged later this month while the government let former members of the IRA “get away with” their actions throughout the Troubles.

“They did not get up in the morning with the intention of killing and maiming innocent civilians,” he said.

Are we really proposing to send old soldiers to die in jail – after we gave dozens of wanted terrorists a get-out-of-jail-free card under the Good Friday Agreement? Is that balanced? Is that fair?

Although Johnson added that nobody should be exempt from justice, he claimed it was now impossible to know the truth about what happened on Bloody Sunday, suggesting that the marchers’ deaths could have been the result of “confusion and panic”.

“The reason this whole thing stinks to high heaven – and the reason it should be denounced – is that there is absolutely nothing new for any trial to discover,” he said

In a later tweet, the former mayor of London said that justice would be trumped by politics if a trial went ahead.

His comments were roundly criticised by political parties in the North, with Alliance MLA Stephen Farry saying that the “rule of law” must be respected.

And then, on Wednesday, the UK’s Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley told the House of Commons “that were at the hands of the military and police were not crimes”.

As this FactCheck shows, this claim is false. 

Bradley has faced calls to resign since making these remarks, and she later apologised and said she was “profoundly sorry” for the offence caused and that she did not believe what she said.

In the Telegraph’s report earlier this month, it cited sources which said that the four paratroopers in question are set to be told next Thursday 14 March whether they will now face murder charges.

If there are charges brought against any individuals, it is also likely to be some time before a trial is held.

In apologising for her comments, Karen Bradley vowed that the British government would help to “deliver justice for those families” of the victims of unlawful killings during the Troubles.

Nearly 50 years on from Bloody Sunday, whether that justice that families seek will be delivered still remains to be seen. 

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Sean Murray

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