On January 30 1972 British paratroopers opened fire on a civil rights march in Derry. Fourteen people were killed, seven of them teenagers.
The events of Bloody Sunday were finally put to rest last month with the publication of the Saville Inquiry’s Report. The Inquiry was set in motion by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998. After 12 years, 30 million words of testimony and at a cost of £191 million, it confirmed to Bishop Edward Daly what he already knew.
“On balance,” it says, the soldiers fired first, on unarmed civilians. “In no case was any warning given before soldiers opened fire” and none of the soldiers “fired in response to attacks or threatened attacks by nail or petrol bombs”. The soldiers later “knowingly put forward false accounts in order to seek to justify their firing”. Lord Saville’s findings also confirmed that many of those shot were fleeing the troops or assisting the wounded.
The reason that Bishop Edward Daly, the retired Bishop of Derry, knew what happened on Bloody Sunday is that he was there. As a priest attending the march on that day, he will forever be associated with the event by the images of him holding out a blood-spattered white handkerchief as a makeshift flag of truce as he walked towards the paratroopers, while the body of a 17-year-old boy was carried behind him.
He recalls: “A young boy [Jackie Duddy] was shot dead only a couple of feet in front of me. I didn’t know him at the time, but I spent the last three minutes of his life with him. I feel I’ve come to know him very closely over the last 40 years, even though he died only a few minutes after I met him – he was the young boy in the picture.”
He remembers growing up in Fermanagh during World War II and seeing “American solders there preparing for the invasion of Europe in 1943 and early 1944. I was fascinated by the paraphernalia of battle and war – I loved war stories and movies. But when you see bloodshed on the streets, the obscenity of conflict comes home to you. On Bloody Sunday I saw war for what it is: an obscene, cruel and vicious activity. When you see a person’s body blown apart by a high-velocity bullet, it disabuses you of any romantic ideas you might have.”
In 1972 Northern Ireland was run by a Unionist Government which denied many Catholics the vote, gerrymandered electoral lines and controlled the police force. Anti-Catholic discrimination in terms of jobs, education and housing was common.
In this context Bishop Daly says “I was sympathetic to the objectives of the civil rights movement, and like many others here, I was inspired by the American civil rights movement… which showed us that there was a non-violent way to make our point.”
After the paratroopers opened fire on Bloody Sunday Fr Daly gave Last Rites to the dead and dying, many of whom were parishioners and friends. In the weeks and months afterward, as parish priest on Derry’s Bogside, he ministered to a community in shock and rage. He confesses to feeling anger himself at the time: “As a Christian you have to control your anger and channel it in to something positive. I hate violence, but I’d like to think that I would forgive those who engaged in it, provided they see the wrongs of their ways, as many of them did ultimately.”
He says the events of Bloody Sunday provided a huge boost for the membership of the Provisional IRA in Derry: “I knew many who got involved in the Provos after Bloody Sunday, they were good young people, they weren’t cruel. They were just angry young people who thought a way to respond to what had happened was to take military action.
“I was in my thirties and I understood their anger. Had I been 17 or 18, having witnessed what I had seen, if I had not had the values of education, formation in the priesthood, and a chance to reflect and pray about the gospels, what would my reaction have been? I wouldn’t say that I would never have got involved.”
A large part of Bishop Daly’s ministry involved visiting prisons where he “came to understand how people felt and how they became involved. Often, many came to regret what they did, but a lot would still feel that what they did was justified.”
He preached about forgiveness in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, “but one had to also preach about the evils of injustice and assuage the anger in that regard. It would have been wrong and naïve to start on the issue of forgiveness. First start at the reason for the anger, then later get on to forgiveness.”
Bishop Daly gave evidence to the Saville Inquiry and is elated that “the cloud of suspicion over those who had died a long time ago has been lifted – for not only had the people been murdered but their characters had been murdered by the government in saying that some were bombers and gunmen, which was untrue.”
He feels that a truth and reconciliation commission of the sort held in South Africa would be of enormous benefit in Northern Ireland.
“I wish other people who suffered such atrocities could have a similar experience [of vindication]. Bloody Sunday was just one of many bloody days here – I officiated at the funeral of one of the youngest victims of the Omagh bombing, a little baby. But the difference in Bloody Sunday was that it was officers of the state murdering their own citizens and it was done in broad daylight, in the presence of thousands of people. That made it different, yet the relatives of the victims of each tragedy feel the same grief and sense of loss as anybody else. There is no hierarchy of victims.
“I have administered the Last Rites to a number of British solders on the streets,” he says, vividly recalling ministering to a dying young British soldier named Ryan, whose parents were from Tipperary. Some 700 British soldiers were killed in the course of Northern Ireland’s Troubles.
An ecumenical forgiveness ceremony was held the day after the report’s publication, with the leaders of Derry’s main Protestant churches in attendance. Bishop Daly says that another hugely significant factor “was Prime Minister Cameron’s statement which was magnanimous and generous and very sincere. I listened to that speech in the presence of many of the victims’ families and the impact it had was powerful – it was as powerful as the reading out of the report itself. It was an extraordinary moment.”
Cameron’s speech was broadcast live to the mostly nationalist crowd massed in Derry city centre. His apology provoked a spontaneous and warm round of applause. The Prime Minister said: “The conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. 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… The Government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of our armed forces and for that, on behalf of the Government – and indeed our country – I am deeply sorry.”
Bishop Daly says that the power of this apology lay in the fact that “it was subsequent to a very detailed process of scrutiny and examination… I think apologies can sometimes be rather shallow, but an apology that was backed up by a report of that magnitude, 4,000 pages, where a Prime Minister is as magnanimous as Mr Cameron was, that is a statement of considerable substance, and that is what made it so powerful. The apology was of huge significance and it has brought considerable healing here.”
He says forgiveness brings healing to both the forgiver and the forgiven: “To let a grudge go, gives you a wonderful sense of healing and releases a burden. Certainly here, people are a lot happier than they were before the report – a cloud over Derry has been lifted by it.
“Speaking personally, I would like to leave that part of my life go. I’m 76 years old and for 38 years, almost exactly half my life, there has been a cloud over me, and that cloud has at last lifted.”