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June 15, 2010
Cameron Calls N. Ireland Killings ‘Unjustified’
“What happened should never, ever have happened,” Mr. Cameron said in a House of Commons statement. “The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and hurt of that day, and a lifetime of loss. Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces. And for that, on behalf of the government — and indeed our country — I am deeply sorry.”
While the inquiry seemed to settle the issue of responsibility for the killings, the government in London will still have to tackle the difficult question of whether any of the soldiers involved, or their commanders, should be exposed to the possibility of criminal prosecution, or be granted an indemnity, as the opposition Labour Party’s acting leader, Harriet Harman, urged in the Commons in her response to Mr. Cameron’s remarks.
The publication of the 5,000-page report plunged Mr. Cameron, in office barely a month, into the heart of
On that Sunday, in events that were to generate an extensive archive of feature films, documentaries, investigative books, popular songs and poetry that helped build worldwide sympathy for Northern Ireland’s Catholics, a crowd of about 10,000 gathered to protest the practice of detention without trial, used frequently by the British authorities to curb those suspected of paramilitary extremism.
The outburst of violence that followed effectively ended a nonviolent campaign for civil rights and led to three decades of sectarian strife that claimed more than 3,600 lives. Within weeks of the shootings, another Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, suspended the Parliament in Belfast and imposed direct British rule, which lasted until the 1998 Good Friday peace pact ushered in the new era of power-sharing in Belfast.
The previous British government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown had delayed publication of the report until after the May 6 general election, fearing that the findings might stir political passions during the campaign and undermine the power-sharing government established in
Mr. Cameron praised the overall performance of the 250,000 British troops who served in
But he chose not to equivocate on the central issue of whether the troops of Britain’s crack Parachute Regiment had any justification for opening fire with high-powered combat rifles on the
In effect, the prime minister endorsed almost every contention that the victims’ families had made over the decades: that the British commander should not have ordered the troops to open fire; that the army fired the first shots; that no warning was given before the army fusillade began; that “none of the casualties” were carrying a firearm; and that some soldiers had “knowingly put forward false accounts” of their actions.
In addition, Mr. Cameron quoted approvingly from sections in which the high-ranking judge who led the inquiry, Lord Saville, 74, concluded that although there was “some firing” by republican paramilitaries mixed in with the protesters, “none of this firing provided any justification for the shooting of civilian casualties,” and that none of the soldiers fired “in response to attack or threatened attacks by nail or petrol bombers,” as the soldiers and their lawyers had maintained.
Rather, the soldiers reacted to perceived threats from the protesters by “losing their self-control,” “forgetting or ignoring their instructions and training” and with a “serious and widespread loss of fire discipline,” the report said. The document described one of the victims as having been shot while “crawling away” from the soldiers, with another, “in all probability,” taking fire “while he was lying mortally wounded on the ground.”
Mr. Cameron, calling sections of the report “shocking,” said: “You do not defend the British Army by defending the indefensible. We do not honor all those who have served with distinction in keeping the peace and upholding the rule of law in
On the role of Mr. McGuinness, a point of particular political sensitivity, the inquiry concluded that although he was present and probably armed with a “submachine gun,” he did not “engage in any activity that provided any of the soldiers with any justification for opening fire.” Allegations to the contrary have fed years of vilification of Mr. McGuinness by Protestant politicians.
The shootings have been angrily contested since the day they happened, and especially after a report completed within weeks by a top British judge, Lord Widgery, saying they had been provoked by demonstrators using nail bombs and other weapons.
The Saville inquiry was commissioned in 1998 by Tony Blair, then prime minister, as part of the negotiations that brought about the Good Friday pact, and broke records for the 12 years it took to complete, the nearly 1,400 witnesses who gave evidence and the cost: $280 million. More than half of the money — government funds — went to the lawyers involved, two of whom earned nearly $6 million each.
One after another, relatives emphasized the youth of many of those killed — 7 of the 14 were teenagers — and their innocence of any wrongdoing. They used words like “murdered” and “assassinated.”
“Thirty-eight years, four months, 15 days, almost to the minute — Kevin is innocent,” said the sister of one of the victims, Kevin McElhinney.
Mr. McGuinness, who joined the crowd, denied that he was carrying a gun at the time of the shootings and said that the allegation originated with “British agents or with people who were very close to British agents.”
He added, “I think that the key message out of this was the courage and heroism of the families who were prepared to stand for justice for their loved ones and for the citizens of this city, who for almost 40 years had been waiting for those who had been shot on that day to be vindicated.”
Relatives of the victims left little doubt in their statements to the crowd that they would press for murder trials, or at least for prosecutions under an “unlawful killing” provision in British law — a step certain to provoke an angry reaction among the province’s Protestant politicians.
Mr. Cameron said it was an issue for the independent prosecution service and made no mention of any government move to grant the soldiers indemnity. “These judgments are not matters for a tribunal — or for us as politicians — to decide,” he said.
Eamon Quinn contributed reporting from
Correction: June 15, 2010
An earlier version of this article misquoted a portion of Prime Minister David Cameron's statement. Mr. Cameron said, “Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly." He did not say they "reacted wrongly."
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs