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47 Years After 'Bloody Sunday,' Former British Soldier Faces Prosecution For Killings


On January 30, 1972, British soldiers opened fire on civil rights marchers in Londonderry in Northern Ireland. The day became known as Bloody Sunday. Now, 47 years later, authorities there say one of those British soldiers will be tried for murder. The soldier is still anonymous, known only as Soldier F. Journalist Denis Murray covered Ireland for many years for the BBC. I asked him why it took so long for the justice system to reach this point.

DENIS MURRAY: Well, what happened was after Bloody Sunday, there was what you might describe as a perfunctory inquiry which concluded that the soldiers had behaved properly. And it was regarded by everybody outside of it as a complete whitewash and nonsense. And the whole Bloody Sunday thing became such sort of a running sore in the body politic that by the time of the Good Friday Agreement negotiations in 1997-'98, the then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair - he felt that this really needed to be re-examined. And he ordered that this public inquiry should take place, and it is that which has led to these prosecutions.

CORNISH: But you're talking about a sort of re-examination of the case in the late 90s. What's taken so long to reach the point where prosecutors can talk about a specific person - in this case, Soldier F?

MURRAY: It took so long because the inquiry itself took so long. I mean, it interviewed thousands of people. And it lasted from 1998 to 2010. It is the longest and most costly public inquiry in British legal history. Then you have - the police had to reinterview more than 650 witnesses. It had to reinterview 18 soldiers and two members of the official IRA who also fired shots that day. And they presented their file to the director of public prosecutions as long ago as 2016, and that file was 20,000 pages. And the overall file that the prosecuting authorities have is 125,000 pages.

CORNISH: With public prosecutors now saying there isn't enough evidence to charge any of the 16 other former soldiers involved, how are relatives of the victims responding to this announcement?

MURRAY: Very hurt and very disappointed. And, I mean, if you're a layperson, you would sit back and look at that and say, well, 16 soldiers fired bullets that killed 11 other people on Bloody Sunday; why on Earth are they not being prosecuted as well? Former soldiers are saying as well, by the way, that this is a complete betrayal; soldiers should not be prosecuted for doing their duty. You can see why the whole thing's controversial.

CORNISH: Remind us how pivotal that day was - Bloody Sunday for all the years of violence that followed - right? - known as the troubles.

MURRAY: Absolutely. The very last sentence of Lord Saville's report is that it was a terrible and tragic day for the people of Derry. But it was a catastrophe for Northern Ireland because up to that point, there had been trouble and violence for sure, but it just exploded after that. Martin McGuinness, the former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland but who was a very senior IRA man - he gave evidence to the tribunal where he said he was second in command of the IRA in Derry at the time. And he characterised the IRA then as being - and I quote - "like the Boy Scouts." So Bloody Sunday turned, if you accept it, the Boy Scouts into the most ruthless, murderous - in their terms - effective and the largest terrorist group in Europe for the next 25 years.

CORNISH: That's journalist Denis Murray formerly of the BBC. Thank you for sharing this history with us.

MURRAY: Lovely to talk to you. Goodnight.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALEXICO'S "SPINBALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.