The Unhelpful British Bloody Sunday Commission

A British paratrooper takes a captured youth from the crowd on Bloody Sunday, when British paratroopers opened fire on a 1972 civil-rights march in Londonderry, killing 14 civilians. Getty Images

The folk memory of Northern Ireland is crowded with painful episodes, and Bloody Sunday is among the cruelest. In the space of a few hours in 1972, British paratroopers shot dead 13 unarmed Catholic civil-rights protesters on the streets of Londonderry. A sectarian struggle was already underway, pitting Catholic republicans against Protestants loyal to the British crown. A new bitterness had entered a conflict that was to last a further 26 years.

Today, there is hope—but only that—for closure at last. A 12-year official inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday released Tuesday yielded a 5,000-page report. The questions that fed the bitterness are finally answered. In particular, the allegation that the troops were responding to attacks by paramilitary gunmen from the republican IRA is formally rejected. Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons the conclusions were "shocking" and that he was "deeply sorry." The Army's actions were "unjustified and unjustifiable." Still, the report is hardly ideal.

If the deserved apology satisfies the victims, the report brings its own risks. When Tony Blair agreed to establish the inquiry back in 1998, it was intended as a gesture to keep suspicious republicans in the peace process that culminated in the Good Friday peace accord of that spring, ending 30 years of bloodshed. Today's politicians may consider it one concession too many, threatening to aggravate the tensions that the commission sought to dispel. Few seriously fear a return to open strife, but a sour mood may hinder political progress. Already there are grumblings of discontent from hardline loyalists: Says Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice: "Today's jamboree over the ... report throws into very sharp relief the unacceptable and perverse hierarchy of victims which the preferential treatment of Bloody Sunday has created."

What's beyond dispute is significance of Bloody Sunday: for the IRA, the Army's brutality helped to sanction its own use of violence and to boost recruitment. There's no doubt, too, that the perfunctory inquiry held in the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday failed utterly to uncover the truth. Condemned as a whitewash at the time, it described the paratroopers' actions as no more than "bordering on the reckless," rather than the slaughter described by today's report.

But the inquiry has also raised issues of its own that go beyond its $300 million bill or its unnecessary length. With almost 1,000 witnesses heard, this turned out to be the longest inquiry in British history. Is it safe, for example, to depend on witnesses' recollections of events 38 years ago that might anyhow be colored by political attitudes?

More important, the 10-volume report will provide material for a round of recriminations and possible criminal prosecutions. A frank apology back in 1998 and the offer of compensation—reportedly Blair's favored option—would have been a much easier route to reconciliation. In the words of Tony Blair's former adviser Jonathan Powell: "I'm afraid that history suggests that inquiries don't draw lines under these issues."

Sure, the 12 years since the end of the Troubles have seen the Catholic and Protestant communities inching toward full political cooperation. Today, diehard Protestant loyalists sit alongside former IRA members in the government of Northern Ireland, where power is divided between the communities. (Martin McGuinness, now the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, was a senior IRA commander in Londonderry at the time of Bloody Sunday.)

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But the old animosities run deep. The Army has withdrawn from the streets and the paramilitaries have largely disarmed, but the "peace walls" that provide a physical barrier up to 25 feet high between the Catholic and Protestant areas of Belfast are still standing. Every step toward power sharing has required delicate compromise and brought the threat of collapse. It's a tricky moment to reopen the wounds of the past: the past year has witnessed the highest level of activity in more than a decade from dissident republican paramilitaries opposed to the entire peace process.

Besides, as ever in Northern Ireland, there are moral ambiguities that can't be ignored. In all, the Troubles claimed 3,000 lives from both communities and the military over 30 years. Army officers have pointed out that if the events of Bloody Sunday merited such an exhaustive inquiry, how about the killing of innocent civilians (in Northern Ireland and elsewhere) in countless IRA bombings—or homicidal attacks on British soldiers?

The peace process has always favored the deliberate shelving of past wrongs: rather than demand exact justice for past wrongs, it elevates coexistence to the highest priority. Hundreds of former paramilitaries convicted of violent crimes including murder—both Protestant and Catholic—have been released early from prison sentences under the Good Friday Agreement. The truth has now been delivered; let's hope it doesn't jeopardize the chance for a lasting settlement.

The Unhelpful British Bloody Sunday Commission | World