Coming Clean on Northern Ireland's 'Bloody Sunday'

On January 30, 1972, about 15,000 people gathered in the city of Derry, in Northern Ireland, for a civil-rights march. At the end of the day, 13 unarmed protestors were dead after British paratroopers opened fire on the crowd. On Tuesday, the British government released its second investigation into the chaos of that day (now known as Bloody Sunday). And even for a government report, even by European standards, it's a colossus: 12 years and some $280 million in the making, it expands over 5,000 pages, comprises 30 million words, and includes the testimony of some 2,500 witnesses, experts, military officials, politicians, clergy, police, and paramilitary members. It's the product of the longest and most expensive investigation in British history. And, absurd as it seems, it was worth it.

The report's most obvious benefit is that it illuminates an enormous injustice by the British state, and firmly attributes blame: the troops, "losing their self-control," fired unjustifiably and killed 14 people, most of them teenagers. Many of the victims were shot in the back, or while attempting to help the wounded; none of them were visibly armed. The first official reckoning of this bloodshed (the Widgery Tribunal, which took all of 10 weeks and 39 pages in 1972), conceded only that the soldiers' actions "bordered on the reckless" -- words that have since lived in infamy among the North's Catholics. The Widgery report also hinted that some of those killed were armed terrorists who had provoked the troops, a claim that was decisively debunked on Tuesday.

"There is no doubt, there is nothing equivocal, there are no ambiguities, what happened on Bloody Sunday was unjustified," David Cameron, the current British prime minister, told the House of Commons.

But perhaps the more lasting justification for this monumental report is that it stands as a concrete expression of impartial and transparent government. Because the Troubles -- the 40-year conflict between republican Catholics and loyalist Protestants over Northern Ireland's political status -- were always, at base, about a citizenry that couldn't trust its institutions. The marchers in Derry were protesting the government's disastrous policy of internment, under which suspected terrorists were arrested and placed in prison camps without trial (94 percent of those detained, most on the basis of flawed intelligence, were Catholic). And the day's bloodshed reinforced much of what Catholics hated about their political circumstances -- gratuitous state-sanctioned violence against them and a governing culture of hostility, dishonesty, and unaccountability.

That lack of trust exploded in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday: the British embassy in Dublin was burned to the ground the next day; Bernadette Devlin, a civil rights leader and MP, attacked the British home secretary on the floor of Parliament; political violence surged as the year went on; and IRA support and recruitment skyrocketed. The fury lasted for decades.

"Some may complain that the Saville Inquiry cost a fortune and dragged on far too long, however, there is no doubt that it will prove to be a critical turning point in modern Irish history," Robert Savage, the co-director of the Irish studies department at Boston College, told me. "Bloody Sunday was truly a catastrophe, not only for the innocent civilians who were shot down in cold blood, their families and friends, but for a generation of people in Northern Ireland. The killings infuriated an already deeply alienated minority and ensured that the mayhem and violence of the Troubles would continue for many years."

Supporters of the troops who opened fire fear the inquiry will lead to lawsuits by victims' families, or even criminal investigations. And they've called for reciprocal inquiries into the actions of IRA men that day -- including Martin McGuinness, now Northern Ireland's deputy first minister. That's as it should be. As its paramilitaries fitfully disarm, and its civil society strengthens, the North needs to have the confidence to deal with its history in the open. No investigation should ever approach the expense and length of this one, of course. But the Saville Inquiry was a singular case: it closed a festering wound, and diminished the divisive power of perhaps the most potent symbol of the Troubles. It should serve as a lasting encouragement for Northern Ireland's power-sharing government to finally be worthy of the trust of all its citizens.