14:47, March 14 49 0 theguardian.com

2019-03-14 14:47:04
The Guardian view on the Bloody Sunday prosecution: late but necessary

It is now approaching half a century since Bloody Sunday, when British troops fired on civil rights demonstrators in Derry. The killings not only left families distraught but, as the brother of one victim observed on Thursday, deepened and widened the conflict in Northern Ireland. The Widgery tribunal of the same year compounded anger. It took more than 25 years, and the peace process, for the British government to commission another inquiry. In 2010 Lord Saville finally delivered his devastating report. A lengthy police inquiry followed.

Now one former paratrooper is to stand trial for the murder of two men, and attempted murder of four more. Prosecutors concluded that there was insufficient evidence to provide a reasonable prospect of convicting other suspects on similar charges, though some may yet face perjury cases.

The British state has a long and dishonourable tradition of denying its wrongs and, when that becomes unsustainable, delaying facing the issue for as long as possible. The passage of so many years has inevitably had its impact upon the process of justice – witnesses and soldiers present on Bloody Sunday have died, as have some of the bereaved. Relatives are profoundly disappointed that only one person is to be charged, despite their relief that there are charges at all, and will probably challenge the decision not to pursue other cases.

Their distress and anger has been fuelled by the carelessness, ignorance and crassness of British ministers – all the more alarming given the stresses that Brexit imposes upon a hard-won peace. Last week the Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, had to apologise for saying killings by security forces were “not crimes” and were carried out by people “fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way”.

The defence secretary’s response to this prosecution has been insensitive in the extreme. Gavin Williamson made no mention of the victims or families in his statement. He went on to say that the government is working on safeguards to ensure the armed forces are not unfairly treated and will “urgently reform the system for dealing with legacy issues. Our serving and former personnel cannot live in constant fear of prosecution.” A 10-year statute of limitations has been mooted.

The implications with regard to Iraq and Afghanistan are obvious. So is the message it would send to personnel in operations yet to come. That the state upholds the law, and especially that it addresses its own breaches, is not less but more important in highly charged contexts or full-scale conflicts. If it fails to do so promptly and transparently, it must address that too. To tackle old wrongs helps to rebuild trust and strengthen communities today. It also prevents future wrongs by reminding troops and those who command them of their responsibilities. This prosecution is both important and necessary.

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