Timothy Lavin: Coming Clean on Northern Ireland's "Bloody Sunday"

Roundup: Talking About History

[Timothy Lavin is an Atlantic senior editor.]

...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....

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