A peacemaking lesson from the people of Derry

Learning forgiveness from Bloody Sunday.

Ireland 311 (photo credit: AP)
Ireland 311
(photo credit: AP)
On January 30, 1972 British paratroopers opened fire on unarmed civilians on a civil rights march in Derry, Northern Ireland; 14 were killed, seven of them were teenagers.
Only now have the events of that winter’s day been put to rest with the publication of the Saville Inquiry’s report. The inquiry was set in motion by Tony Blair in 1998. After 12 years, 30 million words of testimony and £191 million, it tells us what everyone here in Ireland already knew: “On balance,” it says, the British soldiers fired first, on unarmed civilians. “In no case was any warning given before soldiers opened fire” and none of the soldiers “fired in response to attacks or threatened attacks by nail or petrol bombs.”
The soldiers later “knowingly put forward false accounts in order to seek to justify their firing.”
Lord Saville’s findings also confirmed that many of those shot were fleeing the troops or assisting the wounded. After the report’s publication, Prime Minister David Cameron told a hushed House of Commons: “The conclusions of this report are absolutely clear.
There is no doubt, there is nothing equivocal, there are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong... The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of our armed forces and for that, on behalf of the government – and indeed our country – I am deeply sorry.”
BLOODY SUNDAY was the spark that ignited a fire in Northern Ireland that was to burn out of control through the subsequent decades of murder and sectarian hatred.
The British government’s initial report, the Widgery report, only added fuel to the fire: It whitewashed events, and disparaged the dead, accusing the victims of firing weapons or handling bombs, heaping insult on top of grief. These false conclusions were based in part on faulty forensic evidence.
Many have already derided the inquiry as a pointless waste of time and money. Yet its true value may not lie so much in the report itself, but in the reaction to it: In Derry, several families triumphantly quoted the report, joyful that it at last cleared the victims of the allegations that they had been gunmen or nail-bombers.
John Kelly, whose 17-year-old brother, Michael, was killed by the paratroopers, told the crowd outside the Guildhall: “What matters above all else – what has been in our constant thoughts all these years – is the innocence of our loved ones. That’s the verdict we wanted. That’s the verdict we have today. That will be the verdict of history for all time.
That is what matters.”
AT LAST, we have truth about Bloody Sunday. So what next? There is speculation that the soldiers involved in the killings will stand trial for murder. Yet vengeance is not what the relatives of the victims want: Jean Hegarty, whose 17-year-old brother, Kevin McElhinney, was shot on Bloody Sunday while crawling to safety, has said she wanted the paratrooper who killed him to explain his actions in court, but not be sent to prison.
The peace process has seen the release of a huge number of convicted paramilitaries, she noted, saying: “I have no great desire to see a [now] 60-yearold man go to jail.”
Eamonn McCann, chairman of the Bloody Sunday Trust, who was on the 1973 march and witnessed the events, said: “That would be the majority opinion in Derry and also among the families.”
It is this beautiful, inspiring spirit of forgiveness in the face of injustice, suffering and death; this absence of hate, this absence of vengefulness; these are the stones upon which lasting peace will be built.
Perhaps the 14 people killed on Bloody Sunday, and the 3,000 other people killed in Northern Ireland’s troubles, including 700 British soldiers, will not have died in vain if the centuries old scars of division on this island are at last healed because their loved ones choose to forgive.
Even if the word “sorry” never cost so much, the forgiveness it has engendered is priceless.
Northern Ireland’s experience is now being offered as a template for conflict resolution throughout the world.
The political agreements, treaties and power-sharing executives all played a role, but if there is one eternal lesson that the people of Derry can today offer the world, it is this: The true fount of peace lies in not in the machinations of politicians, but in the hearts of ordinary people – in the quiet dignity, humility and strength that is required not to strike back in vengeance, but to rise above the human desire for retribution that has always been the engine of human conflict, and to somehow find the grace to forgive.
The writer is an Irish journalist. He specializes in political, legal and religious affairs.