I was in the Sunday Telegraph offices in London’s Docklands when, at a minute past 7 on the night of Feb. 9, 1996, the IRA detonated a 1,000-pound bomb in South Quay, a couple of hundred yards from where I was sitting. The bomb made a hellish noise. You could feel the thud in your guts. Behind me our news editor threw himself to the floor, and I did the same. Most of our colleagues, however, rushed to the windows to see what had happened. There was nothing to see: just a black void. It was very quiet.
The elevators were immediately shut down, and the staff of the Sunday Telegraph and its sister daily paper left the building by the emergency staircase. As we walked down the 13 floors, we talked excitedly and laughed. Once outside the building, a distinguished member of the staff was seen striding about in his camel-hair coat, back straight, chin thrust forward, seizing female members of the staff by the shoulders and kissing them on each cheek.
Two young men were killed in the blast—Inan Bashir, a Muslim, and John Jeffries. They ran a newsagent’s shop in South Quay. I used to buy chocolate and licorice there and liked the two men, Bashir especially. He had a ready, slightly shy smile. He had no quarrel with the Irish or with anyone else, though I imagine that, if pressed, he would have confessed to having sympathies with the Republicans. His body was mutilated almost beyond recognition.
Eventually a man named James McArdle was convicted of conspiracy to cause explosions and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He was released in June 2000 under the terms of the Good Friday (Peace) Agreement of 1998. The agreement was the one great achievement of Tony Blair’s premiership. The amnesty for IRA men was an essential part of that agreement. The only way forward was to call it quits.
I recall that crime now because of another crime, 24 years earlier, in Derry, on Jan. 30, 1972. On that Bloody Sunday, 27 unarmed civil-rights protesters were shot by soldiers from 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. Thirteen were killed.
On June 15, the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday published its findings. It found that all those killed were unarmed and that paratroopers had lost control and opened fire without warning. Some of their victims had been trying to flee when they were hit.
In the House of Commons, Prime Minister David Cameron, said, “What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the Armed Forces. And for that, on behalf of the government—and indeed our country—I am deeply sorry.”
The prime minister’s handsome apology reflects great credit on him. The Saville inquiry, on the other hand, reflects little credit on anyone. It was always intended, say Unionists, as a sop to the Republicans. It sat for 12 years, considered 30 million words of evidence, and cost taxpayers £Â191 million, more than half of which went on legal fees. No one seriously disputes its findings, and indeed for many years now most Britons have believed that Bloody Sunday was a bloody crime. But it was a crime that has to be seen in the context of the Troubles and of the subsequent peace process that brought freedom to unrepentant IRA gunmen.
The cruelest and most persistent killers in Northern Ireland during the Troubles were the IRA. Of the 3,526 people who lost their lives between 1969 and 2001, 2,057 were killed by Republican terrorists, 1,019 were killed by Protestants, and 362 by the security forces (who themselves lost more than 500). The Saville report ought now to bring closure to a brutal and ugly chapter in British history.
But will it? The Irish have long memories. As military historian Max Hastings observed, “No nation on Earth possesses a talent for promoting its grievances to match that of the Irish. Bloody Sunday is cherished in the Republican pantheon as the foremost symbol of British oppression.”
Max is right. I am not a Unionist. I am a Catholic of part Irish extraction. I believe that the Catholics in Northern Ireland had a just cause. Yet if the families of the men killed on Bloody Sunday do not move on, I may find my sympathies tested. Their loved ones were not the only innocent victims. Inan Bashir and John Jeffries are dead. An amnesty has been declared in the case of IRA men who planned and carried out cold-blooded murder in Ireland and on the mainland, and oceans of tears have been shed for the victims of British “brutality.” But brutal British soldiers are people, too, and justice requires that an amnesty should be declared in the case of the young soldiers, now old men, who 38 years ago lost control.
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