Last week was an extraordinary time to be in Ireland. Of my more than twenty trips to Ireland, being in County Clare, Ireland on June 15 and 16 was unforgettable. There was, of course, the World Cup. While Ireland is not in the World Cup, these “football” crazy fans are following the events very closely and were, no surprise here, delighted that the USA held England to a 1-1 draw. Then, also last week, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Brian Cowen, survived a vote of no confidence, 82-77, over his actions as both Minister of Finance and Taoiseach, concerning the Irish banking crisis, after the publication of two independent studies showed that there was very little government regulation of the banks. 82-77 is hardly a vote of confidence. And the main opposition party, Fine Gael, was in the midst of a leadership fight, with a number of the party leadership publicly stating that they “no longer have confidence” in the Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny. He eventually survived as party leader, but just barely.
But all of these events pale in comparison to the television, radio, and newspaper coverage of another event. The Irish Times headline of June 16, simply quoted British Prime Minister David Cameron: “On behalf of our country I am deeply sorry.” And the Irish Independent’s lead story that same day was titled, “Joy and tears after Bloody Sunday verdict,” and had the subtitle for the first of a number of stories, “Cameron sorry for slaying of innocents.”
In extensive detail, including an 8 page insert in the Irish Times, the main findings of the mammoth Saville Inquiry Report, named after the Inquiry chair, Lord Mark Saville, were outlined in great detail. The report took 12 years, after Prime Minister Tony Blair established the Inquiry on January 29, 1998. The Inquiry had a total cost of 191.2 million pounds, had 2,500 people who gave evidence, including 922 who gave oral testimony, with a total of 30,000,000 words of evidence. The Inquiry’s final report is more than 5,000 pages. But it is not the size of the report or its cost that have riveted Ireland.
It is the report’s conclusions that have stunned, and delighted, the Irish in both the North and the Republic of Ireland. The report is a stinging denouncement of the British army, whose paratroopers killed 13 people (one more died later of injuries suffered) in the city of Derry, on January 30, 1972, in what has simply become known as Bloody Sunday. The findings noted that the British army caused the deaths of people, “none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury.” Later, the report states, a number of the soldiers, “knowingly put forward false accounts.” No blame whatsoever is placed in the report on the organizers of the demonstration that led to the army’s conduct. As Prime Minister David Cameron said to the House of Commons upon the release of the Inquiry’s report on June 15, “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 result of this tragedy, according to the Saville Inquiry report, was “What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the army and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed. Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland.” Thus the report ties this event in 1972 to all the difficulties that followed, which tore Northern Ireland apart, created armed camps of Catholics and Protestants, killed the kind of economic development that occurred in the Republic of Ireland, and in the process resulted in thousands of deaths, including 651 British soldiers, among the 250,000 British soldiers who served during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
The titles of the articles in The Irish Times and the Irish Independent on June 16 show the true feelings of the people in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Times‘ articles included: “Exoneration of victims delivers almost all the demands of families;” “Relief and vindication in Derry at findings in 5,000-page report;” “British chief of defense accepts finding;” “All those shot dead or injured were innocent;” “Many soldiers knowingly gave false accounts;” “First shots came from British army, not republicans;” “McAleese (President of Ireland) praises report’s fairness on ‘momentous day’;” and “UK can take pride in uncovering truth, says Cameron.” The Irish Independent had articles entitled: “Cowen (Irish Taoiseach) welcomes vindication at last for murdered civilians;” and “Finally, the world has been told they were innocent.”
Each of the major Irish papers had editorials on the report. The Irish Independent concluded its editorial, “Truth at last on Bloody Sunday” with the following: ”At last the world now knows the truth that people of Derry knew from the start.” And the Irish Times editorial, “The day they said sorry,” was equally eloquent.
What does all of this mean? It is a remarkable step in the right direction for Northern Ireland, for relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland and for further economic integration, but not political integration, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement has been especially well received. No wonder this Inquiry Report made every other story seem trivial last week in Ireland. It will for many years to come. It was a story that made an impact on the world. It no doubt had - and has - great significance for the more than 800,000 Virginians of Irish ancestry.
Eugene P. Trani is President Emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University