With the Saville Report, the City of Derry and Northern Ireland now have a document that has, in the main, satisfied the families of the victims who were shot dead by the British Army in 1972. The families and other citizens of the Bogside have for years said that they knew the truth. But the Bloody Sunday Inquiry was about receiving public acknowledgement from the British state about what happened on that day.
By now the facts of the Saville Report are well known: the Army fired the first shot, all of the victims were innocent in that they posed no threat to the soldiers, and some soldiers lied about what happened on the day. By acknowledging all of this and more, the Saville Report can be seen as a significant step in promoting healing for the families of the victims and for others who stood in solidarity with them.
But the Saville Report isn’t just about setting the facts straight. It provided an opportunity that, perhaps surprisingly, was seized by British Prime Minister David Cameron: the chance to say sorry.
Often in conflicts, it is the groups, parties or states that have the most power that are the most likely to abuse it. In the Northern Ireland conflict, the British state was the most powerful actor, though it at times tried to portray itself as (or falteringly attempted to act as) a neutral arbitrator.
Correspondingly, it is difficult for the powerful who have abused their power to own up to it, let alone to say they are sorry to the less powerful people who have been wronged.
That’s why I was impressed with Cameron’s clear and direct public apology. He said,
What happened should never, ever have happened. Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces. And for that, on behalf of the government, indeed on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry.
Indeed, the main headline on the front page of today’s Irish Times was a quote from Cameron’s statement: ‘On behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry.’ The paper’s editorial headline was ‘the day they said sorry.’
The prominence given to the word sorry shows that this apology is important not just for the families of the victims, but for the Irish people.
The setting for Cameron’s apology was the House of Commons. It was witnessed and affirmed by the parliamentarians who are now representative of the government that Cameron said should take responsibility for the army’s actions on Bloody Sunday.
Judging from the reaction in Derry’s guildhall square, where Cameron’s statement was broadcast live, the apology resonated with people – it did not sound like insincere or empty words.
And the apology resonated because it was clear, unambiguous, and delivered from the symbolic seat of British state power.
Of course, a simple ‘sorry’ won’t be the end of the story about the violence that has been perpetrated on this island. It is hardly even a first step on the way to dealing adequately with Ireland’s troubled past. There are rumblings of discontent from the usual quarters that the time and expense invested in the Bloody Sunday Inquiry has been disproportionate and has perpetuated a hierarchy of victims.
But maybe a simple sorry can catalyse a healing process that has so long been stalled in part on the unwillingness or inability of those in power to admit that they have been in the wrong. Those who are in positions of power in the aftermath of conflicts, or indeed in power in the aftermath of situations of institutional abuse, could learn a lot from how David Cameron said sorry.