A probe panel report which exposed involvement of British soldiers in the killing of 13 civilians in Northern Ireland in 1972 has sparked a debate in Britain with a demand for prosecution of the culprits.
Prime Minister David Cameron—led government, which appologised soon after the release of Lord Saville’s report on the incident called ‘Black Sunday’, sees the report as a hope to pursue the reconciliation process between Britain and the warring factions of Northern Ireland, beginning with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
The government is concerned as several former soldiers have come in the dock for their role in the event 38 years ago, while former IRA commanders such as Martin McGuinness, deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, escape censure.
Major—General Julian Thompson, a Royal Marines commanding officer who served in Northern Ireland, said: “In that case, let’s prosecute the IRA as well, men like McGuinness. How about drawing a line under this unless we want to go and prosecute all the IRA guys who murdered as well?”
Lord Trimble's warning
Lord Trimble, former Ulster Unionist party leader, has warned that since the Saville Report clearly blames the soldiers, there would be instant pressure to prosecute former soldiers for manslaughter or murder.
Eminent Queen’s Counsel Sir Alasdair Fraser will be asked to assess the report to decide whether there is sufficient evidence for “a reasonable prospect for conviction” of paratroopers found to have participated in the killings.
Even before Black Sunday, the Catholic and Protestant communities of Northern Ireland were at loggerheads. The former wanted an end to British rule in the region, while the latter considered themselves as unionists and British.
The differences eventually turned violent and some of the Catholics, who called themselves nationalists or republicans, formed the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and thereafter the Provisional IRA.
After Black Sunday the IRA numbers swelled and a new wave of violence swept Northern Ireland. Britain found the local government ineffective in maintaining peace and began direct rule from London after dissolving the local assembly and executive. However, the violence continued, this time involving the British forces too, with the Irish republicans seeing them as an occupation force.
The peace efforts in Northern Ireland found a breakthrough for the first time in 1998 when Britain, Ireland and most political parties of Northern Ireland signed the Good Friday Agreement in Belfast.
Northern Ireland’s assembly and executive were restored and power was transferred from London in 1999 on a power—sharing basis between unionists and republicans, even as the Provisional IRA decommissioned itself.
Friction between two groups continues
The friction between the two groups continues, though neither has shown inclination to turn the clock back for political gains. Prime Minister Cameron hopes the Saville Report, by righting the wrongs of the past, will eventually unite the two.
Both sides have been cautious in reacting to the report, though the unionists have expressed consternation over demands for prosecuting the soldiers.
Northern Ireland Justice Minister David Ford summed it up for BBC News: “The report will once again raise questions on how Northern Ireland deals with its past and how, as a society, we can move forward. These are issues for the Northern Ireland Office, the Executive and the wider community as a whole to consider.”