, LONDON, Jun 16 – The British government finally apologised for Bloody Sunday, one of Northern Ireland\’s darkest days in which 13 people died, as prosecutors considered whether to charge soldiers involved in the shootings.
To joy from victims\’ families, Prime Minister David Cameron called the killings "unjustified and unjustifiable" Tuesday as a report into why British troops fired on a civil rights march in Londonderry in 1972 was published.
The long-awaited report concluded that none of the victims were armed, soldiers gave no warnings before opening fire and that the shootings were a "catastrophe" for Northern Ireland which led to increased violence.
"There is no doubt… what happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong," Cameron told the House of Commons in London.
"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."
The new premier\’s apology was greeted with cheers from relatives and thousands of supporters listening to his statement on a huge screen in Londonderry.
Amid jubilant scenes in Northern Ireland\’s second city, relatives took turns to voice their relief that their 38-year campaign to clear their loved ones\’ names had been vindicated.
"Now the world knows the truth," said Liam Wray, whose 22-year-old brother died in the shootings after being shot in the back with what the report said was "no possible justification".
"Jim was murdered, Jim was innocent," Wray added.
Related article: Bloody Sunday victims\’ families thrilled as names cleared
But there was also a more sombre note to the day\’s events with some people demanding troops who shot their relatives be prosecuted.
Joe McKinney said he wanted to see the soldier who killed his brother Willie taken to court and charged, telling the Times newspaper: "If it takes another 30 years to get that I will do it."
British soldiers, most of whom were identified only by their rank and initials in the report, could still face criminal charges.
Northern Ireland\’s Public Prosecution Service said it was considering whether to prosecute anyone, adding this decision would be taken "as expeditiously as possible" although it gave no date.
But lawyer Stephen Pollard, who represents soldiers involved in the inquiry, rejected the notion that the report had opened the door to prosecutions.
He accused the senior judge who led the inquiry, Mark Saville, of having "cherry picked" evidence, which meant the report did not paint a truthful picture.
Facts: Bloody Sunday report
The killings were among the most controversial in Northern Ireland\’s history and there had been fears the 5,000-page report could re-open old wounds.
More than 3,500 people died during The Troubles, which pitched Catholics against Protestants and were largely ended by a 1998 peace deal, but emotions still run high in Northern Ireland over its violent history.
A reminder of how relevant the events are to the present day came with a reference to the role played on that day by Northern Ireland\’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who was then an Irish Republican Army (IRA) commander.
The report said McGuinness was present on Bloody Sunday and was probably armed with a sub-machine gun, which he may have fired, an allegation he denied.
"There was absolutely no foundation or substance to that allegation," he said after the report\’s publication Tuesday.
The probe also said that he did not provoke any of the soldiers to open fire.
Timeline: Bloody Sunday
The inquiry, which took 12 years to report at a cost of more than 190 million pounds (275 million dollars, 230 million euros), aimed to paint a full picture of events.
It was commissioned by then premier Tony Blair in 1998 as the peace process gained momentum and after a 1972 probe, immediately after the killings, was dismissed as a whitewash.
The inquiry heard from more than 900 witnesses and received statements from around 2,500 people. The evidence ran to an estimated 20-30 million words. It is the longest-running and most expensive public inquiry in British history.
Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen welcomed the report, saying its publication meant "the truth has been set free".
And Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said it had consigned past "lies" about Bloody Sunday "into the dustbin of history".
In Washington, a US State Department spokesman also hailed its publication, saying he hoped it would "contribute to Northern Ireland\’s ongoing transformation from a turbulent past to a peaceful future."