A soldier apprehends a demonstrator on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972. Fourteen people were killed on that day, many of them shot in the back.
John McKinney suddenly stops at a gutter in front of the Museum of Free Derry. “This is where it happened,” he says. Cigarette butts and a Cadbury wrapper are strewn on the ground next to a parked BMW. It is the place where John’s brother William crawled the final meters of his life, one bullet in his lower arm, another in his back.
A wobbly film of the moment exists, taken by William himself. His camera shows people fleeing across a parking lot in the Bogside neighborhood before crashing to the ground.
Neighbors dragged the 27-year-old into a nearby house where he bled to death. It was 4:15 p.m. on Jan. 30, 1972.
Bloody Sunday.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 31/2021 (July 31th, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.
Almost 50 years later, John McKinney swipes his thumb across his mobile phone until he finds the granular photo of a young man in uniform. A beret on his head and face smeared with camouflage, the suspected killer has a thin smile on his face. “Soldier F,” says McKinney. That is his codename, though pretty much everyone here in Derry – officially named Londonderry by the British – knows his real name. He is probably around 80 years old now. “I have been waiting my whole life for him to go on trial,” McKinney says.
That trial was supposed to finally begin in earnest this fall. Now, though, it looks like the waiting will continue for John McKinney and endless numbers of other people in Northern Ireland.
John McKinney: “Boris Johnson is turning back the clock.”
In mid-July, British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis confirmed what many people in the province have suspected for years: London intends to block legal proceedings related to the so-called Troubles. Once that happens, no terrorist, no police officer and no soldier will have to fear punishment for their role in one of the bloodiest chapters in British history.
Between 1969 and 1998, mostly Catholic Republicans and mostly Protestant Unionists engaged in a civil war over the future of Northern Ireland. Whereas one side was battling for the reunification of Ireland, the other was fighting, with the support of the British military, to keep the province part of the United Kingdom. More than 3,500 people died in the struggle, many of them innocent bystanders. The circumstances surrounding a number of the deaths have still not been completely cleared up. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he wants to “draw a line under the Troubles” – an aim that has infuriated political parties and victims’ representatives in Northern Ireland.
Johnson’s move has once again stoked resentment in the province, which has never fully come to peace despite the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Indeed, Northern Ireland has recently seen yet another flare up of violence. Unionists are particularly angry because Johnson’s Brexit deal with the EU has meant that Northern Ireland has moved economically closer to Ireland. The largest loyalist political power, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), is in turmoil and more radical competitors are gaining ground. The balance of power in Northern Ireland parliament, hammered out in 1998, is suddenly on shaky ground.
The timing of this new provocation could hardly be worse. Ireland’s government has said it is “deeply alarmed” by the proposed British amnesty. But just as during the Brexit negotiations, Johnson seems unconcerned with the potential consequences of holding a match to the Northern Ireland powder keg.
Johnson’s pledge that former British soldiers and ex-Northern Ireland police officers would not have to fear legal consequences from crimes committed during the Troubles was part of his 2019 campaign platform. Legal experts protested at the time that such an amnesty for uniformed killers would amount to a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. Conservative hardliners saw such concerns as yet another justification for withdrawing from the convention.
Now, though, Johnson has found a different approach. The new law envisions a statute of limitations that applies “equally to all Troubles-related incidents.” Even murders that were committed up to, and even shortly after, the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement fall under the amnesty – no matter whether they were committed by an IRA fighter or a soldier.
Instead, London would like to deploy a truth and reconciliation commission, modeled on the one used in South Africa, to scrutinize the 30-year civil war. The argument in favor of such a commission holds that only once the threat of prosecution is lifted will perpetrators break their silence, thus providing families clarity about how their loved ones died.
The law would have dramatic consequences: Overnight, the Northern Irish police would suspend investigations into around 1,200 killings. Of those, 585 are thought to have been committed by the IRA or other Republican paramilitary groups with 291 cases attributed to loyalist paramilitary fighters. British soldiers are suspects in 289 cases and another 51 killings are thought to have been carried out by Northern Irish police officers. All of them would be able to breathe a sigh of relief if the amnesty law was passed.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Only a handful of trials against former soldiers or police, having already begun, would continue. Whether a verdict will actually be reached, however, has been in doubt since early May. That was when a trial against two former British paratroopers – identified as “Soldier A” and “Soldier C” – ended abruptly because the court did not allow the introduction of the prosecution’s most incriminating evidence. Two months later, proceedings against “Soldier F” were likewise suspended. John McKinney believes the British government intervened. “They’ll do anything to protect their own.”
The upshot is that one of the most brutal massacres in the history of Northern Ireland will likely go unpunished. On Jan. 30, 1972, thousands of people took to the streets of the Catholic Bogside neighborhood in Derry to protest new police powers allowing law enforcement officers to lock up suspects without trial. Suddenly, without warning, British paratroopers opened fire. After a little more than an hour, 13 people were dead, with an additional victim later succumbing to his injuries. Some of the victims were shot in the back, apparently trying to get away.
Only after decades of lying from the British government did an independent public inquiry in 2010 come to the conclusion that none of the dead or injured from Bloody Sunday represented a threat to the out-of-control security forces. Another nine years then passed before one of the soldiers, “Soldier F,” could be indicted on two charges of murder and five charges of attempted murder.
John McKinney is appalled that now even he might go unpunished. He says that it wasn’t just that his brother William, a printer at the Derry Journal, was shot in the back. His family, he says, was treated like criminals for years afterwards. He remembers standing in his parents’ living room as an eight-year-old and reading an anonymous letter written in red ink to his mother, who couldn’t read. It said that William had “deserved to die.” At painful points in his story, McKenny emits a short laugh of incredulity – and during our interview, there were many such guffaws. “In 1998, we were promised that Northern Ireland was facing a new beginning. Now, Boris Johnson is turning back the clock,” he says.
McKinney isn’t the only one who is angry. The amnesty plans have reopened old wounds across Northern Ireland – and not just on the Republican side. Julie Hambleton, whose sister was among the 21 victims of a presumed IRA bombing in 1974 in Birmingham, recently wrote an open letter in which she asked Johnson: “Tell me Prime Minister, if one of your children was blown up beyond recognition, where you were only able to identify your son or daughter by their fingernails because their face had been burned so severely from the blast and little of their remains were left intact, would you be so quick to agree to such obscene legislation being implemented?”
Rarely before have almost all groups and aggrieved parties, across confessional lines, been so united. That, at least, is one thing the Tory government has managed to achieve with this draft law.
Johnson, though, has thus far ignored the concerns. To be sure, he is planning to speak with the aggrieved in Dublin and Belfast in the upcoming weeks. But his allies have made it clear that he plans to push the law through if no workable counter-proposals are presented by the end of August. Johnson is in a hurry. And apparently for good reason.
Should the amnesty law fail, new trials would soon begin, and investigations would be completed that could shed an even worse light on the role of the British state during the Troubles. For years, for example, Northern Ireland has been waiting for a report on the Glenanne Gang, which carried out several bombings and other deadly attacks on Catholics during the 1970s. The group is thought to have included numerous British soldiers.
The most awkward ongoing investigation for London, however, is the one into the “Stakeknife.” That was the codename of a British military intelligence agent who rose to become the head of the IRA’s own security division, a position which ironically made him responsible for ferreting out presumed traitors. He is suspected of involvement in the murders of up to 50 people. To protect their asset, British intelligence is thought to have allowed several IRA attacks to go ahead.
Mary Lou McDonald, head of the largest Republican party, Sinn Féin, believes that the hastily introduced law is primarily designed to bury once and for all “the truth behind Britain’s dirty war in Ireland.”
It still remains to be seen whether Johnson will be successful. Lawyers for victims’ families believe that this law, too, is a violation of the Convention on Human Rights and have said they plan to fight it. And that could mean that this controversial law being pushed by the Brexiteer Boris Johnson may end up in a European court of law after all.
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John McKinney: “Boris Johnson is turning back the clock.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
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