Vincent Boland in Dublin
A former member of the British army’s Parachute Regiment has been arrested by police investigating the fatal clashes in Londonderry in 1972 that became known as Bloody Sunday.
The 66-year-old man, who is being questioned by the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s legacy investigation branch, is the first person to be arrested in the probe into one of the most violent incidents in Northern Ireland’s “Troubles”. Thirteen people were killed and another later died of his injuries after British soldiers fired on unarmed civilians taking part in a civil rights march in the mainly Catholic city in January 1972.
The killings were a watershed in Northern Ireland’s descent into years of sectarian violence. Bloody Sunday is said to have become an important recruiting moment for the Provisional IRA. In his book on the Troubles, the historian Brian Feeney wrote that “the IRA could not cope with the flood of recruits as young men and women queued to join”.
Bloody Sunday caused upheaval in the Republic of Ireland. A crowd of 35,000 people descended on the British embassy in central Dublin and set it alight. It was also fateful for the governance of Northern Ireland. Within a few weeks, the government in London had imposed direct rule, in order to wrest control of law and order from the Ulster Unionist-controlled local administration.
Tuesday’s arrest is part of an initiative that began a decade ago to investigate murders committed during the Troubles. Its task is difficult, since many of the cases being investigated occurred several decades ago. Ian Harrison, the detective chief inspector leading the Bloody Sunday investigation, said the arrest “marked a new phase in the overall investigation which would continue for some time”.
The investigation was made possible after the publication in 2010 of the Saville inquiry into what exactly happened on Bloody Sunday. Lord Saville’s report overturned the findings of the Widgery tribunal that investigated the killings a few months after the events. That tribunal exonerated the soldiers, blamed the marchers for inciting the violence and claimed that some of them were armed.
The Widgery tribunal’s findings were regarded as a whitewash. The Saville report, which was set up by former prime minister Tony Blair and took 12 years to complete, found that the marchers were unarmed and that the soldiers fired indiscriminately and covered up what happened. David Cameron, the UK prime minister, apologised in parliament for Bloody Sunday, saying it was “unjustified and unjustifiable”.
The PSNI investigation team is expected to interview up to seven soldiers about Bloody Sunday. The arrested man was not named.
Raymond McCartney, a Sinn Féin member of the Northern Ireland assembly, said the arrest “is another step forward in the long campaign for justice by the Bloody Sunday families”."
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