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Analyzing the Bloody Sunday Apology

IR prof points to generational shift

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Erik Goldstein, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of international relations and history, says British Prime Minister David Cameron’s apology for Bloody Sunday is an important landmark in improving relations between Britain and Ireland.

“What happened should never, ever have happened … I am deeply sorry.”

With humility that is uncharacteristic of a leader of the United Kingdom, newly seated British Prime Minister David Cameron offered up those words after a report on the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” killings of 14 unarmed demonstrators in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, put the blame squarely on British soldiers. The much-anticipated release on June 15 of the 5,000-page Saville report, named for the high-ranking member of the House of Lords who led the inquiry, and Cameron’s unequivocal apology come after a 12-year probe into an incident that inflamed tensions between Irish separatists and British armed forces, triggering bitter decades of violence, as well as films, fiction, investigative volumes, poetry, and ballads that spread the cause of Northern Ireland’s Catholics to the world.

Cameron’s speech drew praise from around the globe and gave vindication to the families of the victims, who were predominantly teenagers. Now many people in Northern Ireland are pushing for criminal prosecution of the soldiers, who according to the report forgot or ignored their training and acted with a “serious and widespread loss of fire discipline.” Do the inquiry’s conclusions at long last reflect, as the UK’s Guardian puts it, “a collective sense of closure,” or will they fan the persistent embers in the wake of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord? What is the likelihood that Britain will pursue criminal prosecution of the soldiers despite the passage of 38 years?

BU Today spoke with Erik Goldstein, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of international relations and history and chair of the international relations department. A specialist in British foreign policy, Goldstein is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

BU Today
: Do you agree with The Guardian’s assessment of Cameron’s apology as pitch-perfect and its prediction that it will be viewed as a seminal moment in Anglo-Irish relations?

Goldstein: Yes, it will be an important moment in Anglo-Irish relations, and it builds on the confidence that has been created since the Good Friday accords. It’s another important landmark in improving relations. But it also marks a generational shift. Both Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague were very young when Bloody Sunday occurred.

The report was commissioned as part of the Good Friday agreement in 1998. Now, 12 years later, many are asking what took so long.

It was extremely sensitive. There were a lot of witnesses and a lot of testing of the evidence. They were being extremely careful. It was comprehensive, going back into the forensic evidence, the witness accounts, and the surviving visual evidence. But in a sense it’s one of the by-products of the whole Irish peace process, the entire change of relations between London and Dublin.

The report contains many damning details, like a description of one boy fatally shot while crawling away, yet the original inquiry ruled that the soldiers were defending themselves. Would such a brazen cover-up be possible today?

Technologically it was a different age, and that’s important to remember. It was difficult to recapture the events; according to the report, in the initial inquiry witnesses lied. Today, people flip out their cell phones and try to take photos. And Britain has the world’s most extensive network of closed-circuit video surveillance cameras, our so-called CCTV. The Bloody Sunday events would be viewed much more skeptically if they happened today. But anything that happens further into the past is easier to cover up.

If Britain proceeds with criminal prosecutions, will it threaten to undermine the healing that’s occurred in the wake of the Saville report and the Good Friday accord?
The incident is so long ago. I haven’t worked out how many of the individuals involved are still alive or in a condition to be tried; any soldiers active then are long retired. What Prime Minister Cameron was trying to do by so openly accepting the report was to have that healing and avoid a long-drawn-out trial and dragging out all the evidence, examining it again. Behind his actions is the model of the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Who makes the decision to prosecute or not to prosecute?

The decision will be dealt with by the British equivalent of the U.S. Attorney, although in Britain that person is not a political appointee, but a career civil servant. It’s a nonpolitical decision. Britain has no statue of limitations on murder, so it’s possible.

Does the extensive report open the door for investigation of other incidents, such as the Dublin and Monaghan bombings two years after Bloody Sunday?
I think there will be a call for more inquiries, but there might also be some desire on the part of the Unionists to have further explanation of actions by the Republican side.

How does Cameron’s apology affect his standing and popularity, at home and abroad?
Both domestically and internationally, he’s establishing that he’s in charge, willing to take responsibility, and not shirking his role. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would have done something very similar. It’s part of a generational change, but it is David Cameron, a Conservative, who has the added dimension that at the time of Bloody Sunday it was his party that was in power.

Cameron’s statement is part of a growing trend of leaders apologizing for past events. What’s your opinion of the strategy?
Yes, so many apologies. Gordon Brown apologized for the slave trade, even though his country led efforts to abolish it. In countries where public opinion is important, an apology helps to set a new tone for relations. In any negotiation, confidence-building is important, and this is one aspect of confidence-building.

Can other nations learn from the Northern Ireland peace process?
I think the Middle East generally can learn from the Northern Irish example. The two mediators there, Tony Blair and George Mitchell, President Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, are both still active in the Good Friday accord. There’s a clear, conscious decision to apply what was learned in Northern Ireland to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, a starting point, although the situation on the ground is very different.

Just a day after Cameron’s apology, a 300-pound bomb was found outside a border police station in Northern Ireland. Do you believe the peace will hold?

There are rumored to be a lot of explosives still out there, both north and south, although mainstream groups have come to an understanding. There are still extremists, and that will continue. To quote World War I French statesman Georges Clemenceau: “A permanent peace is a peace that lasts until next year.” Peace requires maintenance.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

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