Family and friends of the 13 Catholics who died in Londonderry on Bloody Sunday January 30, 1972 – and a 14th who later died of his wounds – gathered this week for a series of memorials to mark the event that helped fuel three decades of bitter sectarian and political violence.
While a judicial inquest in 2010 concluded the victims were innocent and posed no threat to the military, the commemorations come just months after prosecutors announced the lone British soldier charged with murder would not stand trial.
“Our generation is dying very slowly…and we would like to see it [justice] when we’re still alive,” said Jean Hegarty, whose brother Kevin McElhinney was shot dead aged 17.
She supports legal action to bring the soldier to justice.
“My head would say no, but my heart would still want to believe that we can see at least a few soldiers facing a court,” she said.
The 1998 peace process in Northern Ireland won worldwide acclaim for its success in largely ending a conflict in which more than 3,000 people were killed.
Irish nationalist activists seeking unification with the Republic of Ireland clash with the British Army and loyalists determined to keep the province British.
Even the name of the town in which Bloody Sunday took place is a sign of the divisions that have haunted Northern Ireland for many years, as pro-Irish nationalists call it Derry and pro-British unionists the call Londonderry.
And nearly a quarter of a century after the peace, the bitterness persists.
A number of flags from the British Army Parachute Regiment, whose members fired on protesters, were hung from lampposts around the city ahead of the commemorations, which has become an annual ritual. The regiment condemned the action.
A leading member of the pro-British Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party complained that “countless words” had been written about Bloody Sunday, but few about two soldiers shot dead by Irish nationalist militants days earlier.
While the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was responsible for around half of the dead in the conflict, nationalists say the violence has been fueled by a repressive state that has denied them their rights – and rarely more vividly than on Sundays bloody.
“I’m disappointed in the belligerence of politicians,” Hegarty said. “In some ways there hasn’t been much change. In some ways there has been tons.”
Commemorations this weekend include a memorial service in Derry’s main square and a play centered on a famous photograph of priest Edward Daly holding a white handkerchief to British soldiers as men attempted to carry a dying man to safety.
The play will be performed entirely by residents of a city where January 30 holds a “real, deep emotion,” said director Kieran Griffiths, who worked closely with loved ones.
Gleann Doherty – whose father Patrick was among those killed on Bloody Sunday – believes loved ones have been hurt more than those most affected by the conflict. The detailed investigation led then British Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010 to apologize for the “wrongful and unjustifiable killings”.
Last year, the current UK government announced a plan to end all prosecutions of soldiers and activists in a bid to draw a line under the conflict – a move which angered relatives and was rejected by all major local political parties.
“We’re kind of one of the lucky ones — if you can call it lucky — to have some sort of response to what happened,” Doherty said.
“It is quite difficult to obtain any reconciliation (…) when the British government tries to close the door to any possibility” of justice, he added.