FOR NEARLY half a century, John Kelly has been recalling the day when his teenage brother Michael died after British soldiers fired on a civil-rights march. In his role as education officer at the Free Derry Museum, describing every detail has become his job. On March 14th campaigners like him received a limited vindication when the public prosecutor announced that one former soldier would be prosecuted in connection with the 13 killings in 1972 known as Bloody Sunday.
The prospect of a trial appals Britain’s military establishment, including veterans, who are a vocal group in the Conservative Party. “British soldiers are being hung out to dry while those they fought are treated by different rules,” said Bob Seely, an ex-soldier and Tory MP, as arguments raged in advance of the announcement. As the Bloody Sunday news was released in Derry, former comrades were gathering in London in support of Dennis Hutchings, an ex-soldier who is appealing to the Supreme Court to quash charges of attempted murder in relation to a fatal shooting in County Tyrone in 1974.
Wounds are reopening among all the parties to a 30-year war which claimed more than 3,500 lives before it ended in 1998. On March 11th people bereaved by paramilitary groups told heart-rending stories when a European organisation commemorating “victims of terrorism” brought its annual meeting to Belfast. It heard bitter complaints that demands for the trial of soldiers were obscuring the crimes perpetrated by their enemies.
Meanwhile, among those who want redress against the British state, there is a feeling that the Bloody Sunday prosecution should be only the start. In Belfast, an emotionally charged inquest is currently probing ten killings by the army in the city’s Ballymurphy district in August 1971. It was told this week by a retired general, Sir Geoffrey Howlett, that most victims were not terrorists. He voiced “enormous sympathy” for the bereaved.
All this creates a challenge to Northern Ireland’s peace process, already shaken by Brexit, which only deft handling can overcome. In Derry, city elders already work hard behind the scenes to limit the fallout from periodic recurrences of violence, such as a bomb which went off outside a court on January 20th.
But the government has not been deft. Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland secretary, had to apologise after she told Parliament that security forces had always behaved in a “dignified and appropriate” way. For nationalists in Derry, these words are a fresh sign of how little Britain even tries to understand them.