Doubtful soldiers will stand trial for Bloody Sunday killings
The verdict by Lord Saville on the British army's role during Bloody Sunday was unequivocal.
The chairman of the inquiry concluded that soldiers of Support Company who went into the Bogside did so as a result of an order that should never have been given by their commander. Many of the soldiers lied about their actions. Many lost their self control and there was a widespread loss of discipline. No warning was given. There were no attacks by petrol bombers or stone throwers. Some of the dead and injured were clearly fleeing or trying to help those injured and dying.
The citizens who marched to protest against internment and to assert their civil rights posed no threat and carried out no acts that would justify them being maimed or killed.
The dead were all innocent.
Before Lord Saville concluded his report, questions were inevitably raised about whether any individual soldier would face prosecution.
Thirty-eight years after the event, the prospect is highly unlikely.
It is not only the passage of time that militates against the possibility of prosecuting soldiers or any other parties.
All of the soldiers and witnesses who testified at the Bloody Sunday inquiry were given immunity against self-incrimination.
They were not granted immunity against incrimination by another person, nor have they a legal shield to protect them if they committed perjury.
This has raised the prospect of some soldiers being prosecuted, but any efforts to secure a criminal conviction will be met with a wall of oppositions. There is also the difficulty of how precisely the men would be tried, whether as a joint enterprise or as individuals, with all the evidential problems constructing such a case would present.
Northern Ireland's Public Prosecution Service (PPS) will consider whether any soldier should be prosecuted, but it has already warned about the limits imposed on it as a result of the agreement that witnesses to the inquiry could not incriminate themselves. The undertaking given by the Attorney General in 1999 to witnesses is a major stumbling block to any prosecution.
There is also the prospect of taking a civil action against the British Government and/or the individual soldiers along the style of the landmark Omagh bombing civil case which concluded last year.
But the historic win by the victims of the Omagh bombing has so far proven to be a symbolic one.
In short, the entire terrain of civil and criminal prosecutions is a legal minefield. It is a minefield that, following the Good Friday Agreement, begs the question as to whether these legal avenues should -- in the interests of the victims and of Northern Irish society -- be pursued at all. The whole purpose of the Bloody Sunday inquiry was to explore the truth of the tragic event that acted as a catalyst for more than 30 years of violence.
The families and survivors of Bloody Sunday deserve full redress for the wrongs perpetrated against them, but it is doubtful whether a criminal prosecution or lengthy lawsuit would appease their distress. Nothing ever will, but Lord Saville's report at least vindicates their long standing campaign to clear the names of their loved ones.