DUBLIN — Officials in Northern Ireland said Thursday that one former British soldier would be prosecuted on murder charges in connection with the massacre of unarmed civilians by British forces nearly 50 years ago in Londonderry, an event that came to be known as Bloody Sunday.
The former soldier, identified only as “Soldier F,” will be charged in the killings of James Wray and William McKinney and with the attempted murder of four others. Eighteen others, including 16 former British soldiers and two nationalist gunmen said to have fired shots that day, will not be prosecuted, the officials said, on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to provide a reasonable chance of conviction.
The Jan. 30, 1972, massacre became one of the main flashpoints in the Troubles, the 30-year struggle over the status of Northern Ireland that claimed at least 3,500 lives.
The announcement in Londonderry on Thursday by the Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland was greeted with dismay by many of the victims’ families, some of whom said they would mount a legal challenge.
Kate Nash, who was 23 when her 19-year-old brother, William Nash, was killed and her father, Alex, injured, said she was “very, very saddened” by the decision.
“So many of these families, I can’t tell you how disappointed we are,” she said. “But whatever can be done for our loved ones, we will do it. After 47 years, the struggle goes on.”
Darragh Macken, a lawyer for the Nash family, said the prosecutors’ decision may be challenged in the High Court in Belfast. He said he believed there was sufficient independent evidence to prosecute more soldiers and others, including graphic testimony of their guilt, and that many could be charged with perjury over attempts to cover up their roles in the killings.
Stephen Herron, director of public prosecutions for Northern Ireland, said in a statement Thursday that the decision to try only Soldier F was based on a lack of admissible evidence to prosecute more of the soldiers. Some of the suspects could still face perjury charges.
Thirteen people were killed in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in 1972 when British soldiers opened fire after unrest broke out at a protest march. Within weeks of the shootings, the British prime minister imposed direct British rule, which lasted until the 1998 Good Friday peace deal set out complex power-sharing arrangements for Northern Ireland.
At the time, the soldiers said they had been responding to gunfire and nail bombs thrown by nationalist militants who were using the march as cover. An official inquiry that year led by a former army officer, Lord Widgery, largely exonerated the soldiers and attributed the killings to armed protesters, who the report said had provoked the attack. That inquiry came to be seen as a whitewash.
A second investigation began in April 1998 under a different British jurist, Lord Saville. Twelve years later, his inquiry found that none of the victims had posed any threat to the soldiers, who had “lost control” and fired without warning. Some of those killed or wounded, the report found, were either fleeing or trying to help other victims.
The report also found that some of the soldiers had lied to hide their actions, that their commanders had disobeyed standing orders by sending them into the area that day, that five of the soldiers had opened fire knowing that their targets posed no threat, and that two other soldiers had fired without being sure.
After the release of the report, the British prime minister at the time, David Cameron, offered a formal apology on Britain’s behalf. He said the inquiry had left no doubt that soldiers had fired first and that the killings were “both unjustified and unjustifiable.”
John Kelly, whose brother Michael was killed in 1972, said Thursday the decision to prosecute just one former soldier was a “terrible disappointment” for the victims’ families.
“The full cost of Bloody Sunday cannot be measured just in terms of those who suffered that day,” he said, “but must also be measured in terms of those who suffered because of that terrible day.”