Only one former British soldier is to be put on trial after the Bloody Sunday shootings that left 13 dead in Derry, Northern Ireland, 47 years ago.

The announcement of the single prosecution is the latest controversial addition to the bitter legacy of an incident that still sours UK politics.

On 30 January in 1972, British paratroopers opened fire on what was classed as an illegal civil rights march through Derry’s Bogside area.  

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Seventeen former soldiers of the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment had been awaiting decisions on whether or not there was enough evidence to prosecute them.

The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) of Northern Ireland decided to put only one of those ex-soldiers on trial, without taking action against the other 16. Relatives of those who died said they were “terribly disappointed” but vowed: “The Bloody Sunday families are not finished yet.”

In marked contrast, UK defence secretary Gavin Williamson issued a statement saying the soldier facing prosecution would receive the Ministry of Defence’s “full legal and pastoral support”, and the government would “urgently … drive through a package of safeguards [to] ensure our armed forces are not unfairly treated”.  

His statement made no mention of the 13 who died on Bloody Sunday, or their relatives.

The ex-serviceman facing charges is the former paratrooper referred to as Soldier F.

He is to face two charges of murder, in connection with the deaths of James Wray and William McKinney, and four charges of attempted murder of Joseph Friel, Michael Quinn, Joe Mahon and Patrick O’Donnell. 

After meeting bereaved relatives to explain the decisions, Stephen Herron, director of the PPS, admitted many families had been left greatly upset.

Mr Herron said: “I am mindful it has been a long road for the families to reach this point and today will be another extremely difficult day for many of them.

“We recognise the deep disappointment felt by many of those we met with today.”

He stressed: “I wish to clearly state that where a decision has been reached not to prosecute, that this is in no way diminishes any finding by the Bloody Sunday inquiry that those killed or injured were not posing a threat to any of the soldiers.

“There has been a level of expectation around the prosecution decisions in light of the findings of the Bloody Sunday inquiry. However, much of the material which was available for consideration by the inquiry is not admissible in criminal proceedings, due to strict rules of evidence that apply.

“As prosecutors, we are required to be wholly objective in our approach. However, that does not mean that we do not have compassion for all those who are affected by our decisions.”

The decisions announced on Thursday relate only to allegations of criminal conduct on Bloody Sunday itself. Mr Herron said allegations of perjury by the former soldiers remained to be considered.

But expectations had been much higher among bereaved relatives who had marched through Bogside on Thursday morning, before the PPS decisions were announced.

Many of them had been campaigning for criminal trials since 1972. John Kelly, who saw his 17-year-old brother Michael die on Bloody Sunday, insisted that morning: “Those soldiers have to face the consequences of what they did. It was pure carnage.”

Afterwards, as the families gathered in Derry’s Guildhall to give their reaction, Mr Kelly said many had received a “terrible disappointment”.

But he welcomed the positive news for the six families impacted by the decision to prosecute Soldier F.

“Their victory is our victory,” he said.

And highlighting that there were legal means of challenging the decisions not to prosecute, Mr Kelly added: “The Bloody Sunday families are not finished yet.”

Ciaran Shiels, a solicitor for some of the bereaved relatives, explained: “We will give detailed consideration to the reasons provided for decisions not to prosecute the other soldiers, with a view to making further submissions to the prosecution service.  We shall ultimately challenge in the High Court, by way of judicial review, any prosecutorial decision that does not withstand scrutiny.”

Meanwhile, Mr Williamson confirmed the MoD would pay Soldier F’s legal costs.

He said: “We are indebted to those soldiers who served with courage and distinction to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

“The MoD is working across government to drive through a new package of safeguards to ensure our armed forces are not unfairly treated.

“The government will urgently reform the system for dealing with legacy issues. Our serving and former personnel cannot live in constant fear of prosecution.”

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Mr Williamson was backed by Alan Barry, the founder of the Justice for Northern Ireland Veterans group, who said the prosecution of Soldier F was “one soldier too many”.

“It’s very one-sided,” he said. “No soldier should be charged. It happened 47 years ago. A line in the sand needs to be drawn and people need to move on.”

Two former members of the Official IRA – a rival faction to the better known Provisional IRA – also faced decisions on whether they could be prosecuted over their actions on Bloody Sunday. 

But the PPS ruled the two former IRA men and the 16 ex-soldiers would not stand trial because there was insufficient evidence against them.

The controversy surrounding the decisions suggests that even now the UK is still struggling to come to terms with one of the defining incidents of what became known as the Troubles.

An image of a Catholic priest waving a blood-stained handkerchief as he tried to help a victim to safety shocked the world, but over the years, bitterly opposed narratives have emerged to explain what caused the bloodshed that day.  

Representatives of the soldiers insisted they only started shooting after fearing they themselves were about to come under attack from the 30,000-strong crowd.

But others called the incident a massacre, accusing the paratroopers of indiscriminate shooting that left 13 innocent civilians dead and at least 15 others wounded. 

One of the injured, John Johnson, 59, who was shot twice, died five months later from an inoperable tumour and is counted by some as the 14th fatality.

Immediately after the shootings, the Conservative government of Edward Heath seemed to side with the soldiers.

The day after it happened, then-Home Secretary Reginald Maudling told the House of Commons the army returned fire after coming under attack from gunmen and bombers.

Shortly after that, the Ministry of Defence put out a statement insisting: “The army fired only at identified targets – at attacking gunmen and bombers. At all times the soldiers obeyed instructions to fire only in self-defence or in defence of others threatened.”

In April 1972, a hastily convened public inquiry conducted by then Lord Chief Justice John Widgery effectively exonerated the soldiers who opened fire, by concluding that there were strong suspicions that some of those killed had been firing weapons or handling bombs on the day.

The findings provoked outrage among the bereaved, who denounced the Widgery report as a whitewash.

And then in January 1973, Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, was awarded an OBE in the New Year Honours list.

But eight months later, signs emerged that not everyone in the British establishment agreed with the official narrative. After an inquest jury returned an open verdict on those who died on Bloody Sunday, coroner Major Hubert O’Neill said he thought that some soldiers “ran amok that day and shot without thinking what they were doing”.

He said: “They were shooting innocent people. These people may have been taking part in a march that was banned but that does not justify the troops coming in and firing live rounds indiscriminately.”

In 1992, John Major refused the families’ demands for a fresh inquiry, but in 1998 Tony Blair appointed Lord Mark Saville to chair an official investigation.

It became the longest-running and most expensive public inquiry in British history, racking up £200m in costs and taking more than 2,000 witness statements, including from ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness and former prime minister Mr Heath.

In 2010, the Saville Inquiry concluded that none of the soldiers fired in response to attacks by petrol-bombers or stone-throwers; none of the casualties was posing a threat; and some of those killed or injured were clearly fleeing or going to help others who had been hit.

David Cameron apologised on behalf of the government and described the army’s actions on Bloody Sunday as “unjustified and unjustifiable”.

As a result, in 2012 the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) launched a long criminal investigation into the events of Bloody Sunday.

After files were passed to the PPS, a senior official revealed in 2017 that the prosecution service was considering possible charges for 18 ex-soldiers, adding that four others who were originally under investigation had since died.

The decision-making process was hit by delays, during which one of the 18 ex-soldiers died, bringing the total facing possible prosecutions to 17.

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