I’m back from a long visit with my cousins in Northern Ireland--I’ve got more of them there than I do here--and the highlight of the trip was walking the ancient walls of Derry with my cousin. For years he was the economic development officer for the city, a devout Catholic with a Protestant surname who appealed to both sides in a city known around the world for its polarization and divisions.
We stood in the square in front of the Guildhall, where only days earlier the Saville commission released its long-awaited report on the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. That report, published after the longest and most expensive inquiry in British history, exonerated the 14 unarmed Catholic protestors who were killed by British troops on the Bogside area of town in 1972 in what would be the Irish equivalent of the Kent State killings.
The families of the victims had marched through the Bogside, past the famous “Free Derry” murals, to the Guildhall to watch British Prime Minister David Cameron’s address to Parliament on giant outdoor TV screens. He said what no Irish man or woman ever thought they’d hear:
There is no doubt. There is nothing equivocal. There are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.
The Government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the Armed Forces. And for that, on behalf of the Government--and indeed our country--I am deeply sorry.
Lord Saville correctly pointed out in the report that the Bloody Sunday killings--and the government’s initial white-washing of it--“exacerbated” the violence for years to come, and was a “catastrophe” for the people of Northern Ireland. Many of my cousins feel that the whole of their adult lives has been consumed by "the Troubles," as they call it, and are just now adjusting to life without checkpoints, armed guards, and bomb scares. The heavily-fortressed police stations remain in the North, and there are still many divided neighborhoods with British flags and Orange halls on one side of the street and Irish flags and Catholic churches on the other. But overall, it seems like the people we spoke with in Northern Ireland last week had a sense of relief about them at the release of the report and an appreciation for Cameron’s eloquent handling of it.
As we drove past the graveyard where the Bloody Sunday victims lie buried, I was disturbed to see more than one Palestinian flag flying in the Catholic neighborhoods. But then I came across something Bono wrote in the New York Times about what happened in Derry, and I realized there’s always hope.
If there are any lessons for the world from this piece of Irish history ... for Baghdad ... for Kandahar ... it’s this: things are quick to change for the worse and slow to change for the better, but they can. They really can. It takes years of false starts, heartbreaks and backslides and, most tragically, more killings. But visionaries and risk-takers and, let’s just say it, heroes on all sides can bring us back to the point where change becomes not only possible again, but inevitable.