After almost 48 years, the case of a British soldier accused of murder during the Bloody Sunday massacre, the first and only prosecution for the 1972 killing spree, finally began at Derry’s courthouse on Wednesday. However, proceedings were adjourned until December.
The anonymous ‘Soldier F’ is the only member of the British Army to face prosecution in connection with the shooting dead of fourteen innocent civilians who were taking part in a civil rights demonstration in Derry’s Bogside.
He is to be prosecuted for the murders of two victims, Jim Wray and William McKinney, and is also accused of the attempted murders of Patrick O’Donnell, Joseph Friel, Joe Mahon and Michael Quinn. He faces a seventh charge of the attempted murder of a person or persons unknown on the day.
Relatives of those killed on Bloody Sunday walked together to court ahead of the hearing. In an act of solidarity, they assembled in the Diamond area of Derry before walking together up Bishop Street to the courthouse.
Despite being implicated in the atrocity, the British military top brass rewarded ‘Soldier F’ with several promotions and rose to a senior rank.
In testimony to the Saville tribunal in 2002, another former soldier present on Bloody Sunday, Soldier 027, said that they been told to “get some kills” the night before the massacre and that this had been seen as “tantamount to an order”. He said that Soldier F and another soldier who has since died appeared to be operating according to a plan.
“I have always been satisfied in my own mind that Lance Corporal F and Soldier G probably shot eight or 10 people that day,” he said. He said it was their “aggressive, positive actions” which incited others to join in.”
The defendant was not present in Derry on Wednesday.
The district judge, Barney McElholm, adjourned the hearing until December 4 to allow the defence time to “fully consider the voluminous papers in the case”. The judge, Barney McElholm, said this would give time for the defence to ascertain what witnesses would be required.
“All that, I accept, will take some time,” he said, “and it is important that this is all done with a degree of fairness to all concerned in the matter.”
Judge McElholm also granted a defence application that Soldier F’s anonymity be kept in place.
Speaking outside the court, Ciaran Shields of Madden and Finucane solicitors, which represents the family of William McKinney and the majority of Bloody Sunday relatives, said that while at present ‘Soldier F’ retained his anonymity on an interim basis, he intended to make a submission that the trial be conducted “in a transparent manner as consistent with the majority of prosecutions of soldiers in respect of the murder and attempted murder of Irish civilians here.”
He acknowledged that legal proceedings were likely to be length, but said “the families are in it for the long haul.” It is expected that the trial itself will ultimately take place in the Crown Court in Belfast.
Liam Wray, the brother of victim James Wray, said it had been a “historic day”. The issue of prosecutions and justice for Bloody Sunday once divided the nationalist people of Derry. In 2010, politicians urged the families of the victims to accept an apology by then British Prime Minister David Cameron as a successful conclusion to their campaign.
Mr Wray said: “We are glad and relieved that his day has arrived, it’s been 47-and-a-half years.”
Speaking outside the court, Michael McKinney said the first hearing in the case was important. He was thinking of his brother William as he went into the court.
“I was leaving the house this morning and I looked at a picture of us at Downing Street shortly after we started the campaign for justice for Willie and the others and I thought we’ve come a long way since the campaign started in 1992,” he said.
His brother John McKinney said that it had been an “emotional rollercoaster”.
“This is what we’ve been campaigning for all these years,” he said. He was also mindful of the families of those killed on Bloody Sunday who have been told there will be no prosecution in their cases.
“We hope in future that they will get prosecutions as well. We will continue to campaign on behalf of the rest of the families.”