Friday 18 October 2019

Forgiveness and a desire for justice cross paths on the streets of Derry

The Guildhall in Derry
The Guildhall in Derry

Bill Gardner in Derry

Gerry McKinney had raised his hands and was pleading "Don't shoot" when the fatal bullet fired by a British soldier struck him in the chest. Now, nearly half a century after Bloody Sunday, his family believe it is time to forgive. "We're not bitter any more. It's been too long," his daughter, Regina McLaughlin, said.

Mr McKinney's family are not alone. Several relatives of the 14 people who died in the massacre are opposed to sending former British soldiers to jail over the deaths of their loved ones.

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Of course the decision is out of their hands. In two weeks' time, a number of former soldiers could be charged for their actions on January 30, 1972. Some may be convicted of murder, and face the prospect of spending years behind bars.

But speaking candidly about her father's death for the first time, Ms McLaughlin, who lives a short distance from where her father died in Derry, urged the courts to think twice before handing out prison sentences. "What's the point in putting these soldiers in jail?" she said last week.

"Their children and grandchildren are going to lose them, just as I lost my daddy. That can't be right."

Ms McLaughlin was eight years old on Bloody Sunday. She remembers a newsflash on the television, and glimpsed a body covered with a bloodstained sheet. The dead man was wearing her father's shoes.

Mr McKinney - a father of eight who managed a junior football team and ran the local roller-skating rink - was shot as he made his way to safety, probably by a private, Soldier G.

Witnesses said he threw his arms in the air and said "Don't shoot, don't shoot", seconds before he was hit once in the chest.

His family has spent decades campaigning to clear his name and in 2010 the Saville Inquiry agreed he was unarmed, and never posed a threat. But Mr McKinney's family insist it is "too little, too late" to imprison his killers now.

"We're talking about the past, and the people of the past," Ms McLaughlin said. "These soldiers are old men now. They are dying, and some of them are dead already. I believe they'll have to answer to God for what they did. But I don't think sending them to prison is the answer. If they were ever going to prison, it should have happened a long time ago. My mother forgives them. I forgive them. My father would have forgiven them, too, I know he would."

Near to the corner where Gerry McKinney fell, a new Bloody Sunday museum was opened two years ago by the US civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson.

Inside, photographs show the injured and dying being carried through the streets of Bogside. A film showing David Cameron's 2010 apology for the massacre plays on repeat. Outside, the scene is very different to January 1972.

Jean Hegarty (70), who helps out in the museum's office, agrees the city has "changed much" since the day she lost her younger brother Kevin McElhinney.

The 17-year-old, who worked at a supermarket, was shot while crawling away from the gunfire. The Saville Inquiry found that either Soldier L or Soldier M fired the fatal shot, probably on the orders of senior officers.

Those responsible for the massacre must be prosecuted so that "justice can be done", said Ms Hegarty. But she too believes it would not be fair to send former soldiers to prison. "I don't know whether I can forgive the soldier who killed my brother," she said. "In my opinion that soldier was somewhere between being s**t scared and a psychopath.

"I believe they looked at him and saw someone who was in the IRA. They were wrong. It was perception that killed Kevin."

Leo Young was on the protest march against internment that day, and he lost his little brother. John Young (17), the youngest of six who worked in a menswear shop, was shot near a barricade as he tried to take cover.

"I don't care if the soldiers go to jail," said Mr Young. "But if these soldiers aren't prosecuted then the families will be angry, and for good reason."

The majority of families who lost loved ones on Bloody Sunday see the former Paras as cold-blooded killers who deserve to spend years in prison.

John Kelly's 17-year-old brother, Michael, was shot dead by Soldier F, who has admitted killing four people on the day. "Soldier F murdered my brother, an innocent young boy, and I want to see him imprisoned," he said.

"I can still see my mother sliding down the wall when we told her that her young boy was dead. She never recovered. I remember her going out in the snow to put a blanket on his grave to keep him warm."

Mr Kelly (75) does not agree that old age or any other "excuses" should protect the former soldiers.

"The families of Hillsborough got their justice," he said. "Now it's time for ours."

Sunday Independent

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