It had just gone four o’clock on Sunday, January 30, 1972. The speeches at Free Derry Corner were over. The big crowd was dispersing and heading home.
Suddenly somebody shouted: “Those are real bullets. High velocity rounds.” Immediately our section of the crowd scattered as the bullets whined over our heads. We ran deeper into the Bogside, well out of the line of fire. Behind us, the Bloody Sunday massacre had begun.
I was a Third Secretary in the Department of Foreign Affairs on a long a weekend from Dublin, where I had been working on the political ramifications of EEC membership for Ireland, Britain and Denmark. I had joined my brothers on an anti-internment march organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA).
Six months earlier, internment had been introduced with wanton brutality. In Belfast, recruitment to the IRA had soared. In Derry, there was still faith in the persuasive power of peaceful protest. Half of the city, it seemed, had joined the big NICRA march on a glorious January day. The mood was festive.
The occasion marked a return to the moral high ground of the Civil Rights campaign of the late 1960s and promised an alternative to the destructive, self-defeating violence of the IRA.
Both wings of the IRA had assured the organisers there would be no trouble from their side. This message had been clearly conveyed to the Catholic head of the RUC in Derry and the local British Army commander. Both were pragmatic and flexible.
Their clear preference was for a low-key response to any disturbance. Disastrously, their advice was ignored and the most ruthless and trigger-happy unit of the British army was unleashed on a largely peaceful crowd.
They came into the Bogside shooting. The result was horrific: 13 dead on the day and another 14 severely injured. Derry was never the same again.
These same paratroopers had already gotten away with murder. They had gone on a shooting spree in Ballymurphy the previous August. All those killed, including a Catholic priest and a young mother, were plainly innocent. No one had been called to account.
Senior officers maintained the fiction that their soldiers fired in self-defence. This cover-up was obscene.
Similarly, on Bloody Sunday the chain of command stood by their men. Lies were told. The finger of blame was pointed at the marchers.
The follow-up investigation by the British Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, reinforced the whitewash. The outcome was a propaganda victory for the IRA.
Nearly four decades later I was part of the large crowd gathered outside the Guildhall in Derry on the day the Saville inquiry reported.
This second investigation of Bloody Sunday was established because the innocence of the victims was by then indisputable.
Inside the Guildhall, relatives of the victims had been given advance copies of the final report and were signalling their jubilation.
The British prime minister, David Cameron, also spoke on live broadcast. When he began, a great hush fell on the Derry crowd. As he continued, we all broke out in spontaneous applause. Strange indeed, for a British PM to be cheered on the streets of Derry.
He formally apologised for Bloody Sunday and placed the burden of guilt squarely on the shoulders of the paratroopers. The injustice of the Widgery Tribunal had been finally undone.
Despite denials, the suspicion lingers that top British commanders had planned deliberately for a punitive lethal incursion into the Bogside.
All were connoisseurs of counterinsurgency in former colonies like Kenya, Malaya and Cyprus, where protest had been ruthlessly suppressed.
One had authored the definitive primer on “low intensity operations”, which provided the rationale for the underhand techniques once commonplace in Northern Ireland and indeed in more recent conflict zones: disinformation, cover-up, brutal interrogation, collusion, paid informers and shoot to kill.
No soldier has ever been convicted for the Bloody Sunday killings and no soldier ever will be.
The Cameron apology was welcomed fairly widely in Northern Ireland. Unionists, however, had been critics of the Saville Tribunal because of its length, cost and exclusive concentration on nationalist grievances.
They pointed to other atrocities in 1972 alone, such as the Aldershot, Bloody Friday and Claudy bombings which had killed and maimed innocent civilians but which they felt had never been properly investigated.
Obviously there remains in Northern Ireland a deep core of hurt in both communities which requires urgent attention and redress.
Only an inclusive Truth and Reconciliation Forum with full protection for frank disclosure can assist meaningful healing. Sadly, there seems little appetite for a body of this kind.
Bloody Sunday was one of two events in 1972 which helped shape the destiny of modern Ireland.
The other was the signing on January 22, 1972, of the Treaty of Accession to the EEC. Common European membership provided opportunities for creative encounters between Dublin and London when events in the North threatened unbridgeable difference.
Indeed, two years after Bloody Sunday came the welcome but ill-fated Sunningdale peace initiative.
Worryingly, Brexit has removed this cushion of joint EU membership and exposed Northern Ireland to the resurgence of combative English nationalism.
With sensitive elections pending in the North, it is imperative the protocol negotiations be wrapped up so the peace process is fully sheltered from the instabilities of these new and unforeseen EU-UK political tensions.