They finally apologized. You had to wonder why it took so bloody long? After all the years of stonewalling the young prime minister stood up and, with grace and humility, admitted the obvious - that the murdered in Derry on Bloody Sunday had been guilty of nothing more than exercising their basic right to protest a shameful sectarian government.
“When England remembers and Ireland forgets,” my grandfather used to murmur, “that’s when the problems up North will be settled.”
Cameron’s statement was a momentous event, though in many ways bittersweet, for the grainy images of the murdered summoned up not only that horrible day in 1972 but the tumultuous years that followed.
Oddly enough, a line from Scripture came to mind, “If the foundation be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” I had first noticed it on a cassette tape of sermons by Rev. Ian Paisley – and had pirated the preacher’s voice for an instrumental coda to Black 47’s Fanatic Heart.
How strange to think that this bigot has been a backdrop to so much of my life. And yet he is now a conciliatory force; indeed, many are nostalgic for the days when he and Martin McGuinness, a one-time leader of the Provisional IRA, jointly led a power sharing government.
Who would have even imagined such a coupling on January 30, 1972? But things do change, if glacially. Yeats, as ever, nailed it: “peace comes dropping slow.”
The British had so many opportunities to initiate a just settlement in the North of Ireland. What held their hand?
Was it that empire must never be proved wrong? Having changed the ground rules in 1921 and set up an artificial statelet, did they feel they would lose face by admitting that they had sacrificed a half million nationalists to the jack-booted mercies of their unionist masters?
Those innocent people back in Derry were protesting a cesspool of gerrymandered sectarianism - easy enough to forget now. When the smoke cleared that day the non-violent Northern Ireland civil rights movement had been swept aside. Terrible things would be done in the next sixteen years. Thousands died or were maimed.
It need not have happened had Prime Minister Ted Heath the moral courage to state the obvious. But better late than never and this apology may provide mortar to bind the bricks of the new foundation laid at the signing of the Peace Settlement of 1998.
Many Irish-American activists have backed off since then. Some were fatigued, others confident that those on the ground in the North finally had a democratic framework to work within. I was never less than amazed at their commitment down all those violent years.
They were often laughed at and despised by media and establishment but what matter – they had seen the grainy images from 1972 and resolved that a better Ireland could be created where freedom and justice went hand in hand.
They had few victories and many defeats - the death of Bobby Sands MP and the deportation of Joe Doherty spring to mind – but there was little despair, just a stubborn resolve to keep eyes on the prize.
It was often sad to see old comrades turn on each other after the Peace Settlement – of course it’s always easier be unified on what you’re against than what you’re for. Movements – and, indeed, life itself – tend to balance on an uneasy fulcrum of pragmatism and idealism. Perhaps this apology will help heal some wounds and enable old comrades to explore friendship again.
One way or the other, on June 15, 2010, Britain finally remembered. Given time Ireland will forget and that new foundation will strengthen and hold.