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British Apology for a Massacre?

Ireland says new evidence shows British troops were at fault for 1972's 'Bloody Sunday.'

Britain, eager to pump new life into the flagging Northern Ireland peace process, is weighing whether to apologize for the killing of 14 Catholic civilians by its own security forces 25 years ago.

In what a British government source called "a confrontation with history," Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam is currently examining claims by Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern that the civilians were gunned down by ill-disciplined British troops, some operating as undercover snipers.

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The killings in Londonderry, Northern Ireland's second-largest city, on what became known as "Bloody Sunday" - Jan. 30, 1972 - remain a source of bitter resentment in the province's Catholic community.

The incident has frequently been cited as a reason nationalists hesitate to accept British assurances that the Catholic and Protestant communities receive equal treatment in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Ahern says new evidence about Bloody Sunday now in the hands of the British government indicates that previous British denials of wrongdoing can no longer be accepted.

Last July, Ahern told Prime Minister Tony Blair that an apology would help to persuade republican paramilitary groups that Britain is sincere in its wish to reach a settlement in Northern Ireland.

He claims that an official inquiry by a senior British judge soon after the killings, which exonerated the British troops, was seriously flawed.

Ahern has threatened that if Britain fails at the very least to open a new inquiry into the incident, he will publish the evidence himself.

Bitterly remembered events in the history of Northern Ireland are part of the fabric of the province's politics. They act as obstacles to the fostering of trust.

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For Catholics, Bloody Sunday, in which British security forces in Londonderry blocked the path of nationalist marchers and then opened fire on them, is perhaps the most deeply resented event of the past 27 years of sectarian conflict.

Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing, is on record as saying that the Bloody Sunday killings triggered the resurgence of a violent republican movement. This in turn led to the imposition on Northern Ireland of direct rule from London and a heavy buildup of British troops in the province.

Ahern is taking the same line on Bloody Sunday as did John Bruton, his predecessor, who handed over much of the new evidence to the British government last March.

The dossier now being studied in London contends that British troops in Londonderry fired on Catholic civil rights demonstrators, despite orders not to do so.

It also claims that some of those killed were shot by British snipers positioned high on the city wall.

None of the latest evidence was taken into account in 1972 by Lord Widgery, then Britain's chief justice, who concluded that the troops had fired in self defense. In fact, none of the victims was found to have been carrying weapons.

On Nov. 23 the London Observer reported that Britain's Ministry of Defense was opposing a formal apology for Bloody Sunday. The paper said there were concerns that it would open the floodgates for compensation claims by survivors and victims' families.

Ironically, violence reerupted in Londonderry last weekend when Catholic demonstrators attempted to halt a march by Protestants in the center of the city. Police said the demonstrators hurled more than 1,000 Molotov cocktails. It was the worst unrest in the province since the IRA resumed its cease-fire in September.

Mr. Blair and Mowlam are currently eager to persuade Mr. Adams that Britain is ready to make concessions to republicans in the interests of furthering the peace process.

Last week Blair and Adams held talks at 10 Downing Street - the first encounter between a British prime minister and a Sinn Fein leader in 76 years.

After the meeting, Adams described it as "a moment in history." He said, "There have been many bad episodes in Irish history, but this was a good one."

Adams confirmed that he had asked Blair to issue a formal British apology for the Bloody Sunday killings, and called the matter "unfinished business."

In a further move aimed at injecting life into the peace process, Blair and Ahern have decided that, early in 1998, Northern Ireland talks are to be held in London and Dublin as well as Belfast.

The first meeting is scheduled for London on Jan. 26 - four days before the 26th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

In an unexpected move, on Sunday David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Northern Ireland's largest pro-British group, told Irish television he was prepared to entertain the possibility of a meeting with Adams.

"I do not rule out a meeting," he said. "It is possible."

In the past Mr. Trimble has rejected the idea as "repulsive."

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