David Cameron's statement on the Bloody Sunday report was pitch-perfect
For a man who was five at the time of Bloody Sunday, it was a poised and almost perfectly judged performance
At 3.29pm the news had been leaked in Derry, and the cheers of the crowd burst from every TV in the Commons as we dashed to hear David Cameron's statement. He, by contrast, was received in a sombre, almost fearful silence. MPs might not have been surprised, but they were certainly stunned.
The prime minister could scarcely have done better. For a man who was five at the time of Bloody Sunday, it was a poised and almost perfectly judged performance.
And all the more difficult for someone who has had to spend years paying tribute to the fallen of the British army – their courage and their devotion to their country.
When it comes to our lads in uniform few politicians, least of all Tories, want to say anything that isn't cut from a template of praise.
"I never want to believe anything bad about our country," he said. He never wanted to call our soldiers into question. They were, he believed, the finest in the world. Clearly an enormous "but" was on its way.
"But. The conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt. There is nothing equivocal. There are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong."
The Commons was, if possible, even quieter as he went through the most startling and shattering of Saville's conclusions. No warning before the soldiers opened first, soldiers lying to justify their actions. Some of the dead had been fleeing or going to the aid of the wounded. Each sentence slashed through the silence.
"The report refers to one person who was shot while 'crawling ... away from the soldiers'. The father who was hit and injured while going to tend his wounded son."
I doubt if the Commons has ever heard such a statement so raw, etching with acid into the polished surface of our national self-image.
For someone of his generation, he said, Bloody Sunday was something learned rather than lived through. "But what happened should never, ever have happened ... and for that, on behalf of the government – and indeed our country – I am deeply sorry."
He also set the day in context, reminding us of the scores of soldiers – for the most part as innocent as any civilian – shot dead because they were wearing a politically inconvenient uniform. The IRA would never be put on an equal footing with democrats, he said.
"But neither will we hide from the truth that confronts us today."
As Lord Saville had said, Bloody Sunday was a tremendous boon to the Provisional IRA, and made the continuing conflict far, far worse. (Of the 3,500 people who died during the 40-odd years of the Troubles, one-seventh were killed in the year after that day.)
Various Unionists, including Ian Paisley Jr, watched by his father from the gallery, pointed out the sufferings of the Protestant people of the province. They should not be forgotten.
But this was not their day.