DUBLIN (AP) — Northern Ireland's police commander announced Thursday that his force intends to open a criminal investigation into whether British soldiers committed murder during the Bloody Sunday massacre 40 years ago — but lacks the staff and funding necessary and can't say when it would start.
Families of the 13 people killed when troops opened fire on Irish Catholic demonstrators on Jan. 30, 1972, have waited for a criminal investigation to start since 2010, when the biggest fact-finding probe in British history determined that the soldiers targeted unarmed civilians.
Chief Constable Matt Baggott and a key deputy, Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris, told the Northern Ireland Policing Board they had consulted state prosecutors about whether criminal prosecutions were viable given the 2-year-old evidence published by the Bloody Sunday Tribunal. Baggott said prosecutors had identified suspected criminal offenses by the soldiers.
But he and Harris said such an effort could require 30 experienced detectives committed full time for three to four years.
"There is not the expertise free and available to undertake an investigation of this size and that is why we are faced with dilemmas around prioritization," Harris said. "'The special resources required for this scale of investigation are just not available at this moment to commence an investigation of this scale and length of time."
Baggott warned the panel, which is drawn equally from the British Protestant and Irish Catholic sides of Northern Ireland, that diverting 30 detectives to investigate a watershed moment in Northern Ireland's past would draw needed resources from current law enforcement efforts.
He said detectives assigned to Bloody Sunday could not "take on a whole raft of other tasks which may be serious in themselves."
The Police Service of Northern Ireland press office later issued a statement intended to clarify the police commanders' remarks. It said a criminal investigation into the Bloody Sunday killings would happen. "We can't confirm at this time exactly when this investigation may start," it said.
John Kelly, whose 17-year-old brother Michael was among the people killed on Bloody Sunday, said he was confident that the soldier responsible for shooting his brother in the stomach would eventually be charged.
"I do believe we will see these soldiers in court to be prosecuted for what they did," Kelly said.
British soldiers killed 309 people in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 1996, representing about 8 percent of the 3,700 total fatalities from the past four decades of conflict over the area. More than 700 soldiers were killed by Irish Republican Army factions.
British troop strength and installations have been drastically reduced over the past decade and, in 2007, soldiers were formally withdrawn from duty as peacekeepers backing up the police. But a garrison of around 4,000 soldiers remains today in keeping with Northern Ireland's status as part of the United Kingdom.
More than half of those killed by soldiers were civilians, overwhelmingly from the Catholic minority. Most of the rest were members of various factions of the outlawed IRA, which saw its support swell in Irish nationalist areas of Northern Ireland following Bloody Sunday.