Historic Third Party Image Repair: Prime Minister David Cameron on “Bloody Sunday”

On January 30, 1972—“Bloody Sunday”—26 unarmed protesters and bystanders were killed—some shot in the back—by British troops in Northern Ireland. This event was the subject of a song by the rock band U2: “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”

I can't believe the news today

Oh, I can't close my eyes and make it go away How long . . . How long must we sing this song How long, how long . . .

Broken bottles under children's feet Bodies strewn across the dead end street

. . . Sunday, Bloody Sunday

Prime Minister Tony Blair initiated an inquir y into these events in 1998. More than 10 years later, and nearly 40 years after the massacre, on June 15, 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech on “Bloody Sunday.” Because Cameron himself had no responsibility for this massacre—he was only 5 years old at the time—this can be considered an instance of historic third party image repair: He apologized for an offensive act committed by others, illustrating historic third party image repair. He also attempted to preempt an unfavorable reaction to his apology from supporters of the British military.

Cameron's Historic Apology

Prime Minister Cameron's speech provides an apology for a historic wrongdoing. It also attempts to preempt hostility that might arise from the apology itself. The textual analysis will be divided into two parts, consistent with the dual purposes of the discourse.


Cameron offers a clear and direct apology for the events of Bloody Sunday. He admits that the actions of British soldiers were wrong and not justifiable: “What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.” He explains that “some members of our Armed Forces acted wrongly.” He recognizes the suffering of the victims' families:

I would also like to acknowledge the grief of the families of those killed. They have pursued their long campaign over thirty-eight years with great patience. Nothing can bring back those that were killed but I hope, as one relative has put it, the truth coming out can set people free.

Cameron also accepts responsibility and gives a direct apology: “The Government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the Armed Forces. And for that, on behalf of the Government—and indeed our country—I am deeply sorry.” These elements—expression of regret, acknowledgment of the victims' suffering, clear apology—are the hallmarks of mortification.

Cameron also explains to his audience why he is offering an apology at this point in time, rather than earlier:

I know some people wonder whether nearly forty years on from an event, a Prime Minister needs to issue an apology. For someone of my generation, this is a period we feel we have learned about rather than lived through. But what happened should never, ever have happened. The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and hurt of that day—and a lifetime of loss.

This statement makes it clear the Cameron understood that he was offering what I term an “historic third party apology,” trying to heal old wounds. This address also briefly offers a denial, however. The report “makes no suggestion of a Government cover-up.”

Preemptive Image Repair

Cameron's speech can also be seen as an example of preemptive image repair: messages designed to head off anticipated criticism. The preemptive aspect of Cameron's image repair discourse has more elements: bolstering, denial, and defeasibility. Each element will be discussed in turn in this section.


Early in the speech, Cameron bolsters his patriotism generally and his support for the British Armed Forces in particular:

Mr Speaker, I am deeply patriotic. I never want to believe anything bad about our country. I never want to call into question the behaviour of our soldiers and our Army who I believe to be the finest in the world. And I have seen for myself the very difficult and dangerous circumstances in which we ask our soldiers to serve.

These sentiments do not sound like they would come from one who hates the militar y; their function is to bolster the speaker's image.

The prime minister also takes the opportunity to praise the military in another section of his speech:

And let us also remember, Bloody Sunday is not the defining story of the service the British Army gave in Northern Ireland from 1969–2007. This was known as Operation Banner, the longest, continuous operation in British military history, spanning thirty-eight years and in which over 250,000 people served. Our Armed Forces displayed enormous courage and professionalism in upholding democracy and the rule of law in Northern Ireland. Acting in support of the police, they played a major part in setting the conditions that have made peaceful politics possible and over 1,000 members of the security forces lost their lives to that cause. Again, by praising the military, Cameron attempts to bolster his reputation in this speech.


Cameron takes a very strong position that the actions of the British soldiers were not justified, denying that there was any justification for these killings:

The conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt. There is nothing equivocal. There are no ambiguities . . . Lord Saville concludes that the soldiers of Support Company who went into the Bogside “did so as a result of an order . . . which should have not been given” by their Commander—on balance the first shot in the vicinity of the march was fired by the British Army . . . that “none of the casualties shot by soldiers of Support Company was armed with a firearm” . . . that “there was some firing by republican paramilitaries . . . but. . . . none of this firing provided any justification for the shooting of civilian casualties” . . . and that “in no case was any warning given before soldiers opened fire.”

Furthermore, Lord Saville declares that “despite the contrary evidence given by the soldiers . . . none of them fired in response to attacks or threatened attacks by nail or petrol bombers” and that many of the soldiers “knowingly put forward false accounts in order to seek to justify their firing.” Cameron does not stop at saying there was no provocation for the shootings. The prime minister also reports that

Lord Saville says that some of those killed or injured were clearly fleeing or going to the assistance of others who were dying. The Report refers to one person who was shot while “crawling . . . away from the soldiers” . . . another was shot, in all probability, “when he was lying mortally wounded on the ground” . . . and a father was “hit and injured by Army gunfire after he had gone to . . . tend his son.”

No justification can be advanced for killing wounded who are crawling away from the carnage, for shooting those who are mortally wounded, or for killing a father who was trying to help his wounded son. In another passage, the prime minister argues that the blame rests with the British soldiers:

For those looking for statements of innocence, Saville says: “The immediate responsibility for the deaths and injuries on Bloody Sunday lies with those members of Support Company whose unjustifiable firing was the cause of the those deaths and injuries” and—crucially—that “none of the casualties was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury, or indeed was doing anything else that could on any view justify their shooting.”

If the British soldiers are to blame, then their actions are not justified. The prime minister therefore should not be criticized for telling the truth about this tragedy.

Cameron builds to a general conclusion, arguing that we should not try to justify the actions of those soldiers:

You do not defend the British Army by defending the indefensible. We do not honour all those who have served with distinction in keeping the peace and upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland by hiding from the truth. So there is no point in trying to soften or equivocate what is in this Report. It is clear from the Tribunal's authoritative conclusions that the events of Bloody Sunday were in no way justified.

The prime minister develops several arguments to support his denial that the killings were justified. Although Cameron was unwilling to criticize the British military generally, in this tragedy he argues that there is no justification for the killings. This claim reinforces his attempt to preempt criticism for his apology and for blaming British soldiers for this massacre.


Prime Minister Cameron also describes the context in a way that suggests an excuse for the actions of the British soldiers on Bloody Sunday:

Mr. Speaker, while in no way justifying the events of January 30th 1972, we should acknowledge the background to the events of Bloody Sunday. Since 1969 the security situation in Northern Ireland had been declining significantly. Three days before “Bloody Sunday,” two RUC officers—one a Catholic—were shot by the IRA in Londonderry, the first police officers killed in the city during the Troubles. A third of the city of Derry had become a no-go area for the RUC and the Army. And in the end 1972 was to prove Northern Ireland's bloodiest year by far with nearly 500 people killed.

Despite having begun by saying the context can “in no way” justify the killings, the prime minister describes events leading up to the massacre. That year 500 people had been killed, and only 3 days before Bloody Sunday two police officers had been killed by the IRA. The upshot is that the British soldiers had (some) reasons to react as they had on Bloody Sunday; the situation reasonably made the soldiers feel threatened.


A historic apology is, by definition, late. This one occurred almost 40 years after the tragedy. Some people surely believed that this apology—and Lord Saville's investigation, which led to the apology— should have occurred much sooner than it did. However, a British prime minister eventually did the right thing, apologizing for this tragedy. Cameron did so, as the British say, “with knobs on.” He declared that the killings were wrong, he argued (extensively in the preemptive element of his message) that these actions were unjustifiable, he acknowledged the grief of relatives, and he expressed his deep sorrow over this tragedy. This is a well-designed instance of mortification. The apology was clear and direct. It may not erase all ill feelings, but it was appropriate and should have helped the healing process.

The preemptive portion of this image repair effort was, for the most part, well designed as well. The prime minister bolstered his attitudes toward the military and praised them (for actions other than Bloody Sunday). He argues in some detail, based on Lord Saville's report, that no justification can be made for the killings. I found his statement “You do not defend the British Army by defending the indefensible” to be particularly apt in these circumstances. Again, some may refuse to accept any criticism of the British military, regardless of its merit, but generally the prime minister struck the right tone. The prime minister employed evidence to reinforce the persuasive strategies that constitute his defense, frequently quoting Lord Saville. Cameron did not want the audience to think he was trying to attack the United Kingdom's armed forces and used Lord Saville as cover, attributing specific accusations, such as the lack of justification for the shootings, to the report. Evidence can be useful to reinforce image repair strategies.

A minor problem in this image repair discourse is the fact that defeasibility is not entirely consistent with denying that there is any justification for the killings. Cameron's discussion of the context provides a reason (not, in my opinion, enough of a reason to exonerate the soldiers) for the British soldiers to have reacted as they did. He argues in effect that there was no justification for the killings but yet there was some justification for the soldier's actions. Perhaps Cameron believed that some justification existed for their actions, so he included this idea, but he wanted the primary idea in the speech to be that the killings were unjustified. Including defeasibility is a compromise and, as such, it waters down the image repair effort.


In 1972, British soldiers in Northern Ireland killed 26 people on the day that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Nearly 40 years later, on June 15, 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech apologizing for this tragedy. His image repair effort had two main components. First, he enacted a historic third party defense (the rhetor was not personally responsible for the offensive act, which occurred in the past). Second, the discourse attempted to preempt negative reactions to an apology that blamed the British military. I evaluate his attempt at both third party defense and preemptive image repair to be generally well designed; one flaw is denying that the killings were justified and then employing defeasibility to suggest that the soldiers had reasons to overreact.

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