IN a world of constantly shifting values, a few principles must remain sacrosanct – among these are the rule of law, the right to justice, and the fact that a uniform is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. There’s a bitter culture war brewing over plans to now charge former paratroopers with murder in connection with Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland when 14 civilians died and another 11 were wounded after the British army opened fire on a civil rights demonstration in Derry/Londonderry in 1972.

You can see by the clunky name I use for the city (Derry if you’re Catholic or Republican, Londonderry if you’re Protestant or Loyalist) just how divided opinion is – if a society cannot agree on geographical terms, how can it find common ground on an issue so loaded with history? The divisions over the prosecution of soldiers run as deep in the rest of the UK. The right sees a betrayal of veterans, the left sees oppressive state forces brought to heel. Self-evidently, the paratroopers protest their innocence, and victims’ families demand justice. An announcement about possible prosecution will come on March 14.

Let’s remind ourselves of the facts before judgment is made. There have been two investigations by the British Government. The Widgery Tribunal, held shortly after the killings, largely cleared soldiers and accepted claims they’d shot at terrorists. The report, however, was a whitewash. In 1998, the Saville Inquiry reinvestigated. After 12 years, it ruled the killings were “unjustified” and “unjustifiable”. Those shot were unarmed and not a threat, no bombs were thrown and soldiers “knowingly put forward false accounts”. Many victims were shot while running away or helping the wounded.

The images of the day – the Catholic priest Edward Daly waving a bloodstained handkerchief as a white flag to soldiers not to fire on the injured; troops shooting from street corners – haunted Ireland and became a recruiting sergeant for the IRA. Without Bloody Sunday, The Troubles may never have been so deadly.

There’s no question, then, that crimes were committed and must be answered. Four soldiers are most likely to be prosecuted – Lance Corporal F, Corporal P, Private R and Private U. All have anonymity. F admitted killing four people – but insisted it wasn’t murder as he believed they were armed. The inquiry found “he fired either in the belief that no-one in the area into which he fired was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury, or not caring whether or not anyone there was posing such a threat”.

P shot at least one of three casualties and “may have been responsible for all three”. P said he didn’t remember shooting. R “probably” shot 17-year-old Jackie Duddy, the first killed. U “fired at and mortally wounded Hugh Gilmour as the latter was running”. After Saville, David Cameron apologised.

Johnny Mercer, a former army captain and Conservative MP, thinks it outrageous that veterans face prosecution so long after events. He wants to stop soldiers being pursued for historic allegations without fresh evidence. Boris Johnson weighed in, saying it’s “sickening that we are persecuting these elderly men for doing what they thought was their duty – in uniform, under orders”. One could argue that being in uniform requires the highest of standards, however. Mr Johnson also tweeted: “What signal does it send to our brave armed forces?”

Colum Eastwood, SDLP leader, replied: “It says, ‘if you murder 14 unarmed civil rights marchers you should expect to be prosecuted’. Mr Eastwood is one of many calling for justice. The Derry Journal published an article yesterday listing a number of voices supporting prosecution. There is anger about the demands for exceptionalism for the military.

As matters stand, then, the soldiers must be prosecuted. But, if Britain had been wiser and braver at the end of the Troubles, things could have been different. The creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement – along the lines of the one established in South Africa to deal with the legacy of apartheid – would have been one sure way of drawing a line under the past.

In South Africa, victims could speak of their pain to the world, and those who carried out acts of violence were given the opportunity to tell the truth – in return came amnesty from prosecution. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Northern Ireland would still have plenty to deal with today – only last week the Supreme Court ruled that investigations into the murder of the Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane were not effective. The state is suspected of colluding with loyalist paramilitaries in his death. Also last week, a jury was sworn in for the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings inquest.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission, however, would have been difficult for the British Government given allegations of collusion. Once the ink was dry on the Good Friday Agreement, Britain was keen to untangle itself. No steps were taken for such a commission. Perhaps that should be reconsidered now – as the wounds of the past are left to miraculously heal themselves.

There is a strange twilight world in Northern Ireland today when it comes to dealing with Troubles-related offences. If a former paramilitary is convicted of an offence which took place before the Good Friday Agreement they serve a maximum of two years. If the Bloody Sunday soldiers are convicted they will be treated the same. They will not, as some have said, serve life in prison.

According to the Pat Finucane Centre, a human rights organisation, only four soldiers have been convicted of killing civilians in Northern Ireland – these trials took place before the Good Friday Agreement. One murder conviction was overturned on appeal. All four were freed after just five years of their life sentences. All were allowed to rejoin the Army.

With history weighing the scales, it is not only unjustifiable, but unjust, in the present circumstances, for any British soldier who committed a crime in Northern Ireland – especially one as grave as participation in the Bloody Sunday shootings – to avoid prosecution. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission would have made things much different – honest testimony would have allowed paratroopers to avoid prosecution for past crimes, and for families to grieve over the truth. But that didn’t happen, and now the courts must have their say.

Read more: Blair warns on NI peace process