frontline volume 2, issue 6. March 2008

Derry’s Bloody Sunday

Bill Bonnar on the legacy of the 1972 massacre by the British Army that brought a bloody new phase of conflict in Ireland.

On 30th January 1972 one of the worst atrocities in the history of the Northern Ireland took place in Derry when 26 civil rights protestors were shot by the British Parachute Regiment during a demonstration. Thirteen died on the day while another died from his wounds some months later. Despite initial attempts to cover up what happened and an entirely laughable public enquiry under Lord Widgery the truth quickly emerged and is now the subject of a second enquiry under Lord Saville. Bloody Sunday altered the course of history in Northern Ireland. In particular, it effectively brought to an end to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement and acted as the single greatest source of recruitment for the Provisional IRA. For the catholic community in Northern Ireland it was now not so much about civil rights as the need to defend their communities against loyalist and British army violence.

What happened that day had been building for a long time. When British troops first arrived in Northern Ireland they were welcomed by most of the Catholic population who had been under violent attacks by Loyalist forces supported by the Northern Ireland state and initially saw the army as protectors. Within a relatively short space of time that relationship changed with the British Army forming an alliance with local security forces to put down what they saw as an emerging nationalist rebellion.

The ‘Troubles’ first began in October 1968 with a planned civil rights march in Derry supported by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. Despite being a small affair with only a few hundred taking part it was brutally broken up by the RUC. Unknown to the police the demonstration was being filmed and soon the pictures were being beamed all over the world. For the Catholic population of Derry who had suffered decades of discrimination and violence it proved to be the last straw and what followed was days of rioting. In January 1969 a four-day civil rights march took place from Claudy to Derry modelled on a similar march led by Martin Luther King in America. The march was repeatedly attacked by Loyalist mobs aided and abetted by the RUC and the notorious B Specials. Again the Catholic population in Derry rose up in protest with several days of rioting and a violent counter-reaction by the RUC. In April 1969, Bernadette Devlin, a leading civil rights activist, won the Mid-Ulster seat in a Westminster by-election. A week later and following a bombing campaign by loyalists, the first British troops arrived.

Perhaps the most crucial episode in the build up to Bloody Sunday occurred in August 1969. The RUC, armed with armoured cars and water cannon entered, the Bogside area of Derry after several days of rioting. They were followed/aided/accompanied by Loyalist mobs determined to ‘take back’ this part of Derry. After two days of rioting, the residents of Bogside forced them out and in effect turned this area into a no go zone for the security forces and the government in Stormont. This battle for control became a feature of the conflict in Northern Ireland for years and the actions of the troops during Bloody Sunday have to be seen in this context. The military assault on demonstrators that day was part and parcel of the strategy of regaining control of the streets and sending a clear message to those who would challenge that control.

For the next two years this conflict simmered under the surface with loyalist and security forces attacks in catholic areas being matched by rioting and the establishment of more no go areas. This was a time when the IRA still existed on the margins of the conflict and the Civil Rights Movement and citizens groups exerted major influence. Perhaps the biggest change came from the British Army. They originally were sent in by a Labour Government worried that the security situation was getting out of control and deeply suspicious of the links between the RUC and loyalist groups. When in June 1970 the Conservative Party came to power the role of the army changed. From now on it would take the lead in alliance with the RUC at putting down what was now seen as a Catholic and Nationalist rebellion against British rule. What was suspected at the time and confirmed later was that this alliance also extended to loyalist terror groups who worked hand in hand with the security forces in their counter-insurgency strategy.

Perhaps the biggest turning point was the introduction of Internment without trial in August 1971. Across Northern Ireland 342 people were arrested and taken to a makeshift concentration camp. This provoked a massive counter-reaction from the Catholic Nationalist population across the province with the worse rioting seen since the ‘Troubles’ began. Within 48 hours 17 people were killed including 10 shot by the British Army. The main result of Internment was a sense among the Catholic/Nationalist community that they were now facing all out attack. The result was rocketing support for the IRA as ‘protectors’ of the community and an increasing marginalisation of the Civil Rights Movement.

By this time Catholic/Nationalist NO GO areas were appearing all over the province. Typically the Army/RUC would move into these areas in a show of strength to be met with barricades, rioting and attacks from IRA snipers. After several days of conflict the RUC/Army would withdraw until the next time. The centre of this conflict was Derry with the establishment of ‘Free Derry’; an entire area where the authorities had lost control. It was here that the events known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ took place.

On Sunday 30th January 1972 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association organised a demonstration against internment. Around 5000 demonstrators started the march although by the time it reached its destination it had swelled to around 20.000. As it reaching its climax a small group of demonstrators broke off and headed for an army barricade; not an uncommon occurrence at the time. A riot soon followed which most observers described as ‘low key’. What followed can only be described as a massacre. British soldiers started firing into the crowd and when they dispersed in panic pursued them continuing to fire. Within half an hour, 26 demonstrators had been shot; 13 died immediately and one some time after from his wounds.

The army version of events that day bordered on the ludicrous. That they came under attack from a violent, armed mob and that they responded in self-defence. This was the line also put out by a compliant British media and by the hastily convened Widgery Inquiry which cleared the soldiers of any wrong doing, commended them on their restraint under severe provocation and completely endorsed the army account of what happened. In his report, Lord Widgery took the term ‘whitewash’ to new levels. The main problem for the army and Lord Widgery was that there were plenty of credible and independent eye witnesses to what actually happened none less so than foreign journalists and television crews who recorded the event. Soon stories and news footage of the massacre were appearing all over the world; enough to break through the British media and government lies.

When the true facts of Bloody Sunday became common currency, two explanations for the army’s action emerged. One was that the soldiers simply ‘lost it’, discipline broke down and they went on the rampage shooting at everything in sight until order was restored. With the Widgery Report completely discredited before the ink was dry, the government and army were happy to let this version of events circulate while not officially endorsing it. However, eye witnesses described something very different. That the soldiers actions were calculated and disciplined and that they appeared at all times to be under command and acting on orders. Most evidence points to this latter explanation. That the massacre was planned in advance by army commanders determined to ‘teach a lesson’ and regain control of the streets.

If this was their intention their strategy completely backfired. The image of the army as peace-keepers trying their best to keep two sides apart was exposed for the lie it was both in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the world. This was a force waging all out war on one section of the population to defend the status quo. Internationally the repercussions were dramatic. In the United States support for the republican cause rocketed while in Ireland the whole country came to a standstill in protest. More than 100,000 people marched on the British Embassy in Dublin; one of the biggest demonstrations ever seen in Ireland. That night the embassy was burnt to the ground. During the funerals it is estimated that 90% of the population took part in a minutes silence.

Bloody Sunday also had a dramatic impact on the IRA. Still largely a peripheral organisation its recruitment went through the roof with literally thousands of young men queuing up to join. Following this event the IRA became one of central actors in Northern Irish politics pushing organisations like the Civil Rights Association into the margins. As such Bloody Sunday had an impact on Northern Irish politics well beyond the events themselves.

Despite the Widgery Whitewash as it came to be known an inquest into the events was held in August 1973. The Coroner, Major Hubert O’Neill, in his report did not pull any punches. He concluded; ‘This Sunday became known as Bloody Sunday and bloody it was. It was quite unnecessary. It strikes me that the army ran amok that day and shot without thinking what they were doing. They were shooting innocent people. These people may have been taking part in a march that was banned but that does not justify the troops coming in and firing live rounds indiscriminately . I would say that without hesitation that it was sheer, unadulterated murder. It was murder.’
As stated earlier this version of events became common currency although credence has also to be given to an alternative explanation; that the massacre was planned and sanctioned at the highest level to ‘teach them a lesson’.

The Saville Enquiry is due to report on its findings shortly. It will not be too difficult to second guess its findings. The facts of the massacre will be laid out as they happened with the ‘troops out of control’ scenario likely to be favoured. Emphasis will be placed on the pressures the troops were under and the provocations they were subjected to. Criticism will probably be directed at some of the commanding officers although there will be absolutely no prospect of charges or convictions. The different sides in the conflict will give their verdicts. Republicans will see it as a vindication of their version of events although will not want to rock the boat too much. Loyalists have already denounced the enquiry as a colossal waist of time and money; presumably they didn’t see too much wrong with what happened on the day. The army will talk about terrible pressures that can befall soldiers trying to carry out their duties and the British Government will hope this draws a line under the whole affair. Only the families are likely to still have questions in particular, was the massacre pre-planned as many believe. The Report, will however, draw a line under one of the worst events in the modern history of Northern Ireland.