Bloody Sunday: fifty years on

Geoff Bell, a political activist in the North of Ireland at the time of the killings, remembers.

What happened on Bloody Sunday is now agreed by most people. That is, that on 30th January 1972 soldiers from the British Army’s 3rd Parachute Regiment shot dead thirteen people who were among thousands who had gathered in Derry to demonstrate against interment without trial in Northern Ireland. A fourteenth died later in hospital.

Many years later, in 2010, the second UK government inquiry into these events, headed by Lord Saville, declared the victims were entirely innocent of any misdeeds that day. In short, they had been murdered. Once Saville reported this, the then Prime Minister David Cameron gave an unqualified apology in the House of Commons.

He noted that Saville had concluded that soldiers of the Parachute Regiment had opened fire without warning or being fired on, that they had shot people who were running away, that none of the dead had been armed, that some were shot while lying on the road wounded or when going to the help of others. “I am deeply sorry,” Cameron said, accepting that ultimately the British Army was the responsibility of the British Government and that therefore so were the deaths.

Bloody Sunday, was, for many of us involved in the struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland in those days, the most significant single event in Ireland since the country had been partitioned in 1921. The context can explain that.

Since 1968 we had marched, demonstrated, and sat down in roads in pursuit of a simple cause: that the unionist government in Northern Ireland should stop discriminating in employment, housing allocation, and voting rights against the Catholic community in Northern Ireland. We were also protesting against the Special Powers Act, a piece of repressive legislation for which the then South African apartheid government expressed envy.

These early protests were entirely peaceful, but the situation changed when the police and members of the Protestant community, who marginally benefitted from the discrimination, began to attack peaceful demonstrations. They were soon joined by the British Army who were dispatched to the streets of Northern Ireland in August 1969 by the then Labour government after the police had been defeated in Derry’s “Battle of the Bogside”.

After a short honeymoon, the Army sided with police and the then unionist government in the North. The newly established Provisional Irish Republican Army began to fight back. The British Army punished entire Catholic communities, notably when they imposed martial law in Belfast for a few days in July 1970 when they killed four people and raided thousands of homes simply because Catholics lived there. The IRA resistance began, and the British and Northern Irish union governments invoked the Special Powers Act and locked up those they deemed too troublesome. These included leaders and pacifists of the civil rights movement.

It was in protest against this internment that the Bloody Sunday march took place. The government banned that march. Determined to stop it the parachute regiment was dispatched. The Saville enquiry was told by Lord Carver, the British Army Chief of staff, that just before these killings of January 1972 he had discussions with Prime Minister Edward Heath on Northern Ireland and that Heath “was influenced by his military background and wanted to solve problems by the use of military means.”

The same inquiry heard that Attorney General Lord Hailsham, had said, at a meeting of a cabinet sub-committee in the summer of 1971, that British soldiers in Northern Ireland, “could shoot anyone who obstructed them or got in their way”. As for Heath himself, he told Saville that he agreed at the time with Northern Ireland Prime Minister Brian Faulkner that the marchers on what became Bloody Sunday were “not genuine civil righters but civil disobedients” and “lawbreakers”.

It was hardly surprising that when Heath staged the first inquiry into Bloody Sunday, headed by Lord Widgery, it exonerated the soldiers. Let no one say that Bloody Sunday was about a few bad apples in the Army. Bloody Sunday was the British state’s definitive answer to the demand for civil rights.

As for the civil rights campaign, we had one more large march and then put our banners away. Henceforth, few involved in that struggle believed we had any right to put more lives at risk by attempting the type of defenceless protest the Blood Sunday victims had marched for. So it was that against British guns, more and more Irish people took up the struggle with weapons of their own. The long war, as it became known, began in earnest.

Is Blood Sunday just history? The Tory government is trying to make it so, for it is today trying to push through legislation that will prohibit any further legal investigation into not just Bloody Sunday, but all crimes committed by the British Army in Northern Ireland. The cover-ups and state conspiracies go on.

Accordingly, the lesson many of us draw from Bloody Sunday remains: the best way to honour the fourteen dead is to change the colonial arrangements that produced it. Let the Union Jack cease to fly in any part of Ireland.

Geoff Bell is an executive member of Labour for Irish Unity. His next book, The Twilight of Ulster Unionism, will be published by Verso later this year.

Image: Bloody Sunday mural. Source: https://web.archive.org/web/20161013024558/http://www.panoramio.com/photo/16216495. Author: Keith Ruffles, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.