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Focus Politics

47 Years After Bloody Sunday

Pearl Joslyn May 15, 2019

Photo Credit: UTV

On Thursday, March 14th, hundreds of people marched to the city centre of Derry, Northern Ireland, carrying a banner that read “Toward Justice”, and pictures of loved ones. The crowd paused to sing the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” before making their way to the Museum of Free Derry. The marchers walked with the relatives of the 14 unarmed protestors who were murdered by the British Army on January 30th, 1972, the day which came to be known as Bloody Sunday. Over 47 years later, the families were waiting to hear from the Director of Public Prosecutions on whether or not any of the soldiers would be charged with murder for the events. When the announcement came, however, the families were outraged. After decades of fighting for justice, only one British paratrooper, known as Soldier F, will be charged. The sixteen other soldiers, along with two Official Irish Republican Army (IRA) members, have not been charged because of insufficient evidence. To really understand the events on Thursday, you have to go back to 1972, when Bloody Sunday ignited civil unrest, leading to a decades-long civil war in Northern Ireland.

Bloody Sunday started as a peaceful protest led by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. The marchers were protesting housing and job discrimination against Catholics, mistreatment by the Protestant-dominated Northern Irish police force (the Royal Ulster Constabulary), and the deployment of British troops to Northern Ireland. Above all, the protestors were marching against the policy of internment of suspected IRA members without trial. The peaceful protest started in the Protestant Unionist dominated Waterside neighborhood, and ended in the Catholic Nationalist Bogside neighborhood. The march attracted populations of all ages, from families with children to teenagers. Inspired by the United States Civil Rights Movement, the coordinators of the march called for a peaceful demonstration in response to the violent attacks on previous peaceful protests.

The march came during a period of growing unrest in Northern Ireland. Forcibly settled with British citizens starting in the early 17th Century, the city of Derry was divided by a defensive wall that kept the Irish out. In 1922 Protestant dominated Northern Ireland was partitioned from the newly independent Ireland, as the descendants of the British colonists remained loyal to the British crown. The city, renamed Londonderry by the British, remained a point of contention between Nationalists, who wished for a united Ireland, and Unionists who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. Throughout the 20th Century, the Irish Republican Army, made up of militant Irish Nationalists worked to regain a united Ireland. In the 1950s and 60s tensions increased as Protestant Unionists became increasingly hostile toward integration of Irish Catholics, and Catholics faced increasing discrimination. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, created in response to this increase in discrimination against Catholics, drew upon the non-violent teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, and other leaders of the U.S. Civil Rights movement.

On January 30th, 1972, 10,000-15,000 peaceful marchers made their way to the Bogside neighborhood, where they met an army barricade. Some of the marchers made their way down side streets, while others remained at the barricade with some protestors eventually throwing stones at the soldiers. At 3:55 PM, the soldiers opened fire on the protestors, releasing a hundred rounds of live ammunition. When the firing ceased, thirteen people were dead, and one would die several months later from his injuries. Fourteen more were wounded. The dead were Jackie Duddy, 17, Michael Kelly, 17, Hugh Gilmour, 17, William Nash, 19, John Young, 17, Michael McDaid, 20, Kevin McIlhenny, 17, James Wray, 22, William McKinney, 26, Gerry McKinney, 35, Gerry Donaghy, 17, Patrick Doherty, 31, Barney McGuigan, 41, and John Johnston, 59. Thirteen of the fourteen people killed were unarmed, and while nail bombs were found in Gerry Donaghy’s pockets, he was not attempting to throw them when he was shot.

The investigation that followed the shootings, the 1972 Widgery Tribunal, quickly decidedthe soldiers were acting in self-defense, despite claims by eyewitnesses including journalists that the soldiers fired on unarmed civilians, many of whom were running away or administering first aid to the wounded. It took until 1998 to open the new investigation, the Saville Inquiry, which became the longest and most expensive British public inquiry in history. The report of the Saville Inquiry, published on June 15th, 2010, concluded that the victims of the massacre were unarmed and the British Army was not under fire when they opened fire on the protestors. Then Prime Minister David Cameron stated in front of Parliament:

“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. But the conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt, there is nothing equivocal, there are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.”

This was a watershed moment for the families of the victims, who had spent decades working to prove the innocence of their loved ones.

The court case following this report was met with a starkly different reaction. The families of the victims, who spent decades fighting for justice, were devastated to learn that only one soldier would be charged for his role in the massacre. Many people were shocked by the results from the case given the clear misdeeds of the soldiers. A number of the victims were shot in the back as they ran away, and one victim was killed after a second shot to the back while lying on the ground unable to move. Others, however, have argued that the soldiers were simply following orders and should not be charged for doing so. Northern Irish Secretary Karen Bradley was forced to issue an apology after stating, “The [deaths] at the hands of the military and police were not crimes. They were people acting under orders and under instruction and fulfilling their duty in a dignified and appropriate way.” Meanwhile the British Defense Minister, Gavin Williamson argued that prosecuting soldiers set a dangerous precedent whereby soldiers could be made to suffer for simply following orders. It is clear, however, that the soldiers involved in the massacre went beyond simply following orders. They were aware the civilians they were shooting were unarmed, and were mostly teenagers. They should have stopped firing immediately upon realizing the crowd was unarmed, but instead they fired a hundred rounds, often at specific individuals as they fled through side streets and alleys.

The impact of Bloody Sunday became an defining moment in the Irish Nationalist memory. The massacre deepened already growing sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland, leading to an escalation of the civil war. New members flocked to militant groups such as the IRA, radicalized by the injustice they saw during and after the massacre. People turned increasingly against the deployed British soldiers in what would eventually become the longest deployment in British military history. Bloody Sunday escalated and prolonged the civil war, known as the Troubles, and has remained a source of anger and resentment among nationalists and their allies.

As Britain prepares a plan to leave the United Kingdom, the future of Northern Ireland has again come into question. The open border, a central point of the peace agreement that ended the multi-decade civil war, could become a hard border again. This poses a major threat to the upholding of the ceasefire and peace agreement in a region that still struggles with political tension and militant groups. Derry, which sits on the border of Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland have long been centers for these political tensions, and they still occasionally bubble over into violence.

This violence has again made international headlines, following the murder of 29 year old journalist Lyra McKee in Derry on April 18th. McKee was killed during a riot that followed police searches. The nationalist group Saoradh later claimed responsibility for her death, stating that a volunteer accidentally shot her during the riot. All across Derry and Northern Ireland, people from all sides have expressed disgust at her death, and at the actions of Saoradh. Protestors have clearly demonstrated that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland deplore senseless violence, and want to leave the violence and death in the past where it belongs.

The results of the recent trial were a huge disappointment for those who wish to see the British government held accountable for its actions in Northern Ireland. The decision has stoked tensions, prompting the militant nationalist group Saoradh to call for the soldiers to stand trial at the Hague for war crimes (prior to the death of McKee). The result of the trial highlights a major issue in Britain’s handling of Northern Irish relations. If Britain refuses to take full blame for its actions during the Troubles, it risks re-escalating tensions, especially if Brexit results in a hard border. The decision to only charge one soldier despite Britain’s acknowledgment of the wrongs committed by the soldiers on January 30th, 1972, is a miscarriage of justice, and will only extend the suffering of the victims’ families, reopen old wounds, and ensure that the soldiers involved are never held accountable.