Exactly thirty years ago, January 30th 1972, is a seminal date which exacerbated the communal political sectarian outbursts in Northern Ireland into a protracted urban guerrilla war. Thirteen unarmed civilians were shot dead in Derry (one more died later) and fourteen, at least, were injured by gunfire from British soldiers (alleged to be paratroopers).
The occasion was a civil rights march which had been declared illegal. Police and military had constructed barriers which had been so arranged as to prevent the marchers from from taking the route to the Guildhall, which was to have been the focal point of the protest. Being an illegal march both police and military were empowered to make arrests and to detain those participating, as and when they deemed it necessary.
As television and radio broadcasts on the day showed, there was much confusion, arguments and disagreements over who precipitated the violence and who fired the first shots. There is no doubt that some soldiers (allegedly ‘Paras’) did fire, which resulted in the fourteen civilian deaths and that there were no police or soldiers hit by fire from the crowd or the periphery of the march.
The Widgery Inquiry, which was held a few weeks later, judged that the soldiers had acted within the law and seemed to cast doubt on the evidence of witnesses who testified that the dead marchers were unarmed with guns or any other lethal weaponry.
Following the incident and the Inquiry which exonerated the soldiers, the then IRA, which as a military threat was more putative than actual, was immediately inundated by hundreds of applicants wishing to join the organisation, apparently on the basis that peaceful protest against the structures and policies of the Stormont Unionist government was being thwarted, obstructed and fired upon by the British army, backed up by the British Conservative government of Prime Minister, Edward Heath.
And as they say, the rest is history, long sustained and bloody, like that Sunday in January 1972. The total death toll over the subsequent years exceeds 3,500, with many maimed and injured, male and female, soldiers, police and civilians, young, old and unborn, in both countries.
Ever since that winter day it has been known as ‘Bloody Sunday’, and other days of multiple deaths have been called ‘Bloody Monday’ and ‘Bloody Friday’, but that day in Derry is significant in that it was a catalyst which determined the direction and ferocity of the decades of violence which followed.
Much has been written about the ‘Long War’, as it has been called, from both sides of the conflict, and about the torture and inhumane practices (including mutilations) in the way killings were carried out. Subterfuges and ruses employed in the murky world of state intelligence work included use of IRA-type weapons, so that they might be blamed for those actions carried out by undercover military units.
Some such reports can be gleaned from a recent book (‘The Irish War : The Military History of a Domestic Conflict’, 1998) which I obtained from the local public library. It was written by Tony Geraghty, who himself served in the Paras and as a military liaison officer with the US forces in the Gulf War. As a chief reporter for the Sunday Times he went to Belfast in January 1969 to cover the emerging civil rights campaign.
Recently there was an ITV documentary-type programme dealing with Bloody Sunday. It depicted the behind-the-scenes of the organising of the march with its objectives centred on the right to votes in local government elections and as a protest against internment without trial, mainly of Nationalists detained under the Special Powers Act. The shootings were reconstructed on the basis of the events as they were seen in newscasts of that day in January 1972.
On Monday 28th January, a second, very powerful documentary of ‘Bloody Sunday’ was shown on Channel 4 Television which questioned the authenticity of the denials made by by the military at the Inquiry that they were hyped up and had run amok.
This programme expressed concerns about how the Inquiry had ignored or had not been given some evidence by some of the military which could have corroborated that by civilian witnesses and implied that political considerations had skewed the direction of the verdict given by the Widgery Report.
Whatever conclusions are arrived at in the Seville Inquiry which is now running – taking evidence from hundreds of witnesses – on the face of it it is likely to be more thorough than that of Widgery, the validity of which has been doubted over the many years since it was published. Seville is not expected to publish its conclusions until next year or even 2004.
The truth of the event is important, The problem of course is how it might be played if it should be published around or near the time of the next NI Assembly elections, which could heighten tensions, causing an outbreak of sectarian clashes.
In addition, there is the aftermath of the Omagh bombing – shortly after the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement – hanging over Northern Ireland. The arguments between the Chief Constable and the Police ombudsman about how the investigation has been handled or mishandled is still ongoing.
It is ironical that against that background a citizen of the Irish Republic was charged and convicted in a Dublin court of conspiracy in the Omagh bombing and sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment for lending his mobile phones to facilitate the placing of the bomb which killed 29 people who were shopping in the town centre.
I didn’t hear any Unionist politician complaining about interference from the Republic in Northern Ireland’s affairs or asking for the extradition of the person convicted to be tried in a Northern court. Perhaps united in grief is a step towards cooperation with each other within the terms of the Belfast Agreement 1998.
It will of course not be easy but despite the cavilling and carping from Unionists, Conservatives and others the way ahead is that set out in that consensus of April 10th 1998. We all need to be ‘bloody sure’ of doing so, or we’ll surely have more ‘Bloody’ days to contend with.