The tragedy of Derry’s Bloody Sunday is not just because 14 innocent boys and men were slaughtered by uniformed agents of the British state. Not just because there was a cover-up, where the victims were demonised as bombers and gunmen. Not just because their families had to fight a lonely battle for almost 40 years to have their names cleared and the truth acknowledged.
All of the above is appalling, but the greatest calamity is that Bloody Sunday was instrumental in delivering 30 years of the Troubles.
The situation in Northern Ireland was still salvageable at the point when the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment, with a reputation for excessive force (so says the Saville Report), was unleashed on the people of Derry.
But what happened at the anti-internment march 50 years ago was a watershed. Support for the IRA was negligible, until that afternoon’s events recruited young people into the militant republican movement.
When paratroopers with blackened faces chased civil rights protestors through the streets, firing high-velocity bullets – this was war and not policing – many people concluded there was no space for a peaceful civil rights campaign.
The state would not permit it, no matter how valid citizens’ grievances. In any case, some citizens mattered less than others, and discrimination against Catholics was systemic.
Bloody Sunday acted as a catalyst for those interminable decades of the Troubles – and the pity, the waste, the grief, the loss of it all is that they need never have happened if there had been dialogue and fairness. Instead, the British state unleashed its army on an unarmed people.
And one community’s horrific experience reverberated worldwide. It was no longer possible to continue looking away from the problems embedded deliberately within the Northern state.
There is no necessity in history – nothing happens because it must. Choices were made in the build-up to Bloody Sunday and on the day itself, January 30, 1972; choices with far-reaching implications.
Deploying the Paras had consequences – their track record was known, they had demonstrated it five months earlier in Ballymurphy, West Belfast, with a killing spree there.
Vilification of the dead, a feature of the aftermath, was another deliberate choice. But reputations were blackened earlier. No distinction was made by between civil rights activists and IRA members, judging by a memo to the Stormont cabinet by a security adviser in mid-January 1972, which advised renewing a ban on marches by “Civil Rights and other ‘front’ organisations for the IRA”.
In minutes of an army meeting quoted in the Saville Inquiry came another damaging conflation: the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was “the active ally of the IRA”.
And a note on a meeting between British premier Ted Heath and Northern Ireland premier Brian Faulkner three days before the demonstration, characterises marchers as being “not genuine ‘civil righters’ but were ‘civil disobedients’”. These memos are quoted in campaigner Julieann Campbell’s powerful new book, On Bloody Sunday.
The march was banned, but organisers decided to proceed anyway, and some 10,000 to 15,000 people turned up. It was a carnival atmosphere – until a small section of the crowd saw soldiers in a derelict building and began throwing stones. The soldiers retaliated with live ammunition.
All hell broke loose. Thirteen died that day, seven of them teenagers, while a 14th man died some months later. Others were injured by bullets and batons, or run over by army vehicles.
An iconic image shows Father Edward Daly, later Bishop Daly, going forward at a crouch, waving a bloodstained white handkerchief at the head of a group of men carrying 17-year-old Jackie Duddy. He is dying or already dead at that point. In this volatile situation, the fear emanating from them is palpable – along with the menace from watching soldiers.
The cover-up began immediately. Col Derek Wilford, 1 Para’s commanding officer, insisted on ITN the next day that his men were fired on: “We only had one course open to us then, that was to take cover and return fire.”
Apart from one soldier accidentally discharging his weapon into his foot, no soldier was hurt or killed by gunfire, despite a litany of lies about nail bombers and IRA snipers.
Britain’s Home Secretary Reginald Maudling backed up the army’s version in the House of Commons. Eyewitness Bernadette Devlin, MP for Mid-Ulster, had flown to London to bear witness but was refused permission to speak. In her frustration, she slapped Maudling. Years later, I asked her about the incident, and she said it was unpremeditated – when leaving the chamber, she intended throwing the ceremonial mace to the floor, but it was too heavy. Nearby, Maudling’s face caught her eye, and on the spur of the moment she made a fist of her hand and clattered him.
Anglo-Irish relations reached one of their lowest ebbs, matched only by the hunger strike deaths almost a decade later. A day of national mourning was announced across Ireland and Taoiseach Jack Lynch made a televised address. The British embassy in Dublin was burned down the following month.
International attention could not be ignored. In Britain, an inquiry was quickly ordered, chaired conveniently by just one judge, Lord Chief Justice Widgery. A memo from Heath to Widgery before it opened said: “We are in Northern Ireland fighting not only a military war but a propaganda war.” Britain’s most senior judge understood the message. His report in April 1972 exonerated the plucky Paras and labelled the dead and injured IRA activists or sympathisers.
The North’s nationalist community was aghast at the blatant way the rule of law was set aside, and toleration for British rule was reduced yet further. I had a teacher who used to wag his finger and say, “Don’t be telling widgeries,” when we offered up excuses for not doing our homework. In Derry, graffiti read “Widgery washes whiter” – a play on the Daz soap powder slogan.
A factor never adequately taken into account by the British establishment was the strong media presence on Bloody Sunday, which meant it happened before the eyes of world, unlike 1 Para’s murderous Ballymurphy rampage in August 1971.
Eyewitness accounts from the people of Derry were not the only reports at odds with the official version of events – TV footage, press photographs, articles and interviews also cast doubt on the army’s narrative.
Finally, Tony Blair ordered the Saville Inquiry, a long-running investigation which overturned Widgery’s exercise in deception, and in 2010 then prime minister David Cameron had the grace to make a formal apology.
Welcome though his words were, no one has ever been held accountable for that day’s actions, which must have been authorised at a high level.
However, the families’ courage, persistence and determination to stand up for their loved ones has proven the value of grassroots activism, and endures as a positive legacy from that horrific day.
Time passed, but cultural memory refused to consign Bloody Sunday to history’s wastepaper bin.