46 years on: Will we ever learn from Bloody Sunday?

If ever there was a place name that sums up the divide in Northern Ireland, it is the name of Ulster’s second city. Is it Derry or Londonderry? Officially it is Londonderry ever since King James I gave Derry a royal charter in 1613, but nationalists still refer to it as Derry. You can understand why.

Those divisions were brought into stark contrast on Sunday 30th January 1972, when the city witnessed one of the darkest days in recent Irish history. A day that started with hope and optimism, and ended with death and recriminations that continue to this day.

The civil rights movement that started in the late 1960s had planned a peaceful march from the Bogside outside the city walls into the city centre where a rally would be held. Although the march was well organised, it took place at a time of real tension and increased violence.

For anyone needing a reminder, one of the commonly quoted reasons for “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, was the perception by many Catholics of discrimination in all walks of their life. Whilst this is true, the original civil rights movement was concerned with discrimination in the Protestant working classes too. A fact a leading member of the organising committee for the civil rights match on Bloody Sunday was a Protestant, Ivan Cooper, later a founder of the SDLP.

But hey, why let a few simple facts get in the way of history!

Anyone who has walked around the walls of Derry, will have seen “The Bogside”. It is the Catholic part of town outside the city walls, and largely consisting of poor housing. It was a perfect breeding ground for what became the Provisional IRA. So when the civil rights movement organised a march through this area, the British army were taking no chances. Among the reinforcements brought in was the 1st Parachute Regiment, well known for their uncompromising attitude. Army intelligence suggested the IRA would fire on the army, so they were prepared for trouble.

The march started peacefully enough from the Creggan estate, with 15,000 people marching to the city centre. The Army stopped the march, forcing the marchers down a different route and effectively barring them from leaving the Bogside. This is where the trouble started. Youths threw stones at the army, who initially responded with rubber bullets. This kind of confrontation was not uncommon in the early 1970s, as the Catholic population saw the army as preventing them from exercising their right to equality.

Enter the 1st Parachute Regiment. They were originally located outside the Bogside, but were sent in despite orders to the contrary by their commanding officer. Not known for their reserve, the Saville Inquiry found that the first shots were fired by them into the crowd of rioters. The Paras say they saw rioters holding weapons, although the evidence is inconclusive at best. By the end of the day 26 civilians were shot and 14 died. Not one of the deceased were found to have a weapon or evidence of having fired one. Some were even shot in the back running away from the soldiers. Others were shot whilst waving white handkerchiefs.

That day’s events were a watershed for Northern Ireland. It effectively signaled the end of the civil rights movement, and sharpened the already deep distrust between the communities. It also proved to be a major recruiting campaign for the Provos. IRA member Séanna Walsh said, “It was bedlam. Anyone who cared about anything was involved in some way. It was the situation I was in and as a young man I would say I had no choice.”

There were undoubtedly IRA members taking part in the march, but the march organisers were assured they’d be unarmed. There were also reports of one IRA member firing a revolver at the paratroopers, but this was after the initial shooting started. It is also proven that some soldiers colluded in changing their testimonies when initially giving evidence into to what happened. It is also clear that the Paras were looking for a fight, and according to Saville’s inquiry “lost control”.

Like most history, it is never simple. Within the context of 1972 Northern Ireland, there was blame on both sides. However the unsolicited killing of unarmed civilians is unacceptable. That there were so many that day, is a tragedy. 44 years on, and justice has still to be seen to be done. The Saville Inquiry put the blame squarely on the army, yet the individuals involved have escaped any charges.

Sunday 30th January 1972 has many parallels with Sunday 21 November 1920 during the War of Independence, not least that this is also known as Bloody Sunday. That day 14 unarmed civilians were killed when an armoured car entered the pitch at Croke Park, Dublin during a Gaelic football match and opened fire. Earlier that day the IRA assassinated 13 soldiers and police that they considered as informers.

A retaliatory event? Almost definitely. Such brutal events never address the real issue. It makes you wonder if we’ll ever learn.

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