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.

Amnesty International & The Colomban Missionaries: Two peas from the same pod?

Amnesty International Logo    and  Missionary Society of St. Columban Logo

I’m not an overly religious person. I was brought up as a Catholic, but I no longer practice. I realised a long time ago that my religious upbringing didn’t sit well with my everyday experience. Being told at primary school that only Catholics would reach heaven, is one memory that springs to mind. So too was a Parish Council meeting I witnessed descend into acrimony, accusations, and downright spite.

Such unchristian and divisive behaviour taking place in a christian setting is something I look back on with horror. It perfectly highlights that people can be barbaric, hurtful, warm, or generous regardless of their faith, gender, skin colour, or political belief. However there is one branch of my ecclesiastical upbringing that I cling to.

As a youngster my Mother supported the work of the Missionary Society of St. Columban. Now that she’s unable to, I’ve taken on the mantle. The reasons are two fold. First, as an adopted child, I was for want of a better phrase, “sourced” through the Colomban Sisters. Secondly, one of my paternal aunts was a missionary in the Philippines with them.

The society started in Ireland in 1916, and was formally approved by the Vatican in June 1918. The world, and indeed Ireland, was a very different place back then. For a start Ireland was still governed by the UK, despite the brave attempt of the 1916 uprising, and the UK was still at war with Germany and it’s allies.

The society’s initial mission was in China. This wasn’t entirely safe, as China was itself in the middle of a bloody civil war lasting some 30 years, during which some missionaries were murdered. As time went on though, the society expanded into other far eastern countries. Post WW2 they went into South America and Pakistan. But it is their work in the Far East that always caught the eye of a young man living in London.

I remember getting the regular copies of their aptly named Far East magazine. As well as featuring articles from far off places I’d never been to, I was often drawn to the slightly unorthodox role of the missionaries. Not unorthodox in a theological sense, but socially and economically. Whilst they often worked with the poorest in society, they realised how they could campaign (with a small “c”) to improve the position of those under their care. It wasn’t uncommon to see them attending, or even leading, peaceful protests.

I mentioned my missionary aunt. I was one of her favourite nephews, and she took a great interest in my life. When she visited us, she’d always ask lots of questions about what I was up to. When In the early 1990s I became involved in Amnesty International, she showed a particular interest. I’d like to think this was because she saw my work in this organisation as an extension of her mission.

Maybe she was right. The Colombans have a strong focus on social and economic issues. Their website features work on climate change, justice and peace, refugees, food and water. Whilst back then Amnesty International members concentrated mainly on individual prisoner cases, it fitted fairly neatly with their general missionary work. Over the years as Amnesty changed to work directly on social and economic rights, it is more aligned with the society’s mandate.

Unfortunately my aunt is no longer with us. After she died I visited the Far East on many occasions. It is a fascinated region, full of smiles and friendly faces. The majority of those I met weren’t Catholic, but I’ve no doubt they have just as much chance of reaching heaven (or whatever celestial resting place awaits us) as me!

I’ll never forget visiting the “English Corner” in Shanghai’s People’s Park in the early 1990s, where I was befriended by an octogenarian man. As someone who remembered life before the cultural revolution, he didn’t take too kindly to being told what to think. A free thinker, he was a breath of fresh air and not scared to talk about controversial topics. Bizarrely he liked Margaret Thatcher, not because he agreed with her politics, but because in his eyes she stood for everything the Chinese leadership wasn’t.

Similarly I won’t forget, although I wish I was able to forget the hangover, spending several hours drinking beer with the guards on a 30 hour train journey down Vietnam. It started as an attempt to teach them better English, but soon descended into a Beatles sing song and then pure farce. In fact I still have a handwritten note, signed by the Head Guard, that offers me free rail travel throughout Vietnam!

Back in reality my work with Amnesty International continues. I’m just a member of a local volunteer group now, but I did spend many years in the organisation’s governance. I was even on the Board of the UK Section for four years. I may be less directly involved in the organisation’s decision making these days, but my desire for human rights remains undiminished.

I’d like to think my need to campaign against unfairness and injustice  comes from my aunt’s spirit and energy. She, and other Colomban missionaries, were arguably laying the foundations for Amnesty International’s later human rights work in the Far East. Neither of us knew it back then, but the two organisations had more in common than we thought.

I’ll be attending a mass in London in June to mark the Missionary Society of St. Columban’s centenary. Whilst I’m a lapsed catholic, I still feel a spiritual  pull towards religion for the good of a society. So when I’m there, I’ll look up and give thanks to my Aunt Sheila and the wonderful work she and other Colomban missionaries did, and continue to do, around the world.

Ireland’s shameful legacy

abortionAs an Irish national, albeit one that has lived most of his life away from the mother land, I have a strong sense of nationality. I’m Irish not British, and I always will be. But sometimes my home country makes me wonder whether it is the modern outward looking place I think it to be.

You see abortion is illegal in Ireland.

In 1968 when the UK government passed the abortion bill, a steady stream of young Irish ladies found the only options open to them if they found themselves with an unwanted pregnancy was to:

  • Proceed with the pregnancy and hand in the baby for adoption.
  • Take the risk of a back street abortion at home.
  • Take the boat across to the UK mainland and have a legal abortion.

None of these were particularly useful, but the fact that some chose to come to the UK mainland seemed weird. Surely it would be easier to hop across the border to Northern Ireland and have the abortion there.

Well it would if abortion was legal there. It isn’t.

Strange as it may seem, the UK’s abortion law doesn’t apply to the six counties. Despite some progress being made on the issue in recent years, pregnant ladies wanting an abortion face the same issues regardless of which one of the 32 counties they come from.

The Irish government has promised a referendum on changing the countries constitution, because it prevents abortion except in exceptional circumstances. If the referendum happens, it promises to be a divisive campaign. On the one hand the religious and conservative groups, and on the other the younger, more liberal population.

In the north, things haven’t been helped by the demise of the Northern Ireland Executive. It hasn’t met for a year since the power sharing coalition collapsed after Martin McGuinness’s resignation. In June 2017 the UK government stepped into the debate and announced that women from Northern Ireland could receive abortions in England and Wales.

That’s a positive step, but it doesn’t go far enough.

There are some horrific documented stories of how Irish women have suffered. Amnesty International has documented some of them.

It is time for such practices to stop. You can help Amnesty International by taking action  on their website.

I’m proud that the country of my birth has taken some big human rights steps in recent years. As of 2015 gay marriage is legal. It is sometimes hard for non-Irish people to understand what a massive step that was. The Catholic hierarchy may not have the same strangle hold on debate that it once had, but it still wields a lot of influence in Irish society.

If the referendum on abortion follows suit, I strongly suspect the result will be a constitutional change. That just leaves the north to sort its act out. If they can’t, and it doesn’t look likely that they’ll be in a position too any time soon, it is the UK government’s responsibility to step in and do the right thing.