On 30 January 1972, a peaceful anti-internment march in the Bogside area of Derry, Northern Ireland, ended when 13 unarmed protesters were shot dead by soldiers from the British Army parachute regiment. A fourteenth man died later of his injuries. This day would become known as Bloody Sunday, and represent a defining moment in the 30-year conflict known as the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’.
The march was organised by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a nationalist political party that preached non-violence and constitutional reform, and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). The route for 30 January focused on the Catholic areas of Derry before arriving at the city’s Guildhall. Permission for the march itself was granted by the Derry authorities, although there were plans to prevent it reaching the Guildhall owing to fears of inciting a riot with the city’s Protestant communities. In fact, the British Army Commander of Land Forces in Northern Ireland, Major General Robert Ford, ordered the elite 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment (1 Para), to arrive in Derry that morning to take up positions in the city and to carry out an arrest operation codenamed ‘Forecast’.
An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 individuals began the march that afternoon from Bishop’s Field, in the Derry housing estate, with more joining along the route. As the protestors reached the city centre they found British Army barricades blocking their path to the Guildhall. The march organisers rerouted their followers to Free Derry Corner in the Bogside, but a group of marchers broke off and began throwing stones at the soldiers on the barricades. The soldiers retaliated with CS gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons in a bid to disperse the crowd. Instead, the situation quickly escalated and soon the soldiers opened fire with live ammunition.
As civilian volunteers administered first aid to those injured from baton strikes or rubber bullets, several Catholic priests came forward to administer the last rites to those close to death. Many of the victims were shot in the back as they were fleeing. As news of the day’s events spread, repercussions were seen across the island of Ireland. On 2 February an estimated crowd of between 20,000 and 30,000 gathered in Dublin where the British Embassy was burned down.
The British Government held an inquiry in the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday, led by the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, John Widgery. Widgery heard testimony from paratroopers who claimed they had been shot at first, something denied by the marchers who also gave evidence. However, in his report published just three weeks later, Widgery sided with the soldiers’ version and concluded the march illegal for venturing into areas not sanctioned by the Derry authorities, and thereby creating a situation where violence was ‘almost inevitable’. His one criticism of the soldiers’ conduct was that their firing of live ammunition ‘bordered on the reckless’.
In response, Irish nationalists immediately denounced the inquiry’s findings as a ‘whitewash’. It was later accepted by the British Government that Widgery had made numerous errors and omissions in his report, most importantly the fact he failed to hear evidence from those injured on the day. The ordeal left a lasting distaste for British justice among nationalists in Northern Ireland, colouring their views of other events in the years that followed. The most immediate impact was a rapid increase in membership of the Provisional IRA and a strengthening of the paramilitary organisation’s resolve, leading to the bloodiest years of the ‘Troubles’ with further attacks and reprisals leaving many more dead.
In 1998, British Prime Minister Tony Blair promised a fresh inquiry into Bloody Sunday as part of an ongoing peace process, with the aim of definitively deciding what had happened that day. Lord Saville of Newdigate opened formal public hearings as part of this inquiry in 2000, with thousands of witnesses providing testimony over the next decade. His report was finally published in June 2010, with critics commenting on the cost of carrying out the inquiry being an estimated £195 million. In contrast to Widgery’s findings, Saville identified the paratroopers as firing the first shots and also of shooting at fleeing civilians.
In response to the published report, British Prime Minister David Cameron stood in the House of Commons to declare he was ‘deeply sorry’ for what happened on Bloody Sunday. In apologising on behalf of the British Government and the country more generally, Cameron accepted ‘some members of our armed forces acted wrongly’ with their actions being ‘both unjustified and unjustifiable.’ Appearing on the BBC Newsnight programme marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday this month, Lord Saville reflected on the ‘really quite astonishing’ spectacle of seeing a nationalist audience gather in Derry’s Guildhall square to watch Cameron’s speech, and subsequently cheer the words of a Conservative Prime Minister.
Does injustice change our experience of grief? Does fighting that injustice give our grief purpose? Much of the burden of fighting for justice now rests with the victims’ children and grandchildren. Peter Taylor has rightly noted that the day ‘destroyed the worlds’ of many families. But Margaret Deery, the daughter of Peggy Deery who suffered lifelong debilitating injuries as the only woman shot by paratroopers on Bloody Sunday, looks to another future. Although she still feels ‘like it happened yesterday’, she doesn’t want her children to feel angry or to raise them with bitterness.
Today, Northern Ireland continues to struggle with coming to terms with its fraught past. The ramifications of Brexit, as seen in the Northern Ireland Protocol and some violent loyalist reaction to it, reveals how much of the past remains untouched and continues to force its way into the present. We can see this in the alarmingly high suicide rate among young people, as well as continued so-called ‘dissident’ republican violence. The New IRA admitted responsibility for the death of Lyra McKee, a journalist shot and killed in April 2019 during rioting in the Creggan area of Derry, for example. A May 2021 inquest into the fatal 1971 shooting of 10 people by the British Army in Ballymurphy found the victims innocent of any crime. But further closure for bereaved families, including those whose relatives died on Bloody Sunday, is unlikely to be reached owing to the British Government’s decision to end ‘Troubles’ related prosecutions in July 2021. This ruling has been denounced by victims’ groups and politicians in Northern Ireland. To this day, no British soldier has been prosecuted for their involvement in Bloody Sunday.
In some ways, the victims of Bloody Sunday are unique to the conflict as they received a public apology from a British Prime Minister following an extensive inquiry. The tragedy remains one of the most well-known and commented on events of the 30-year conflict which left thousands more dead. But the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday reveals that time cannot heal all wounds, regardless of whether a loved one was killed by a paramilitary bomb or a British Army bullet. With the 50th anniversary fast approaching this week, Parachute Regiment flags were hung on the outskirts of Derry. Unionist politician Gary Middleton denounced the action and concluded the flags were put up deliberately “to be offensive” to the grieving families.
It remains unclear what path could or should be taken in future, beyond a general acceptance that something must be done to ‘deal with the past’. Most victims’ groups and the British Government disagree on how to tackle this issue. For the sake of the young and future generations in Northern Ireland, hopefully this path reveals itself sooner, rather than later.
Dr Maggie Scull published her first book, The Catholic Church and the Northern Ireland Troubles, 1968-1998, in 2019. Her current project examines religious responses to funerals during the conflict in Northern Ireland. You can follow her on Twitter @MaggieMScull.