This Sunday sees the 50th anniversary of the murders of 14 innocent civilians who were shot dead by soldiers of the British Parachute regiment during a civil rights march in Derry on January 30, 1972. Thirteen died that day, with one man, John Johnston dying later from injuries.
The killings sparked a wave of outrage across the world and undoubtedly contributed to the escalation of the armed conflict which lasted until the IRA and loyalist ceasefires in the 1990s. There were protests against the killings, and indeed calling for the end to British rule in Ireland, in many cities across the world. The British embassy on Merrion Square Dublin was burned to the ground.
The trauma inflicted on the families of the dead, and on the wider Catholic community in Derry, was compounded by the official reaction. The British state inquiry under Lord Chief Justice Widgery was set in train quickly in an effort at damage limitation. However, its findings – based on the testimony of British personnel who were involved in the shooting – were widely rejected.
The sensitivity and centrality of what took place in Derry was such that it was not until 1998, when the IRA had definitively ended its armed campaign for a united Ireland, that the British state under Prime Minister Tony Blair re-visited the event and established a new inquiry under Lord Saville as one of the sweeteners to facilitate the republican movement’s historic compromise on the issue of Partition.
The Saville Inquiry represented a moral victory for the families and the people of Derry as it found that none of those shot dead had fired weapons, had been armed or had thrown petrol bombs at soldiers as had been claimed and officially verified in the report of the 1972 Inquiry. The publication of the Saville Inquiry report was immediately followed by a formal apology to the families by then British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Prosecutions were then set in train against some of the soldiers who had been named anonymously in the Saville Inquiry but the charges against one of those, Soldier F, were dismissed last year. The families continue to press for prosecutions as part of seeking closure on what happened on January 30, 1972.
The victims were:
Patrick “Paddy” Doherty, aged 31.
Gerald Donaghey, aged 17.
John “Jackie” Duddy, aged 17.
Hugh Gilmour, aged 17.
Michael Kelly, aged 17.
Michael McDaid, aged 20.
Kevin McElhinney, aged 17.
Bernard McGuigan, aged 41.
Gerard McKinney, aged 35.
William McKinney, aged 26.
William Nash, aged 19.
James Wray, aged 22.
John Young, aged 17
John Johnston, aged 59.
There has been much revisionism around the event. No longer does the state broadcaster in the Republic attempt to pretend that it never took place, and commemorations in either part of Ireland are no longer regarded as subversive.
The republican movement has also radically altered its narrative on Bloody Sunday. It is still a sensitive issue among northern Catholics, and in September 2020 Sinn Féin drew the wrath of many nationalists when Michelle O’Neill met at Stormont with Prince Charles, the formal Colonel-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment.
The party attempts to control not only the iconography and commemoration of the atrocity but has re-interpreted its own history and that of the civil rights movement in order to claim that their being part of the Stormont Executive somehow represents a triumph for the Provisional movement.
It does not, of course, and indeed not only had the Provos totally rejected the very basis of the civil rights demands – which were for the reform of the northern state rather than its destruction – but claimed the proroguing of Stormont later in 1972 as a direct consequence of the IRA campaign as not only a victory in itself but a symbol of the futility of seeking internal reform.
The abolition of any remaining legal discriminations against Catholic in the north may have been an unintended consequence of the IRA campaign, but they were certainly not its objective.
Now, of course Sinn Féin not only administers the north through Stormont but has adopted all of the key demands of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association such as a Bill of Rights, police reform and power sharing. It has required a considerable intellectual rethink alongside a rather tenuous history of the period in order to sustain this narrative.
Some of those who were prominent in NICRA have publicly questioned the claims of leading republicans who have made themselves out to be more prominent than they were. The fact is that at the time of Bloody Sunday, NICRA was politically controlled by members and supporters of the Official IRA and the Communist Party of Northern Ireland who were in competition with more radical left-wing individuals.
Of course, no-one could have foreseen what the outcome of the civil rights campaign that began in the late 1960s might have been. The unionists were mistaken in believing that it was an IRA plot to destroy Northern Ireland; the NICRA leadership under-estimated both the good will of the British state and the prospects of winning cross community support for political reforms, and the IRA was mistaken in believing that an armed campaign would lead to a British withdrawal and a united Ireland.
As with so many other messy endings, the testimony of the victims and their families on all sides remains the only truths, and they are mostly individual. They at least can find some comfort in the fact that their murdered relatives were doing no more than exercising the right of any person to protest against injustice.