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"A defining moment in the Troubles": why we should remember Bloody Sunday

“Bloody Sunday was a defining moment in the Troubles. As well as generating huge emotion, it also screamed a political challenge.” As we approach the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Diarmaid Ferriter speaks to Rhiannon Davies about what happened on 30 January 1972 – as well as its destructive legacy...

British army soldiers face off against a group of Irish civilians
Published: January 12, 2022 at 3:19 pm
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What was the mood in Northern Ireland before the events of Bloody Sunday?

It was very fraught. The Troubles [conflict between mostly Protestant unionists (loyalists), pushing for Northern Ireland to remain within the UK, and largely Catholic nationalists hoping for the region to become part of the Republic of Ireland] had begun in earnest in 1969. Nobody knew how long they would last or what their extent would be, but by the early seventies it was clear that things were very, very difficult.

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Bloody Sunday happened at the very beginning of 1972, which proved to be horrendous – the worst year of the Troubles, with almost 500 people killed. It had huge implications, not just for people in Northern Ireland but also for Anglo-Irish affairs, which were reaching one of the most difficult points.

What happened on Bloody Sunday 1972?

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association had organised a march in Derry/Londonderry on 30 January 1972 to protest against the deeply unpopular policy of internment [imprisonment without trial] introduced in Northern Ireland in August 1971.

The original plan was for the protesters to leave the Creggan area and march towards the city centre. But they were diverted away from the centre and ended up moving towards Free Derry Corner, as it was known. At this juncture you get very contested narratives of what precisely occurred.

It’s been subjected to endless scrutiny and a number of inquiries over the decades.

The organisers were determined to try to keep the protest peaceful, but there were some who objected to attempts to prevent them from going where they wanted to go. Of course, the presence of British Army troops was seen as particularly provocative. It was in reaction to those who were challenging the British Army – whether that was with missiles or taunts – that the Parachute Regiment was mobilised and it was they who began to shoot at the unarmed protesters.

How many people were killed?

These events happened very, very quickly. Within a few seconds, soldiers had fatally shot in the back both 22-year-old Jim Wray and 27-year-old William McKinney. This was another very difficult aspect of Bloody Sunday – the shooting of civilians in the back.

In total, 13 people were killed outright on Bloody Sunday, and a fourteenth victim died later as a result of his injuries. In addition, at least 13 people were injured, and countless others were traumatised by the events.

What was the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday?

It did enormous damage to Anglo-Irish relations. If you read the transcript of a telephone call between the British prime minister Ted Heath and the Irish taoiseach (prime minister) Jack Lynch, made on the night of Bloody Sunday, you can feel the anguish on the part of Lynch and the defensiveness on the part of Heath, who really blamed the IRA for – as he put it – trying to take over the country.

There was also a huge reaction in the Republic of Ireland, which I think represents a highpoint of cross-border emotion about the Troubles. People walked off their jobs on the Monday after Bloody Sunday. There were all sorts of impromptu protests – the British embassy in Dublin was set ablaze.

Within a few seconds, soldiers had fatally shot in the back both 22-year-old Jim Wray and 27-year-old William McKinney

Did Bloody Sunday lead to increased support for the IRA?

Most certainly. The IRA enjoyed an upsurge in enthusiasm for its project and its methods. There were many who were drawn into its ranks because of the scale of the anger at Bloody Sunday; people were queueing up to join the IRA in Derry/Londonderry after the shootings.

What other impacts did the events that day have on the Troubles?

Bloody Sunday was a defining moment in the Troubles. As well as generating huge emo- tion, it also screamed a political challenge. Could there be dialogue? Could there be an attempt to try to bring together the British and Irish governments to talk about a potential political solution? Ultimately, that did gain momentum.

Another fundamental issue raised by the events was whether or not Northern Ireland could continue to be run by Northern Ireland politicians. Bloody Sunday led to the introduction of direct rule shortly afterwards.

The episode showed that the complex situation in Northern Ireland was not being sufficiently controlled by unionist politicians, who had been dominating Northern Ireland politics since the foundation of the territory 50 years previously.

Two official inquiries into Bloody Sunday were subsequently launched. How did their findings differ?

In 1972, immediately after Bloody Sunday, Lord Widgery [lord chief justice at the time] was charged with the task of presiding over an inquiry into what had happened. At this point, there was a determined attempt to control the narrative from the British perspective, to show that what was done by the soldiers of the Parachute Regiment was a reaction to them being placed in mortal danger – that they were reacting to shots being fired by the IRA and they were not to blame. That narrative was sustained by the Widgery Inquiry, which ultimately became completely discredited.

Then, in 1998, the Saville Inquiry [officially the Bloody Sunday Inquiry] was launched. Unlike the Widgery Inquiry, it really gave weight to the personal testimonies of those who were involved in and impacted by Bloody Sunday. It found that firing by the British soldiers caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom posed a threat, and that none of the soldiers fired in response to attacks or threatened attacks. Those killed were un- armed and entirely innocent.

There was a very moving day when then British prime minister David Cameron unreservedly apologised for Bloody Sunday

After the findings of the Saville Inquiry were published in 2010, there was a very moving day when then British prime minister David Cameron unreservedly apologised for what had happened on Bloody Sunday, saying it was unjustifiable. That was a moment for which thousands had been waiting, for decades. Their reaction was very emotional, very dignified. In its own way it was also joyous – like the lifting of a suffocating weight that so many people had struggled under for so long.

Diarmaid Ferriter is a professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. He was speaking to Rhiannon Davies, section editor at BBC History Magazine

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This article was first published in the January 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

Authors

Rhiannon DaviesSection editor, BBC History Magazine

Rhiannon Davies is section editor for BBC History Magazine and our Tudor ambassador, writing a fortnightly newsletter in which she shares the latest Tudor news, anniversaries and content with her audience. She also regularly appears on the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast.

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