Across the Troubles in Northern Ireland: Bloody Sunday, Revisited

This is the fourth in a series of five articles about Northern Ireland on the eve of Brexit, which threatens to put a “hard border” between the six counties of the North and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the European Union. This is part IV.

Bloody Sunday in Derry, Northern Ireland, 1972

In Derry (its formal name, only used on roadmaps, is Londonderry), I had arranged for us to walk around the Bogside neighborhood with a guide, Michael Cooper, who turned out to be a local Sinn Féin politician. (Sinn Féin was the political arm of Irish Republicanism, but is now simply a local party.) We had fixed to meet up around 5:30 p.m. and to walk the contours of the event known as Bloody Sunday, a pivotal massacre of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

On Bloody Sunday, which was January 30, 1972 (Kevin and I were seniors in high school), a group of British army soldiers opened fired on a peaceful march in Bogside, which was protesting the almost siege-like conditions of British rule in the city and across Northern Ireland.

That afternoon, hundreds of marchers had set off from a nearby cathedral and were wending their way through Derry, which meant coming in contact with British army roadblocks, lining a number of intersections.

Many of the marchers were wearing dress overcoats and neckties, as that was still an era when demonstrators thought they had to wear their Sunday best.

Here and there, some rocks and bottles were thrown at the troops but, collectively, the marchers posed little threat to the well-armed British soldiers, who exceptionally on this day were members of an elite parachute regiment—thus trained for combat, not policing crowds. At some point, for reasons that have never been established, British soldiers began firing into the crowd of civilians.

Had they been fired upon themselves by IRA snipers? Had someone confused a rock with a bullet? Whatever the reason—and several inquiries have dug deep into the causes of the shootings—the British soldiers on duty in Derry killed thirteen and wounded sixteen.

Many of the victims were kids in their teens, and others among the dead included the fathers who had simply decided to march on that clear, wintery afternoon and to hear the speeches that were be to given at what was called “Free Derry,” an intersection near a park where scaffolds held the speakers, among whom was the activist Bernadette Devlin.

Then as now, Bogside was a Catholic neighborhood, and the reason for its anger was that British soldiers had largely cordoned off the neighborhood, to keep it and its separatist politics away from Protestant Londonderry, which was on the far side of the barbed wire.

In turn, some in Bogside had welcomed the isolation from British troops—it acquired the name the People’s Republic of Bogside and had its own roadblocks and militias. They took the presence of any patrols as an occasion to throw rocks, if not to fire bullets or throw homemade bombs at British troops.

As Bogside and the Rossville Flats section sit under Derry’s old city walls, the confrontation might well have been a medieval siege fought with pikes and boiling oil.

Guided by Michael, Kevin and I walked around Bogside at dusk. In theory, it was still late summer, but the latitude and the sense of tragedy around the neighborhood gave the walk the feeling of a funeral march. I had a map of the area, and on it were marked various points of interest, all of which convey how Bogside looks at history.

Mentioned on my map were Aggro Corner, Rossville Flats, Bloody Sunday Memorial, the Hunger Strike Memorial, Free Derry Corner, the Museum of Free Derry, the Sean Keenan Memorial, and Bligh’s Lane Army Base.

No matter where we stopped (to get a sense of the direction in which the marchers came or in which the British soldiers had fired), there was often a plaque showing the pictures and names of Bloody Sunday victims. The shootings might have taken place in 1972, but the wounds have yet to heal.

Michael was an excellent guide. At times he would take a break from describing the massacre and talk about his work on the city council. Or, in pointing at a picture of one of the victims, he would say how his family had known well the family of that victim.

During the Troubles, some of his relatives had been “provos,” which was the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Now his career is devoted to making sure that schools open on time and that garbage is collected in the neighborhood. But he did say that internment of political prisoners—the original cause of the march—is still a problem in the North.

Eyewitness to Bloody Sunday, 1972

When the shootings occurred, I am sure I read about them in the newspaper or watched a feed on the evening news. But it wasn’t until 1979, when I met my friend Simon Winchester, that I heard about the events firsthand.

In 1972, Simon was the Guardian correspondent for Northern Ireland, and he was one of the few journalists who had (bravely, in my mind) covered the march from both sides of the barricades. Later, I looked up his Guardian dispatch about the massacre. He writes:

After the shooting, which lasted for about 25 minutes in and around the Rossville Flat area of Bogside, the street had all the appearance of the aftermath of Sharpeville. Where only moments before, thousands of men and women had been milling around, drifting slowly towards a protest meeting to be held at Free Derry Corner, there was a handful of bleeding bodies, some lying still, other still moving with pain, on the white concrete of the square.

The army’s official explanation for the killing was that their troops had fired in response to a number of snipers who had opened up on them from below the flats. But those of us at the meeting heard only one shot before the soldiers opened up with their high-velocity rifles.

That the shootings lasted 25 minutes (not several seconds) indicated to me that it was a planned operation more than the accidental discharge of a soldier’s weapon in the midst of a demonstration.

I also remember, when I first heard the story from Simon, thinking how similar the events in Derry had been to those that took place on the American campus of Kent State, in May 1970. In both instances, the governments in question had tried to blame the victims for their wounds or deaths, and in both cases army troops had shot down citizens of their own country. And the initial inquiry into both shootings had exonerated the troops for firing into the crowds of demonstrators.

Bloody Sunday – By Accident Or Design?

My other friend who was close to the tragedy was the Australian war correspondent Murray Sayle, who was sent by the London Sunday Times late on January 30, 1972, to interview eye-witnesses to the shootings. Unlike Simon, Murray did not witness the shootings but arrived shortly after they took place.

Later, in writing his coverage of the events and his testimony at various inquests, including the Saville Inquiry, Murray described what he had learned from those who had been at the Derry march. He writes:

The Army’s version is not only denied by every eye-witness we have spoken to, many of them not Catholic and/or not Irish; it fails completely to answer any of these difficulties: we can find no evidence that any shots, petrol or nail bombs were fired at the Army, or that any of the crowd of civil rights marchers were armed; no wounded soldiers have been produced and none were shot; none of the wounded survivors of the shooting, supposed to be IRA suspects if not members, were searched; no guard was placed over them at Altnagelvin Hospital; we can find no trace of the two alleged by Army spokesmen to have admitted that they were armed, and no trace of arms; four of the dead men and two of the wounded were shot in the back or from behind.

Murray went further, in his testimony and in his articles, to argue that the Army might have planned the operation, as if it were fighting in World War II. Why else, he argued, did the British high command bring in an elite combat parachute regiment to police marchers? He writes:

The Parachute Regiment staff planners believe they had the answer in the last weeks of the old year – a solution which in fact produced a massacre.

The idea – worked out, we believe, by Lieutenant-Colonel Derek Wilford on lines of thinking propounded by Brigadier Frank Kitson, British Army counter-insurgency expert – was based on the military principle that the way to bring your enemy to battle is to attack something that, for prestige reasons, he will have to defend: the Germans attacking Verdun in the First World War or the same firm attacking Stalingrad in the Second. Brought to battle, he will then be annihilated by superior strength.

The civil rights march, the Parachute Regiment planners believed, was just such an objective the IRA would have to defend, or lose its popular support in the Bogside – either way the IRA would be finished.

Critically, Murray points out that the shootings began only after the marchers had turned a corner near the barricades and after they were heading away from British troops, in the direction of Free Derry Corner. He writes:

At this point the demonstrators had no reason to suspect that the Army reaction was going to be in any way out of the ordinary. They could see the Army snipers posted on the walls of Derry, which look down menacingly on the Bogside, but this was quite normal. They could also see the Saracen armoured personnel carriers parked on the other side of the Army barbed-wire barricade, which prevented the demonstration going any further down William Street towards the traditional objective of Guildhall Square. Indeed, the march organisers sent two young girls through the barricade to count the parked Saracens and return with a report.

Observant demonstrators did see something unusual: on the boundary walls of the Presbyterian church in Great James Street, on the roof of the GPO sorting office in Little James Street, and in the ruins of Richardson’s Factory (burned out in 1970) they noticed Paratroopers, easily recognised by their distinctive red berets, stationed with FN rifles. This, unknown to the demonstrators, was a part of Colonel Wilford’s mass IRA lift operation; the Paratroopers belonged to the 1st Battalion of the Paratroop Regiment.

These soldiers had arrived by Army trucks in Derry that morning; the battalion had never been in Derry before. They had come from Hollywood Barracks near Belfast and were to return, the operation completed, that same evening.

In his accounts of the shootings, he describes how the British soldiers did not simply fire back at the stone throwers or alleged snipers, but executed an attack formation as though fighting the Germans in the bocage of Normandy. He writes:

Executing the normal fire-and-movement tactic taught to British infantry (the trained and the untrained witnesses agree exactly on this, using different terms) the Paratroopers cleared the barricades in Rossville Street by shooting everyone on it or near it. Kelly, William Nash, Young and McDaid were killed here – ex-Sergeant-Major Chapman saw three people hit and slump on the barrier. Everyone at the barrier, considered by Bogside people to be their main line of defence, was either dead or wounded. Nash senior raised his arm to try and stop the shooting, was hit in the arm and lay shouting for an ambulance. A section of Paratroopers running through the Little Diamond to link up with their comrades at the barricade got behind it – there was no one left alive to stop them – and began laying down a field of fire behind Rossville Street flats. In this shooting Gilmore was killed; McGuigan who ran up to him was killed, and Doherty, crawling along at some distance to escape, was shot dead in the same line of fire.

Needless to say, the British Army did not appreciate Murray’s coverage of the events in Derry, nor his testimony at various inquiries over the years—the last being the Saville Inquiry. And in the years after Bloody Sunday, Murray spent many hours speaking to officers who tried to persuade him that the confrontation had been mutual and that shots had been fired at British forces. But by the time he was sent to Northern Ireland in winter 1972, Murray was the Times’ most experienced war correspondent, and he knew well the difference between a spontaneous firefight and a planned military operation—and it was the latter that, he believed, had gone down in Bogside.

Finally, in his writings, he repeatedly made the point that the IRA had not been strong in Derry prior to Bloody Sunday, and that if they had opened fire on British troops, local residents would have been among the first to denounce such tactics, and that never happened.

Murray died in 2010, and I am sure it was partly to keep faith with his memory that I had come to Derry.  As he would say to me often, when in later years we would talk about what happened on Bloody Sunday: “… this was a Parachute Regiment special operation that went disastrously wrong.”

You Are Now Entering Free Derry

Kevin and I spent several hours wandering around the Rossville Flats (they have been rebuilt since the 1970s) and Bogside, trying to map together, at least in our minds, what had happened and why.

Later he wrote to me:

The Irish sense of time is that The Troubles is a cessation in the 800 year war against the English who first came with Strongbow in the 13th or so century particularly after Adrian, the first and only English pope, gave over Ireland for conquest as a means to iron out the differences between the Irish and Continental monastical practices. The Boyne is a middle chapter. One can even knock back the timeline to the Vikings.  The Dark Ages are Ireland’s Golden Age.

On many buildings in the neighborhood, even today, there are large murals of the victims or collages that make points about civil injustice or British occupation. (At the moment Sinn Féin is concerned about insuring the civil rights of LBGT residents, which puts it in conflict with the Catholic Church, the Republic, and the UK.) On one mailbox I came across a painted image of Che Guevara, as if maybe he lived at that address.

Around some of the council flats are words such as “IRA” or phrases along the lines of “Jobs not creed.” Most prominent is the large wall proclaiming “YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE DERRY,” which stands were the speakers, including Bernadette Devlin, would have spoken on January 30, 1972, had the shots not drowned out their words.

More optimistic were the words that Michael spoke about the current state of Northern Ireland, in which most of the organizing today is being undertaken at the level of city politics and that of the Northern Ireland Assembly (often called the Stormont, an allusion to its neighborhood)—although he did say that no Catholics elected to the British parliament in London would ever take their seats in Westminster, as that would acknowledge British sovereignty in the North.

He said that the British army was still active in the North, and that one of the most contested issues (in the era of peace, after the Good Friday Agreements of 1998) was the rendition of local political prisoners, who were still being held without recourse to any of their civil rights. (We passed a billboard demanding the release of Gabriel Mackle, who was arrested, in 2014, for carrying bomb-making material.) But violence of the kind seen during the Troubles is rare, although at times in our travels I got the impression that the North was one or two bad incidences away from a revival of it.

What became clear not just in Derry but across Northern Ireland is that peace has brought to Derry and the North a degree of prosperity that was unknown even thirty years ago, when I first went to Belfast. Then it was a satellite of the rustbelt, with all the jobs having moved on to the sweatshops of Asia. Now, perhaps thanks to the European Union, at least franchise and latte capitalism has come north, allowing for a degree of prosperity, even in Bogside.

As Simon had written in his 1972 Guardian account, Derry then had an air of Sharpeville [in South Africa]. Now it has cafés, a business district, and some elegant local shops, even if all the issues underlying the Troubles have yet to be resolved. After all, some date to the battle of the Boyne, Europe’s first attack on Irish independence.

Bogside As History

The next morning, on foot, I returned to Bogside and the Free Derry Museum, to meet with a local historian, Adrian Kerr, who had kindly agreed to put Bloody Sunday into the historical context of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

On my walk to the museum, I came across a small dog in the middle of a busy road, checked his collar, and walked him home, which turned out to be a row house in Bogside. The owner was happy to have his dog back and invited me inside for a drink (it was about 9 a.m.), but I sensed he had begun celebrating the dog’s return even before the pup went missing.

Built around ground zero of the massacre, the museum dwells mostly on the victims of the shootings, so I was happy for Adrian to explain Bloody Sunday in more general terms.

He began by noting that the six counties of Northern Ireland were carved out of the Republic of Ireland, when it became independent in 1921. He made the point that the partition left both Catholics and Protestants on the “wrong” side of the divide, and that Catholics especially felt the oppression of British rule in the North, where neighborhoods such as Bogside lagged behind other districts, in terms of health, jobs, and education.

Around 1960, taking inspiration from the civil rights movement in the United States, Catholics in Northern Ireland, and especially in Derry, began demanding more equality and justice, but not necessarily independence or union with the republic. As much as anyone, Martin Luther King was the inspiration for northern minorities.

The march that took place in January 1972, however, was not a rally for independence or Irish Republicanism so much as a protest against the British practice of internment, in which troops would imprison activists and deny them recourse to attorneys or civil procedures.

In our conversation Adrian made the point that he believed that Bloody Sunday was not an accidental shooting—touched off during a moment of confrontation along an angry barricade—but a planned operation in which the British army hoped to teach a lesson to the IRA and other protest groups.

Adrian said that it was well known that, on the day of the march, neither the IRA nor any of its military wings were among the ranks of those demonstrating against British rule.

He added that the Saville Inquiry (published in 2010, after twelve years of investigation and testimony, from the likes of Murray Sayle and many who had marched that day) had confirmed that none of the protesters who were shot were carrying weapons and that many had been shot from behind. Adrian did say that some shots were fired that day at British soldiers, but most, if not all of these shots, came later in the day, after the massacre, and that no British soldier was wounded or killed in the exchanges. He described them as “pot shots” made from nearby buildings, once the extent of the massacre became known in the streets.

He said that much local anger was directed at the initial inquiry into the massacre, which found no fault with the British soldiers who fired into the crowds. In effect, it blamed the victims for having marched in the streets that day, and said that the British were within their rights to have fired, even if no shots had come first from the crowds. Adrian said it took 38 years for the British government to admit, in the Saville Inquiry, that a massacre had taken place and that the victims were not responsible for their own deaths. He also acknowledged that David Cameron was admired for having apologized for the massacre.

Adrian said that that after Bloody Sunday, “it became a war,” which lasted until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, although the worst of the violence occurred in the 1970s.

He said that neither Britain nor the residents in Bogside had any desire to return to the confrontations of that earlier era, but he did point out that internment was still an issue in the North. He feared what a “hard border” after Brexit might mean for the peace accords.

Northern Ireland Looks At Brexit

In my walks around Derry, I found it difficult to come up with a solution in which Brexit did not threaten improved conditions in Northern Ireland.

With Britain out of the EU, it will (at some point) need to tighten its controls along the Irish frontier, and the moment that happens, residents on both sides of the line (which today is ethereal) could well feel threatened or isolated.

In such a climate, Northern Ireland might choose to become independent from Britain or it could seek reunification with the Republic, although many with whom I spoke on that question said neither scenario is likely. The Protestant majority in the North, while perhaps less violent than in the 1970s, would not want to lose its connection to London and the United Kingdom.

Nor would it want to become independent (British subsidies help the North) or join forces with the Republic, even if that would assure them continued access to the European Union.

So far most of the discussions for the Anglo-Irish border in Northern Ireland concern the creation of what is called a “backstop,” which would allow goods and individuals to travel freely over that line but then to be subject, subsequently, to checks once they headed across the Irish Sea into England, Scotland, or Wales.

The problem with such a solution is that the local Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is opposed to any special customs agreement that would distance Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom.

The views of a small, socially conservative, right-wing party in the North might not matter, in the grand context of European politics, except that when the politically inept Prime Minister Theresa May called for a general election in 2017, she failed to win a majority, and now relies on the DUP to sustain her coalition in power.

No wonder Britain is headed toward a “hard” exit from the European Union and people in the North are fearing the ghosts of barricades past.

To read other parts of this series, please click here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.