The massacre that started the civil war


It wasn’t the worst massacre of Northern Ireland’s civil war. But among the many atrocities suffered by the beleaguered provinces of Britain, “Bloody Sunday” claims a special place. Londonderry’s 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday has long been a sore between Britons and Northern Irish Catholics. For them, “Bloody Sunday” marks the day the British state started the war against them.

30 January is a date deeply etched in the collective psyche of Northern Ireland. On that last Sunday in January 1972, almost 20,000 people took to the streets in the Kingdom’s frontline city, called Londonderry by British and Northern Irish Protestants, but just called Derry by Catholics. They protested against the discrimination that the Catholic minority had to experience day after day at the hands of the Protestant majority. The concrete trigger for the demonstration was the internment of Catholics without prior trial. The civil rights march was banned by the police and was peaceful. Until the soldiers opened fire. In 20 minutes, British paratroopers mowed down 28 people, all of whom were unarmed. 14 demonstrators died in the hail of bullets.

Worldwide horror

The massacre met with global horror. Indignant Irishmen torched the British embassy in Dublin. It spelled the end of the civil rights movement. Hundreds of young Northern Irishmen decided that civil resistance was futile and joined the armed struggle. The hitherto harmless IRA, little more than an old men’s association, was able to develop into one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations.

The British government launched an inquiry designed from the start to whitewash the army. The Widgery Report concluded that the soldiers acted in self-defense. After the Irish government compiled a dossier of new evidence, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair had no choice but to launch a new inquiry. Since 1998, the “Saville-Tribunal” has been trying to shed light on the incidents with unprecedented effort. It became the largest official inquiry in the history of the British judiciary and cost £195 million. Judge Lord Saville negotiated the case for twelve years, heard 921 witnesses and finally wrote a report that ran to more than 5,000 pages. When Prime Minister David Cameron presented the Saville Report to the House of Commons in 2010, he didn’t mince his words. The actions of the soldiers were “completely unjustified”. They and not IRA terrorists would have opened fire. “I deeply regret what happened,” Cameron said.

Since then, however, there has been no lasting peace in the province. The 1998 agreement has resulted in a government in which the unionists from the DUP share power with the nationalists from Sinn Fein. But there is still a social division. Bad blood is also making Prime Minister Boris Johnson want to push ahead with legislation that would protect soldiers from being prosecuted for civil war crimes.


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