Exactly 50 years ago today, the January 30, 1972, Patrick Doherty (31), Gerald Donaghey (17), John Duddy (17), Hugh Gilmour (17), Michael Kelly (17), Michael McDaid (20), Kevin McElhinney (17), Bernard McGuigan (41), Gerald McKinney (35), William McKinney (26), William Nash (19), James Wray (22) and John Young (17) were murdered in cold blood in an event that went down in history as the ‘Bloody Sunday’ (Domingo Sangriento), one of the most significant moments of the three decades of violence that hit North Ireland. These thirteen young people participated in a peaceful march in defense of civil rights in the Northern Irish city of Londonderry –Derry for the nationalists– when a group
of British soldiers from the Parachute Regiment opened fire on the demonstrators. In addition to those killed at the scene, John Johnston (59), died a few months later.
The conflict in Northern Ireland, known in English as ‘The Troubles’, had started in 1968, but this massacre was especially relevant for join the ranks of the IRA paramilitaries (Irish Republican Army). “It was a very emotionally intense day,” Irish historian Liam Kennedy, professor emeritus at Queen’s University in Belfast and author, among other books, of ‘Who was responsible for The Troubles?’ reflects in a conversation with ABC. At the time, Kennedy, who was Vice President of the University College Cork Students’ Union, witnessed “the dominant narrative that the British government had ordered the attackSo the responsibility fell on British Prime Minister Ted Heath and his government.”
‘What happened was appalling, but I thought it extremely unlikely that the order had come from London; it was more likely that parachute regiment would have lost controlwhich actually happened.” The consequences were serious. “There was a great wave of anger, it was the prevailing feeling, but I think that almost nobody believes that it was a conspiracy from Downing Street anymore… I saw Derek Wilford, commander of that section of the parachute regiment, as responsible for that atrocity, for that war crime.
For Kennedy, “in a way, you could say that the Ballymurphy murders in August 1971 were a kind of dress rehearsal for Bloody Sunday.” The historian refers to the massacre of ten civilians who died during operations by the same regiment in August 1971 in the Ballymurphy neighborhood, in Belfast, when “the government applied a policy of internment, without trial, to suspected terrorists”, he explains, “which caused widespread disturbances”.
An investigation made public last year concluded that the victims “were not involved in paramilitary activities” and declared them “innocent of any illegal action.” The ‘Bloody Sunday’ investigation, which came to light in 2010, concluded that “none of the victims were armed (…)” and “none posed a threat of causing death or serious injury. In no case was there a warning before the soldiers opened fire.” The Saville report, the investigation of which lasted 12 years, provoked the public apology from then Prime Minister David Cameron.
A lesson for the Army
What happened “provoked a terrible impact on the city and greatly increased recruitment to the IRA,” says the writer, who clarifies that “there was a fairly intense fight, even before Bloody Sunday, between the British Army, the official IRA and the Provisional IRA”, a much more violent split. «I don’t see Bloody Sunday as a turning point», since «although it amplified the confrontation, the path was already traced. The provisional IRA wanted a war from January 1970, there was a strategy to launch an armed insurrection, “he reflects.
“Bloody Sunday is sometimes presented as the beginning of ‘The Troubles,’ but in reality, in the previous two years there were a significant number of heinous murders all over the place,” Kennedy says, going so far as to say that “surely, in secret, the Provisional IRA would have been delighted with Bloody Sunday” because their ranks swelled “considerably.”
“My opinion is not very popular, but although it was a terrible example of the abuse of state military power, the British learned from it. I mean there was only one Bloody Sunday. And then there were many bloody fridays, with terrible bombings in Belfast by the IRA. And there was a lot of bloody Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday after that, but on the British Army side, there was only one Bloody Sunday, because it was a huge embarrassment and, although they wouldn’t admit it, I think they learned a lot from it. excessive use of state power in that occasion”.
The historian insists, in any case, that “the problems were already serious then” and “the situation would have continued because political violence was already underway, the trend was already set. “It was a terrible use of lethal power by the British Army, and as a journalist friend of mine once told me, 13 people died on Bloody Sunday, but many more died from Bloody Sunday.” However, “I am afraid that the history of Northern Ireland without Bloody Sunday would not have been radically different. I would like to think that it would have been different, that the conflict would have ended earlier, but I don’t see it that way.”
Robin Percival, a founding member of the Justice Campaign and the first president of the Bloody Sunday Trust and the Museum of Free Derry, explains that “the campaign for Justice was mainly made up of family members victims, and the trust was established to support them and witnesses in the investigation. It was made up of relatives, people like me, who were involved in the community and had been actively supporting the campaign for justice, and also lawyers.”
Percival adds that “after that we decided to establish a museum that gathered all the records about Bloody Sunday and about that period, but that it was more than just remembering the past. we wanted Look To The Future through a project for the transformation of conflicts”.
That event “was a tremendous impetus for thousands of young people who joined the IRA, increased polarization and made it very difficult to create the circumstances to negotiate peace. It was a critical event,” he says. And something else: «Many people see him as the end of a period in which non-violence was an option. Until then, many believed that it was possible for change to come” through this route, but “within the community, people no longer believed that it was possible to achieve it without violence, and many of them joined the paramilitaries.” “As a result, thousands of people lost their lives”, in total, more than 3,500.
This year, the 50th anniversary of the murders will be commemorated with events throughout the city, in which its inhabitants live “with a mixture of feelings”, considers Percival. “We feel that the (Mark) Saville investigation and the public apology made by Cameron were major successes», but also «there are families disappointed with the judicial process, and the feeling is that there was never really a serious intention to bring any soldier to justice».
“There is a feeling that we have achieved a lot and yet, at the end of the day, the british state has protected itself so that no one has been arrested. Ultimately, no one has been held accountable.” Percival adds that, right now, “Boris Johnson is trying to pass legislation that will prevent any further investigation into what happened in the conflict, with proposals amounting to a total amnesty mainly for British soldiers or British intelligence agencies, and Both the Protestant and Catholic communities are united against these proposals.”
A fragile union, since the “reconciliation is still in process, there is a long way to go”, according to Percival. Kennedy agrees: in Northern Ireland, “the divisions remain very deep.”