Bloody Sunday and the Frontline of History
Justice delayed is justice denied but there may yet be a sense, however flawed, that it can be done. The decision of the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland to charge just one former British soldier with murder, arising from the events of Bloody Sunday in January 1972, which left 14 people dead has been met with disappointment but it must be stated, with great dignity by the relatives of those killed. That the decision on Thursday to prosecute Soldier F for two murders and four attempted murders has been met with a disappointment is understandable. That massacre fueled a cycle of violence that blighted the lives of so many people.
On that bitterly cold Sunday night, like thousands of other families in Ireland, my family was sitting by the fire, watching the 9 o’clock news, waiting for the film, about the struggle for Indian independence, at 9:30. Some people in Dublin had erected ungainly TV aerials to catch the weak signal from Britain but in Limerick, 120 miles southwest of the capital, we got our signal from the single national TV station. There had been a march in Derry that afternoon and word was filtering in of casualties. The phone rang. Dad answered it and came back to the room 10 minutes later to say the news from Derry was bad, at least four marchers had been killed by the British army. Then the first of at least three newsflashes during the film confirmed that the death toll had mounted. Six, eight, ten. The film on India’s struggle for independence, and the interrupting newsflashes seemed to play into a narrative that history was inescapable and the past was firmly rooted in the here and now. When the tumult ceased a special news program, close to midnight, gave the toll as 13 dead. The British army’s parachute regiment had shot dead 13 innocent people protesting against the internment of people without trial introduced in August. Another injured marcher died some months later. January 30, 1972. Bloody Sunday. Three days after the shootings, the British embassy in Dublin was burnt to the ground.
A report by Lord Saville, published in June 2010, into the events that day did not mince its words. Not one-person shot by the soldiers “were posing any threat of causing death or serious injury.” That same month, British Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons “what happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.”
A previous report, issued by Lord Widgery in April 1972, seems to lay the blame for the deaths on the marchers and said: “There was no general breakdown in discipline. For the most part, the soldiers acted as they did because they thought their orders required it. No order and no training can ensure that a soldier will always act wisely, as well as bravely and with initiative. The individual soldier ought not to have to bear the burden of deciding whether to open fire in confusion such as prevailed on January 30th. In the conditions prevailing in Northern Ireland, however, this is often inescapable.”
This was met with the ridicule it deserved in Ireland. The British army was sent to Northern Ireland in 1969 to protect and were initially welcomed by Catholics who were being driven out of their homes.
Then this month, the House of Commons was told by the Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, that the deaths caused by the British security services during what are often described as Troubles were “not crimes” but people acting “under orders and under instruction and fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way.”
She apologized but it is hardly surprising that the speaker of those words admitted in September that before becoming Northern Ireland secretary she was ignorant of the most basic political facts.
She said she was unaware that nationalists did not vote for Unionists and that Unionists did not vote for nationalists. It seems incredible for someone so ignorant of the basic facts could have been selected for the post.
“I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland,” Bradley told House magazine a weekly publication for the Houses of Parliament.
“I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland – people who are nationalists don’t vote for Unionist parties and vice versa. So, the parties fight for election within their own community.”
For too long, Westminster ignored Dublin and turned a deaf ear to pleas to adopt a more inclusive approach and not define the core problem of Northern Ireland solely as terrorism. There was terror, sickening atrocities were committed by followers of different political persuasions, but terrorism was the consequence.
Internment without trial, Bloody Sunday, the hunger strikes, the Birmingham Six and similar injustices prolonged the troubles and led to the British state, in the eyes of the nationalist community, lacking moral authority.
Seventeen soldiers were involved in the Bloody Sunday killings.
Just four British soldiers have been convicted of murders relating to the Troubles and all ultimately received royal pardons and were permitted to rejoin their regiments.
This compared with an estimated 20,000-30,000 former republican and loyalist paramilitaries who served time in prison for a range of offences, including murder.
No doubt the latest finding will be dismissed in some quarters in Britain as the pesky Irish unable to escape history. But Brexit could yet see a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Getting rid of the hard border was a central component of the Good Friday Agreement. The past may be another country but it is not one that Britain should hark back to.