Fifty years ago, British soldiers opened fire on a peaceful protest in Derry, killing 14 people. Many witnessed this violence in person or on television. Some lost family members and friends. This event no doubt was also a catalyst for many Irish people to leave the country. Their descendants are now living in Australia, Canada, and the US and may not have heard of the event that changed their families’ lives. The following edited extract from Irish Central is a useful summary, we feel, of that momentous event in Irish history. We thank them for their permission to publish it in Tinteán. We have provided a link for further information.
It was 1969 in Northern Ireland and violence between Nationalists and Unionists was escalating and the unionist government was losing control. To prevent this and to help assert the authority of the government, the British army was deployed into Northern Ireland. Initially, they were welcomed by some Catholics who perceived them to be a neutral force. At the time the local police force, known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary was considered to be biased against Catholics. It wouldn’t be long though before opinions would quickly change against the army.
Derry is the second-largest city in Northern Ireland. In 1969, the city was very poor and there was a huge inequality between Nationalists and Unionists. Derry had a nationalist majority but, due to excessive gerrymandering and a number of discriminatory laws against Catholics, the city managed to maintain Unionist leadership in all the council roles. The city was poor, housing conditions were terrible and Catholics wanted better conditions.
This is where the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association or the NICRA comes into play. It was an organization set up as a non-partisan, civil rights campaign and as an alternative to military operations. In the early days, there were some Unionists in NICRA, but as Sinn Fein and the Official IRA’s influence grew in the organization, it soon became primarily composed of nationalists.
At this time, internment without trial had been introduced in Northern Ireland. This meant that anyone who was suspected of being in a terrorist organization could be arrested on the spot. It was intended to completely wipe out the IRA, but a lot of innocent civilians were swooped up as part of the operation, which saw the British army smash their way into some people’s homes to arrest individuals. The NICRA organized a number of marches against internment, even though marches were banned across Northern Ireland at this time, due to the threat of violence.
It was their march which occurred on Sunday, January 30th, 1972, that would make headlines around the world.
The British Army
The authorities in Derry decided to allow the march to continue but wanted the army to alter the route so that the march would remain in the Catholic part of the city. At this time, there were parts of Derry that were considered ‘no-go’ areas by the British Army. The main area was known as Free Derry. Road barricades had been erected to prevent military vehicles getting through and members of the IRA carried weapons out in the open. Brian Cashinella, a journalist who worked for the Times, said of the situation there:
‘It became very clear that Free Derry had become unacceptable to the British Government in London and very embarrassing to the army in Northern Ireland. And they were going to do something about it, to get rid of this anomaly, this no go area.’
It became very clear that Free Derry had become unacceptable to the British Government in London and very embarrassing to the army in Northern Ireland. And they were going to do something about it, to get rid of this anomaly, this no go area.
Major General Robert Ford was the commander of land forces in Northern Ireland at the time and had promised that tougher measures would be introduced to deal with the lawlessness in Derry. These tougher measures came in the form of the first battalion of the Parachute Regiment. The Parachute Regiment was an elite trained regiment of the British Army. They had a reputation for being heavy-handed and were considered significantly more severe, tougher than the regular British soldier. These soldiers were the ones deployed on the day of the march against internment on Sunday, January 30th, 1972.
Major Ford expected rioting on the day and deployed the Parachute Regiment to deal with the rioters. Many have suggested that this was a psychological move, to show control of the region. Ivan Cooper who was one of the organizers of the march on the day described the paratroopers:
‘I also saw the paratroopers myself on a side street. They seemed to be hyped up. They were a different breed to what we had accustomed ourselves to in Derry. Tough, resolute and hyped up.’
Ivan was a staunch pacifist and had met with the leader of the Provisional IRA before the march, to confirm that they would not be armed men on the day. Ivan said:
I told him, that the march if it wasn’t going to be nonviolent, that unless I could receive assurances to that effect, that I would not be continuing to support it and I would use my influence to have it called off. I was contacted again and I was told that the Provisional IRA would give an undertaking that they would not be in the vicinity of the march on the Sunday.
It wasn’t in the interest of the Official IRA and the Provisional IRA to launch an attack on this day, as they would have been blamed for any civilian casualties if they instigated violence.
It was a sunny afternoon when 10,000 – 15,000 people joined together to take part in the march. The march began in the housing estate of Creggan and then made its way down the Bogside, which is the largely Catholic area just outside of Derry’s Old City walls.
The plan was for the army not to attack the protesters as long as they stayed in the permitted areas. If any individuals tried to breach the barriers, then they were allowed to respond with rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas. There was also a plan to have a ‘scoop up’ operation which would see the rioters arrested once they had separated themselves from the people marching.
The march continued down the Bogside until they neared the city centre and began to approach the army barriers. Because of the barriers, the organizers changed the route, intending the rally to happen at an area known as the Free Derry Corner instead. The paratroopers had set up camp in a derelict building on the side of barricade 14 and were hoping to outflank the protesters and launch an arrest operation.
It’s at this point that it is important to note that there are some drastically different narratives of what occurred after this.
There have been two enquiries into the events of the day, the Widgery Enquiry and the Saville Enquiry. Both of which will be referenced in this article. The inquiries took place 30 years apart and came to very different conclusions. The Widgery Inquiry took place directly after the shootings and many have argued that it ‘whitewashed’ the events which took place on the day and defended the soldier’s actions.
For the full account of the story please see https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/what-happened-on-bloody-sunday-in-northern-ireland