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Bloody Sunday in Derry - Origins & Consequences of a Massacre
ireland / britain | imperialism / war | opinion / analysis Thursday January 26, 2012 19:42 by Andrew & Shane - WSM
On the 30th January 1972 British soldiers opened fire on protesters in the city of Derry, north-west Ireland. Twenty six unarmed protesters were shot, 13 died immediately or within hours, one more died just over four months later. Derry was in the section of Ireland claimed by the British state and the shootings happened in the context of the suppression of a growing civil rights movement demanding equality for Catholics in the 6 of Ulster’s counties claimed by Britain. [Français]
The killings in Derry had a transformative impact on the next 30 years of Irish history. By 1972 the attempt to suppress the Civil Rights movement alongside the anti-catholic pogroms that had taken place, particularly in Belfast, had already seen the popular and nonviolent movement divided into communitarian camps, and fostered the rebirth of a more traditional armed nationalism. The massacre of unarmed protesters that day, and the state cover up that followed, ensured that the response to the British state would become increasingly militaristic, growing the influence of the IRA. What else would be expected in such circumstances? By transforming the conflict from a popular struggle into a military insurrection, the British State pushed the struggle onto terrain in which it was more confident of a victory.
Excluded from independence were the 6 counties of Ulster in the North-East of the island, counties which contained a significant protestant majority. British imperialist policy almost everywhere made use of religious or ethnic divisions between ‘subject peoples’ in order to maintain imperialist rule. That mechanism had been developed and tested in Ireland from the 1500’s with the displacement of indigenous gaelic catholics from significant portions of good agricultural land and their replacement with protestant settlers from Britain and Scotland in particular. This policy was most successful in the North East which was in any case close to Scotland and thus saw much movement to and from Scotland. The continued promotion of sectarian divisions meant that by late 1800s the working class in the city of Belfast was divided deeply along religious lines with periodic rioting between catholic & protestant workers often triggered over access to housing & jobs.
The partition of Ireland in 1922 saw the new Northern State being given limited Home Rule. These local powers were used over the next forty years to try and unify all protestants regardless of class behind what came to be called the ‘Orange State’ through discrimination against the catholic working class in particular. This discrimination was expressed through restricting access to employment and housing but also through limiting access to weapons to the state forces and a very large auxillary force of protestant males, the ‘B Specials.’
The Civil Rights Movement
Inspired by the civil rights movement in the USA the late 1960s saw the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association based on the following demands
NICRA soon met with state repression and the repression of a demonstration in Derry on 5 October 1968 was followed by two days of nationalist rioting. Footage of the suppression of the march shocked many in Ireland and elsewhere. Radical students influenced by these events came together to form People’s Democracy, a grassroots socialist and anti-sectarian organisation with a libertarian character which was at the forefront of direct action and practised direct democracy.
Tensions continued to rise in 1969 culminating in three days of rioting in August when nationalists in the Bogside defend the area against the police and the B Specials. The Bogside and neighbouring Creggan had in effect become a self governing area known as Free Derry, protected behind barricades. On the day ‘Free Derry’ was set up some 1500 locals armed with steel bars, wooden clubs and hurleys (French parallel?) mobilised to defend the area.
The police and army were prevented from entering the area until October 1968. Even when the British Prime Minister Jim Callaghan visited the Bogside at the end of August 1968 he had to abandon his army escort at the edge of the area and accept instead an escort from the Derry Citizens Defence Association set up by the residents to defend the area. After reforms were announced and Callaghan visited again on the 11th October unarmed military police were allowed to patrol.
Barricades were once more erected in Derry bringing ‘Free Derry’ back into existence for a third time. This time the area was also defended by armed paramilitaries. Sniper attacks on soldiers became common and an extensive bombing campaign was conducted against commercial premises in the center of the city.
Events of the day
Estimates of how many attempted to march that day vary but probably at least 15,000 gathered in the Creggan and marched to the alternative end point at Free Derry corner. As had become ‘traditional’ youth threw stones at the British army on the barricades and the army used water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets. Shortly before dusk the army command ordered the Parachute Regiment (‘Paras’) to enter the Bogside. As in other armies Parachute troops are trained as brutal shock troops, encouraged to use extreme violence to achieve their objectives. That Sunday there were ordered to use live ammunition. As the unarmed crowd fled over 100 rounds were fired, 13 people being killed instantly or dying soon after, 14 others were wounded including two who were ran down by APC’s. Many were either shot in the back or shot as they tried to crawl to cover along the ground.
Widgery cover up
The City coroner, himself a retired British army Major issued a statement on the day of the completion of the inquest into those killed reflecting what had really happened
The military road
Ivan Cooper one of the organisers of the NICRA march on Bloody Sunday also saw the massacre as undermining the non violent basis of the civil rights movement. He thought before that day the IRA was tiny and with little support. The idea that Bloody Sunday led to the gorwth of the IRA is also confirmed by Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams who wrote that “Money, guns and recruits flooded into the IRA”
Almost everyone who witnessed the events agrees with that perspective and indeed how could any other outcome have been expected. When an occupying army guns down over two dozen unarmed protesters it would be almost impossible to expect any response other than those who are still determined to struggle looking to arm themselves in defence and to seek revenge. In the three years to Bloody Sunday the escalating violence had killed 200 people. In 1972 alone, the year of Bloody Sunday 479 were killed, the vast majority after the massacre and as part of the reaction to it.
Bloody Sunday limited the British state’s ability to spin the northern Ireland conflict as one between two warring tribes or criminal gangs. Bloody Sunday exposed the central role of the British state in escalating the conflict. And successive British governments couldn’t use that ‘that was all in the past’ excuse because they were forced to stand over the ludicrous Widgery finding that the Para’s were acting in self defence.
Alongside that the annual commemoration of the massacre became a significant organising focus or northern nationalists and the left. Up to 40,000 people took part in the march that marked the 25th anniversary of the massacre for instance, and every year tens of thousands would participate. That weekend in Derry also saw a wide range of well attended events, everything from cultural events to eyewitness accounts of what happened on the day to current political discussions including the creation of links with struggles elsewhere.
Eventually the British state was forced to address the continued anger over the Bloody Sunday massacre through a second 12 year enquiry under Lord Saville. After all most 38 years and 3000 deaths the British Prime Minister finally admitted in the House of Commons what had happened and apologised on behalf of the British government.
This article was written for the French libertarian communist publication Alternative Libertaire