Northern Ireland’s descent into conflict had already begun before Bloody Sunday unfurled its bitter legacy. Civil unrest and sectarian violence had reached such a level that British troops were deployed in the province to maintain a semblance of order. The IRA’s campaign had already begun – Belfast , in particular, was at the epicentre of the violence as republicans and loyalists were involved in fierce clashes. After the events that took place in Derry on the 30th January, 1972, the British Army had also played its part in bringing Northern Ireland to the brink.
At a civil rights march in Derry, 30th January, 1972, thirteen people were shot dead, a fourteenth would die months later in hospital. In total, British paratroopers had shot 26 unarmed civilians, and two were run down by army vehicles. The Army insisted they were fired upon, and that armed IRA operatives had incited the violence; but the Army’s version of events contrasted sharply with that of the thousands of eye-witnesses, among whom were a number of journalists covering the march.
The march took place amid a backdrop of rising tensions. Thus far, Derry had been spared the excesses of violence that had rendered Belfast a de facto war zone, and the IRA had been relatively inert in the area. This was changing in the light of the British Army’s policy of internment for suspected IRA members. The policy was a huge failure; it radicalised a whole generation, and across Northern Ireland antipathy amongst nationalists was fermenting for the British Army’s presence.
Almost all of those interned were Catholic, and to militant republicans this lent credence to their insistence that Northern Ireland’s struggle was against the British State, and that overthrowing it would achieve their political goal – namely a united Ireland. The previous year, two nationalists were shot dead by the British Army during a riot. The Army claimed they were armed, nationalists disagreed. After being welcomed by nationalists, who welcomed them as protectors from loyalist mobs, the army were now regarded with distrust.
The British Army were facing increased hostility in the wake of internment, with the IRA establishing no-go areas in Derry. Blockades were erected, the Army could not drive their Saracens through certain nationalist areas. The gable-end mural daubed with the slogan, ‘You are now entering Free Derry’ typified the atmosphere in the nationalist community. All marches were banned as the violence intensified.
The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association arranged a march for the 30th January; the route would take the march through the nationalist Bogside area of the city, finishing at the Guildhall. The British Army’s policy was intended to be one of containment. Army blockades had prevented the marchers from reaching their destination, and the march, observed by some as having a carnival atmosphere, proceeded towards Free Derry Corner.
Desultory skirmishes between stone throwing youths and the army led to the deployment of tear gas, dispersing the crowd. The march as an event was all but over. However, without warning the soldiers of First Parachute Regiment opened fire. Seventeen-year-old Jackie Duddy was the first fatality, shot as he fled the paratroopers. He would be one of seven teenagers slain that day: Hugh Gilmour, Kevin McElhinney, Michael Kelly, John Young and Gerald Donaghy were all just seventeen, William Nash was nineteen. Patrick Joseph Doherty, 31, was shot as he scrambled to safety. The Army insisted he was armed, a claim countered by eyewitnesses.
With a white handkerchief in his hand, Bernard McGuigan was shot as he ran to the the aid of Patrick Doherty. Twenty-year-old Michael McDaid was shot in the face; his wounds suggested that some of the shots were fired from positions on Derry’s Walls. Witnesses say James Joseph Wray, 22, was executed, having already been shot he was shot again while on the ground. Gerald McKinney, 34, and William McKinney (no relation), 27, were shot within minutes of each other. The oldest victim, 59-year-old John Johnson, died from his wounds in hospital, four-and-a-half months after Bloody Sunday.
An inquiry was immediately launched, chaired by Lord Chief Justice Widgery. He wasted no time in publishing his findings – just eleven weeks later the inquiry’s findings admonished the British Army’s involvement, and supported the Army’s premise of self-defence. No British soldiers were injured on the day, and no munitions recovered that would suggest the IRA opened fire on the paratroopers. The Widgery tribunal was widely regarded as a sham; evidence which would have incriminated the army was excluded, witnesses were not called.
In 1997, Prime Minister Tony Blair answered calls for an official inquiry. The inquiry this time was to be chaired by Lord Saville, and has proved to be the biggest legal case in British history, costing £200 million. Hundreds of witnesses ignored by Widgery will have their testimony reassessed, and for the families of the victims there may, at last, be some closure for one of Northern Ireland’s, and indeed Britain’s, darkest days
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