This post represents somewhat of a departure from my usual travel and Asia themed musings, but I have had a deep interest in Irish history for the better part of a decade. The recent release of the Saville report, which was commissioned by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998, has brought Bloody Sunday back into the news.
First, a little background.
By the early 1960s events in the North of Ireland had largely settled down. The Catholic minority still faced day to day discrimination in schools, housing and jobs, but for the most part armed conflict had become a thing of the past. The Irish Republican Army still existed and their rhetoric talked of a break from the United Kingdom and a united Republic of Ireland, but the organization lacked vitality, and was leaning ever more to the Marxist left. The bloodshed that would mark Ulster throughout the 70s and 80s was nowhere to be found.
Then the Ulster Volunteer Force came into being. A Protestant, Unionist militia, the UVF was formed in 1966 expressly to counter a perceived threat from the IRA and from the Nationalist community. One of their first acts was the firebombing of a Catholic owned liquor store in Belfast that killed a 77 year old Protestant woman.
Into that charged atmosphere stepped the influence of Dr. Martin Luther King. The American Civil Rights movement sparked a similar effort in Northern Ireland. Rather than the tired, violent republican rhetoric that had been a part of Irish Politics for centuries, new leaders would use non-violent efforts to obtain basic equality for the Catholic minority. Equal opportunities, electoral reform and freedom from police oppression didn’t seem like too much to ask. Sadly, it was. Unionist forces attacked many marches, and they often descended into violence and rioting. The local police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary was overwhelmingly Protestant in its make up, and was seen as a force for Unionist oppression. This is why the arrival of army units from England were initially seen in Nationalist circles as a good thing. They would be a disinterested third party that would protect their communities from the UVF and the police.
What would become Bloody Sunday started as a non-violent protest march on Sunday January 30th 1972. The marchers were protesting internment, the government practice of interning paramilitary suspects without trial or charge. The vast majority of those interned were Catholics who may or may not have had actual paramilitary ties, while Unionists were rarely interned. The Nationalist communities wanted the process stopped. The march was banned, but went ahead anyways, and at the end 26 people had been shot by English Paratroopers, and 13 of those lay dead in the Derry streets. Already on its last legs in the face of renewed bombing and intimidation campaigns on both sides, non-violence as a viable political strategy lay with them. Young men from nationalist neighborhoods saw clearly that their views and desires meant less than nothing to the government, either in Belfast or in London.
A commission on the events of Bloody Sunday was instituted at the time, but many felt it to be a whitewash. The protest marchers and some of the dead were cast as IRA gunmen and bombers, and it was maintained that the soldiers who had opened fire had done so in self defense. People who were there and relatives of the deceased have maintained to this day that the march was peaceful, and that nobody who was shot had a weapon or bomb on them, that there was no threat to the paratroopers who had fired into the crowd.
That is why the recently released Saville Report is so important. In going back and processing an immense amount of information, the hope is to finally lay to rest the controversy and to settle on the truth of what happened that day in Derry.