I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.
– U2, Sunday Bloody Sunday
January 30th marks an anniversary in recent Irish history that most people living outside of Ireland and the Northern Provinces recognize only through a famous U2 song, Sunday Bloody Sunday. Unfortunately, the song is still misinterpreted as a “rebel song.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The band was aware of the controversial nature of Sunday Bloody Sunday, that its lyrics might be misinterpreted as sectarian, and possibly jeopardize their personal lives. Some of The Edge’s original lyrics explicitly spoke out against violent rebels, but were omitted in order to protect the group.
What happened in Londonderry on January 30th, 1972 went far beyond violence, and the song does not address the real issue at hand, the oppression of the Catholic minority living in Northern Ireland. Carmen de Monteflores once said, “Oppression can only survive through silence,” and while I applaud U2‘s campaign for anti-violence in Northern Ireland, I fail to see how the oppression would have ended without the war that followed after Bloody Sunday. On that day, members of the 1st Battalion of the British Parachute Regiment shot twenty-six demonstrators. Thirteen people, six of whom were just seventeen years old, died at the scene, with five of those wounded shot in the back. To this day there is no evidence that any of the demonstrators were armed.
Northern Ireland, during 1950s, 1960s 1970s, and beyond, was a place at odds with the rest of the civilized Western world. The pride of defeating Nazi Germany was still remarkably alive in the United Kingdom and fighting Communism had become the prime directive. However, in contrast to the self-proclaimed image of defender of the free world, their halo paled as they turned a blind eye on the oppression of the Catholic population in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland was a place where the treatment of the Catholic minority came with the foul stench of Kristallnacht, the night when the Nazis coordinated an attack on the Jewish community in Germany as part of Hitler’s anti-Semitic policy. Most certainly, in the history of mankind there has been no greater crime against humanity than the Holocaust, but the question is, has Kristallnacht ended with the defeat of Nazi Germany? Did the world get a false sense of security?
The British occupation of the Irish island began as early as the late twelfth century, and attempts to annihilate the Irish identity fill the history of English rule. Some of these attempts carry a striking resemblance to Hitler’s henchmen trying to eliminate the Jewish population in Germany, although not quite as methodical. History is also filled with constant acts of Irish resistance, and no ruling king or parliament was ever able to solve the problem. The saying is that the nineteenth century Prime Minister William Edward Gladstone tried to deal with the Irish question, but never found the answer as the Irish continued to change the question.
December 1921 saw the signing of the Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, which established a free Irish republic with jurisdiction over twenty-six of the thirty-two counties. It also created the separate province of Northern Ireland that remained under British rule. It consists of the six northeastern counties of the predominantly Protestant Ulster region.
The terms, as negotiated by the founder of the IRA, Michael Collins, did not find the approval of the entire Irish population and, even though the Republic of Ireland was officially established, the battle for Irish reunification began. The importance of the IRA, though, endured a slow, but steady decline until the late 1960s, which saw increased confrontations between the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland and British officials, especially the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).
The Civil Rights movement’s demand was, just to name one particular issue, for equal voting rights. The current system allowed only house owners to vote in local elections, and they were predominantly Protestants supporting British rule in Northern Ireland. The Protestant majority defended their superiority by engaging their own militias against Catholics, and they were actively supported by the predominantly Protestant RUC.
By the summer of 1969, these disputes reached the dimensions of an outright Civil War, and in August of 1969 the British government deployed troops to Northern Ireland with the intent to restore public order. “Operation Banner” ended at midnight on July 31, 2007, thirty-eight years later, instead of the planned “few months,” and it represents the longest deployment in the history of the British Army. The death toll included more than 3500 civilians and 763 soldiers.
In 2008, General Michael Jackson, the British Army Chief, called Operation Banner a successful combat. Nothing could be further from the truth. The English army became part of the problem very quickly, and they turned out to be another player in the conflict, not a referee.
Initially, the Catholic population welcomed the presence of the army in the hope they would serve as a neutral force and protect them against the RUC and Loyalist forces. However, their hopes were shattered in July 1970 during a British operation called “Falls Curfew,” which resulted in three days of rioting and battles between the British Army and Irish Republican paramilitaries. In the final tally, five people were killed, and three hundred were arrested.
The streets of Londonderry endured a long line of events filled with violence and the rage among the Catholic population turned not only into increased support for the IRA. They expressed their anger in a series of protest marches. One of these marches took place in Londonderry on January 30, 1972. That day was seared into the memories of the Irish people as Bloody Sunday.
The Civil Rights Organization of Northern Ireland had contacted the RUC’s Chief Superintendent, Frank Lagan, to inform him of their intention to hold a non-violent demonstration and to protest against internment without charge or trial. The internment, officially named “Operation Demetrius,” allowed the RUC and the British Army to detain suspects without justification. Lagan, in turn, notified the British Army and requested they keep away any military interference, a wise recommendation and, if followed, could have prevented the bloody events. The army, however, turned down before, was eager to prove that their well-rehearsed plan would put an end to the riots in Northern Ireland.
Just a week before Bloody Sunday, at an anti-internment march held at Magilligan Strand, British soldiers beat a number of protesters with such an intensity that their own officers had to physically restrain them. An attack on the patrol car of two RUC officers resulted in their deaths the Thursday before Bloody Sunday at Creggan Road. Nevertheless, the organizers of the Sunday march, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, had called for a peaceful march. They tried everything to prevent a repeat of the events at Magilligan Strand.
The march started almost an hour late from Central Drive in the Creggan Estate and proceeded toward the Bogside area of Derry. The official report, produced only a few weeks later by the Widgery tribunal, tried to downplay the magnitude of the march and gave an estimated number of somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000, while organizers claimed a number as high as 20,000. The correct figure was likely somewhere in between.
The organizers had intended to direct the march toward the town’s guildhall and hold a meeting there, but British military units had erected a number of barriers at strategic spots to seal the demonstration in the Bogside area away from the guildhall. They had also positioned a large number of snipers at strategic points around the perimeter of the Bogside area.
The barriers, the snipers, the stone throwing that followed, and the verbal abuse – all this was as familiar territory for the demonstrators as it was for the soldiers, who were very well protected in their anti-riot gear. The marchers did not suspect that the army’s reaction would be somewhere out of the ordinary. Maybe they would see some rubber bullets fired at them, maybe some gas, and then they would proceed to their meeting with the feeling they had fought well for their cause.
The exact details of the British Army’s reasoning for their attack are still, so many years after the fact, under investigation. The fact is that the British Army engaged into a massive combat operation. Armored cars raced through the streets at a speed of forty miles per hour, thrashing through a horrified crowd. This was not a spontaneous response to a violent provocation, this was a well-rehearsed military operation. The soldiers that jumped out of the armored cars were paratroopers not wearing the usual anti-riot gear. Instead, they were wearing full combat gear. They took their strategic positions quickly and precisely and then they started shooting, using their fire-and-movement tactic as if they were fighting another army.
The only possible explanation for the army’s savage attack is that they believed they had effectively provoked an encounter with IRA forces. That was evidently not the case. Regardless of whether or not the attack was initiated on grounds of an erroneous interpretation of the circumstances or a more sinister plan, they were not able to recall their forces. Once a bloodhound smells blood, he is impossible to stop.
At the end of the riots, members of the 1st Battalion of the British Parachute Regiment had shot twenty-six civil rights protesters. Thirteen people, six of whom were just seventeen years old, died at the scene. Five of those wounded were shot in the back. After the shooting ended the army continued with collecting the dead and wounded, lining up demonstrators against walls, searching, and abusing them.
The Army Headquarters in Northern Ireland dealt with the following media inquiries particularly badly and defensively. The British Army Chief, Major General Robert Ford, just as useless as his fellow officers seeking to explain the firings, claimed his soldiers had only fired at IRA snipers and grenade-throwers, which turned out to be a blatant fabrication.
The question is, what was so different, so significant about Bloody Sunday? There had been rioting before, and people were killed. While that is true, the events of Bloody Sunday manifested a magnitude that was beyond anything that had happened before in Londonderry. Until Bloody Sunday, there was only a struggle for civil rights. There were riots, but the killing of people was a disturbing exception. After Bloody Sunday, it was outright war.