The term Bloody Sunday refers to the events that took place on January 30, 1972, in which 13 people were shot dead by British soldiers in the city of Derry (also known as Londonderry) in Northern Ireland. A fourteenth person died of his injuries some months later. Bloody Sunday is seen as one of the most important moments within the period of Irish conflict known as “the Troubles.”
On the day in question, an anti-internment march had been organized by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. The march had been banned by the authorities, but it was generally peaceful, and perhaps 20,000 men, women, and children marched. A section of the crowd later broke off from the main march and began rioting, and it was then that the elite Parachute Regiment was sent in on an arrest operation. During the next half hour, 13 people were killed by soldiers, and 17 were injured. The soldiers responsible for the shooting insisted that they had come under gun and blast-bomb attack by Republican (Nationalist) terrorists, and had only fired on those carrying weapons or evidencing a threat. However, civilian witnesses provided evidence directly refuting that given by the soldiers, and no weapons were recovered at the scene.
Bloody Sunday proved a violent watershed in the history of the conflict: for a brief period, the alienation of the Irish Catholic, Nationalist minority became almost total. News reporting of the event also radicalized feeling at home and abroad. In the Republic of Ireland, the British Embassy in Dublin was burned down by protesters, and in the North recruitment to Irish Republican paramilitary groups increased markedly. Indeed, 1972 was to be the bloodiest year of the conflict, as activity by both Irish Republican and Ulster Loyalist terrorist groups intensified.
That same year, an inquiry into the shootings in Derry was undertaken by the British government under the direction of Lord Widgery. However, the inquiry only added to the sense of grievance and injury of the Nationalist community, as it cast doubt over the innocence of some of those killed. It also neglected to consider evidence and testimony that the Nationalist community felt to be compelling. In relation to the actions of the army, Widgery could only say that the Paratroopers’ firing “bordered on the reckless.” In contrast, Hubert O'Neill, the coroner at the official inquest into the deaths held in 1973, stated that the shootings were “sheer unadulterated murder.”
Relatives of the victims vigorously campaigned against what was seen as a government whitewash of the events of that day. Continuous political pressure and the mustering of new evidence, set against the backdrop of a developing peace process, resulted in the opening of a fresh inquest under Lord Saville in 1998. The length and cost of the inquiry proved controversial, as the hearings lasted until 2004 and cost an estimated £200 million.
The mammoth 10-volume Saville Report was finally published on June 15, 2010, and it was emphatic in concluding that those shot that day had not been presenting any form of threat. Indeed, it noted that some victims had been shot while crawling away or lying wounded on the ground. The report found no evidence of preplanning of the killings at any governmental level, but it noted that the “unjustifiable” killings were the result of a breakdown of fire discipline. The report discounted the versions of many of the soldier witnesses, some of whom it concluded had “knowingly put forward false accounts.”
The day of the Saville Report's publication was one of high symbolism and emotion. The recently elected British prime minister, David Cameron, made a speech in the House of Commons, which was simultaneously relayed to a large rally in Derry, in which he stated unequivocally that the killings were “both unjustified and unjustifiable.” He apologized on behalf of the government, to cheers from the watching crowd. At the rally, the innocence of each of the victims was proclaimed, and a copy of the now discredited Widgery Report was symbolically torn up.
Bloody Sunday has remained a most important part of the tapestry of memory relating to the Northern Ireland conflict. A large march forms part of an annual commemorative weekend, and the killings are commemorated by a memorial, murals, and the Museum of Free Derry. In popular culture, the events of that day have been remembered with rock and folk songs, and two films have been made depicting the events.
Irish Republican Army, Law and Terrorism, Media and Terrorism
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