From the Boston Irish archives: At Last, After 38 Long Years, People of Derry Absolved

January 30, 1972: On this day 48 years ago the Bloody Sunday massacre took place in Derry, Northern Ireland. 14 were killed, 17 were wounded.

The tragedy of British arrogance towards Catholic Ireland over the past many centuries has never been more thoroughly revealed than in the official government report issued on the “Bloody Sunday” shootings and killings in Derry, Northern Ireland, on Jan. 30, 1972. Twenty seven unarmed Catholic protesters were shot by British soldiers just after four o’clock that afternoon – and 14 of them died.

It wasn’t the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or the Argentine Army that was marching in the streets of Derry that Sunday 38 years ago, it was a group of completely defenseless Irish Catholics who fell bloodied in the streets. All of them were Northern Ireland citizens shot by British soldiers.

The marchers were protesting for many reasons: Lack of  jobs for Catholics, second class housing for Catholic families, and perhaps most of all, an evil tactic called “internment,” which had begun the previous August. The police could arrest anyone they chose, simply on suspicion, and hold them for as long as they liked without bringing charges. A large prison ship was brought into Belfast Harbor to house many of those arrested. Between Aug. 9, 1971 and Dec. 5, 1975, a total of 1,981 people were detained -- 1,874 Catholics and 107 Protestants.

Senior government leaders in Belfast and London knew that a strong stand against Northern Ireland civil rights protesters was likely to take place that day, but not a word of caution was heard. Protest marches had been going on for four years and the British army commander in charge, a General Ford, is reported to have exclaimed that shooting a few of their leaders might be a good idea.

And shoot they did. A special Support Company of British Paratroopers from the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment was sent to the front of the line by the commander of the 8th infantry Brigade. In the long tradition of the military, operations like the Derry confrontation had to have a name; this operation was called “Demetrius.” At 4 p.m., the soldiers moved to quell the marchers with gunfire from several locations. One soldier is reputed to have shot four protesters, one shot a father as he went to aid his wounded son, another shot a man already dying in the street. The soldiers were not being shot at and pictures show them standing rather freely in the streets without fear of reprisal. 

Seven of the 14 dead were teenagers – easy unknowing targets, almost frolicking about before the soldiers. 

Derry was stunned. The world was outraged. A famous picture of a priest waving a white towel while trying to rescue a fallen victim was seen on television sets in the United States, causing notice for the first time amongst many Irish Americans that they should turn their eyes toward Northern Ireland’s troubles. 

In Ireland, the massacre proved a boon to IRA recruiting. Hundreds if not thousands joined the fight for recognition of Catholic civil rights and a United Ireland. The Republic of Ireland set up hospital units just across the border. Some 10,000 marched in Cork city. In Dublin, the British embassy was burned to the ground and the Irish government recalled its ambassador from London.

The British, however, completely misjudging their ability to bury the incident, called for a special commission that in only eleven weeks exonerated the soldiers, saying – in a total lie – that the soldiers had been fired upon first. Known as the Lord Widgery Report, this effort by the British government was a cover-up of the first order – official British government lies. It was not done by a few lower bureaucrats; it had the approval of the highest levels of government in both London and Unionist Belfast. The British Prime Minister at the time was Edward Heath; the Northern Ireland Prime Minister was Brian Faulkner.

There was obviously little regard for the Catholics of Derry. The massacre showed the British government and its Unionist allies at their worst. Northern Ireland would see 496 deaths that year alone – the highest total of all the years of the troubles. In all, 3,500 deaths would result from the struggles.

There was revulsion over the extraordinary violence throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom and many efforts were made to bring peace. Finally, in the late 1990’s, through the combined efforts of both the British and Irish governments and, importantly, the United States, peace became a reality in the name of “The Good Friday” agreement. As part of the Good Friday agreement negotiations, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the British Parliament set up a new inquiry into the Bloody Sunday killings.

A new three-person tribunal was created under the leadership of The Right Honorable Lord Saville of Britain, The Honorable William L. Hoyt of New Brunswick, Canada, and Sir Edward Somers of Australia – replaced in 2000 by the Honorable John L. Toohey also of Australia. Their first public meeting was on April 3, 1998, in Derry in the famous Guildhall.

After 12 years of hearings and scores of detailed interviews, this enormous inquiry costing more than $350 million dollars produced a ten-volume report (5,000 pages) and was delivered by the British government to the people of Derry and the world on June 15.

One paragraph of the report provides us with a clear picture of what transpired on that January day in 1972 and its effect on the years ahead: In the overall assessment section of the summary report, paragraph 5.5 states:

“The firing by soldiers of 1PARA on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of 13 people [one more died later] and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury. What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the Army, and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed. Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland.”

The Saville Tribunal had spoken: The Widgery report was false; the people of Derry were innocent. Times had changed. The British government had taken a new view of Northern Ireland and perhaps all of Ireland. Ireland had become one of the world’s most successful countries and was considered an integral part of the European community. Though the world is in an economic turndown, Ireland today is a modern, high tech thriving country,  not the agricultural nation of years ago.

The newly elected British Prime Minister David Cameron decided to release the Saville Report early in his term. To his great credit he made a surprising, non-qualified dramatic apology for the actions of his government 38 years ago. A few selected quotes from David Cameron’s speech to Parliament show the completeness of that apology.

“But the conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt, there is nothing equivocal, there are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.”

“The first shot in the vicinity of the march was fired by the British Army.”

“None of the casualties shot by the soldiers of Support Company was armed.”

“Some of those killed or injured were clearly fleeing or going to the assistance of others who were dying.”

“The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces and for that, on behalf of the government, indeed, on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry.”

Across the Irish Sea, in Dublin, Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen issued a gracious statement on the release of the Saville Report. Some of what he said:

“The brave and honest words of Prime Minister David Cameron in the House of Commons today will echo around the world. I thank him for the good faith he has shown in assuring that the Saville Report has been published so early in his time in office.”

“From this day forth, the world will understand what the people of Derry have always understood. Fourteen innocent people died on the streets in Derry on Jan., 30, 1972. There is no doubt. There are no ambiguities. In truth there never were.”

“They were innocent.”

“May they rest in peace.”