Dark past, bright future: The legacy of Bloody Sunday

Next week the Saville Inquiry will deliver its long-awaited verdict on the events of Bloody Sunday. But 38 years later, Derry has already moved on, writes David McKittrick
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Indy Politics

It was not a long, drawn-out gun battle: the 27 men and youths were all shot within a period of half an hour, almost all of them hit in perhaps 10 minutes, suggesting a furious blitz of military fire. Fourteen of those struck by army bullets died and another 13 were wounded. No soldiers were killed or injured by gunfire or bombs and no weapons were recovered by paratroopers.

In Derry, great outrage will erupt if Lord Saville's report on Bloody Sunday declares or even implies that any of the dead or injured were gunmen or bombers.

For nationalist Derry, and indeed nationalist Ireland, has never wavered for an instant from the conviction that those shot in the Bogside district were unarmed, and were taking part in a civil rights march. Their complaints centred on housing, jobs and voting inequalities, as well as the internment without trial which had been introduced six months earlier.

The first report into the incidents, delivered in 1972 by Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, exonerated the British soldiers who fired the shots, but not the civilians who were hit by them. It pointedly refrained from saying they were not terrorists.

This was very much in line with the approach of the authorities at the time, who often doggedly insisted that those shot by soldiers were gunmen, no matter how unlikely this looked.

Just a few months before Bloody Sunday, for example, a Derry civilian was shot dead by a sentry who claimed he was aiming a rifle, an assertion which was backed by his military superiors. Derry knew he was uninvolved.

The Nationalist leader John Hume, who was later to win the Nobel Peace Prize, fumed: "Can the Army not in this case at least tell the full truth about what happened? He was not armed. He was walking in the street when he was shot down by an army bullet.

"Army statements about incidents in Derry have lost all credibility because they have been proved incorrect so often."

This week, a new police investigation concluded that the man was unarmed. The reaction of the authorities to Bloody Sunday was similar – instant assertions that the dead were terrorists, followed much later by admissions that they were not.

It took years before the accusations against the Bloody Sunday dead were dropped, but eventually two prime ministers did so. John Major conceded in 1992 that they "should be regarded as innocent of any allegation that they were shot whilst handling firearms or explosives".

Tony Blair, when he set up the Saville inquiry in 1998, endorsed this. During its hearings, all but one of the many lawyers formally accepted their innocence. Of all the material which emerged during the inquiry – and there have been 250 volumes of evidence and 921 witnesses called – nothing came close to overturning that view.

After another shooting which led on to further deaths, a relative said sadly: "The bullet just travels on for years through time." Bloody Sunday led on to the most lethal phase of the Troubles.

Almost 500 were killed that year. The violence had been rising steadily but suddenly there were many more funerals, much street commotion and much political fracturing. Dr Edward Daly, now a revered retired bishop, then a young Catholic priest, was photographed waving a bloodstained handkerchief as an injured youth was carried away.

He would later say: "A lot of the younger people in Derry who may have been more pacifist became quite militant as a result of it. People who were there on that day and who saw what happened were absolutely enraged by it and just wanted to seek some kind of revenge for it. In later years, many young people I visited in prison told me quite explicitly that they would never have become involved in the IRA but for Bloody Sunday." An army assessment confirmed that the shootings "instantly turned the Catholic community from benevolent support to complete alienation".

But the effects were felt much farther than Derry itself. In the aftermath, Irish nationalists, north and south, erupted in shock, the Dublin government recalling its ambassador from London. In the Irish Republic, a day of national mourning was held as funerals took place. After days of protests, a large crowd cheered as the British embassy in Dublin was destroyed by fire.

The British ambassador Sir John Peck wrote: "Bloody Sunday unleashed a wave of fury and exasperation the like of which I had never encountered in my life, in Egypt or Cyprus or anywhere else. Hatred of the British was intense."

Meanwhile the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, described the effects on republicanism, saying: "Money, guns and recruits flooded into the IRA." The boost this gave the organisation was so striking that it encouraged republicans to believe they could achieve outright victory.

The intensity of the reaction caused great anxiety to prime minister Edward Heath, who later admitted he was so shaken by the violence that he feared complete anarchy. A lasting wedge had been driven between London and Dublin, with far-reaching consequences. The beginning of the end of the Troubles came into sight, long years later, only when the British and Irish governments came to work closely together.

But the deaths held up that process for many years. In 1972, the IRA was vaguely Marxist, its more ideologically minded figures portraying Britain as an imperialist power determined to quash a republican uprising. Bloody Sunday heightened this perception, since the deaths on the streets were depicted by the IRA as the classic actions of a coercive colonial power.

Today, this model has been pretty much discarded in Ireland and replaced by an alternative abstract of conflict resolution through compromise. Only a few dissident republicans, political primitives, still cling to it, but four decades ago the argument was a potent one.

The only way to meet British force, the IRA preached, was with force, and so it geared itself up for what it called the long war. It used to say that sustained use of the gun and bomb would "sicken the British", who would eventually withdraw from Ireland.

That old caricature lasted a long time and cost many lives; but the IRA killed no one in Derry on Bloody Sunday. As a result, it may well get off comparatively lightly in next week's report, for the evidence seems to support its assertion that IRA members were at the march but were not armed.

In the Saville hearings, most soldiers involved said they faced an array of snipers and nail bombers. But since there is no compelling corroboration of this, it is difficult to see how the report will blame the IRA as much as the authorities. The bulk of the censure will in all probability be directed at individual soldiers, their colonel, their generals and possibly the politicians back in London.

Yet the IRA cannot evade responsibility for its actions before and after Bloody Sunday. With Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein as its second-in-command and driving force, the organisation killed 29 members of the security forces in a two-year period.

When he gave evidence at the inquiry, McGuinness was forthright, explaining coolly: "There was a state of war between the IRA and British military forces. This was a war area. The night before the march, I was involved in patrolling with an active service unit. If the British military at any time had entered, then IRA volunteers would have taken them on militarily. The primary purpose of the IRA was to attack the British Army."

Although he doesn't admit it, everyone thinks that McGuinness was for decades one of the directors of the IRA's campaign. Of the 3,700 people who died in the Troubles, the IRA was responsible for 1,700 deaths, while loyalist extremists killed 1,100 and the Army 300.

The special features of Bloody Sunday were first that the deaths were the work of the security forces, and second that for years, shadows of suspicion were allowed to linger over them.

But the concentration on the Derry shootings, and on a few other prominent cases such as the 1998 Omagh bombing, has in a way created the appearance of a hierarchy of victimhood. Bloody Sunday has been in the news, sometimes sporadically, sometimes intensely, for almost 40 years. Yet there are thousands of widows and orphans who do not campaign in public and simply attempt to get on with their lives. Some do so with reasonable success but some are very obviously suffering grievously and, years later, still require therapy. There are women who witnessed their husbands being gunned down; there are children who were splashed with their fathers' blood.

There are many heart-rending tales. A police constable shot in 1973 lay in a hospital bed for 22 years, a bullet in his head, apparently conscious but unable to move or speak. On every day of those 22 years he was visited by his wife.

At least two women have lost two life partners, both killed years apart. One woman survived a shooting but lost her unborn child. The little body was buried, in a tiny light blue coffin, in unconsecrated ground next to a graveyard yards from her home.

Over and over again, the "wrong" people died. A nine-year-old Derry boy upset a trip-wire in his garden and set off a bomb which killed him. A man burst into a house in Belfast, shot dead the occupant and then exclaimed, "Christ, I'm in the wrong house." Among those wounded are many in wheelchairs or confined to bed, or who have suffered brain damage. The bereavements and the wounds, physical and psychological, are lasting reminders of the Troubles.

In Derry, the events of Bloody Sunday remain particularly fresh. This is partly because the Saville inquiry has been in the news for a full 12 years and partly because a very large, unmissable mural portrays Dr Daly in the act of waving his handkerchief. Those passing through the city stop to look at it; those who live there see it all the time, its iconic image keeping the issue alive even among those who were not yet born in 1972.

Murders still happen in Northern Ireland: dissident republicans killed one of their number in Derry earlier this year, accusing him of being an informer. The toll for the past four and a half years stands at 16, many of them shot in internal republican or loyalist disputes.

While Troubles deaths have not been completely eradicated, the fact that they have fallen from almost 500 in 1972 to two this year is a measure of a remarkable transformation.

There are visible signs of change, too. The big, overcrowded high-density flats that surrounded the 1972 killing fields were long ago demolished. So too have the rows of damp Victorian terraces, to be replaced by civilised modern homes.

The Army no longer patrols the streets, having long ago departed for other scenes of conflict such as Afghanistan and Iraq. And just as the Army's rifles have gone, so too have those of the IRA, its leaders having decommissioned them and turned to politics. Detonators have been replaced by debates.

And, crucially, the aims of the civil rights marchers have been achieved. Housing allocation is now fair, elections are no longer corruptly rigged, and there is a new police service acceptable to all. Unemployment is down and the city boasts new businesses, lots of new roads and new hotels: today's Derry is a tourist destination.

The city and Northern Ireland were described in the 1960s as "John Bull's political slum". But, apart from a few stubborn minor issues, almost everyone would accept that a fair society has been achieved. On Bloody Sunday, few could have imagined that possible.

Of course, this is not a perfect peace, for major divisions remain. Derry itself is segregated by the river Foyle, which flows through it. The west bank, where the shootings happened, was once mixed but is today almost entirely Catholic. Fewer than a hundred Protestant families remain there: most have moved out, over the decades, to live on the east bank or in largely Protestant satellite towns beyond.

The Protestants say they were forced out of the west bank, or made unwelcome there. Catholics retort that they decamped because they were uncomfortable with the growing number of nationalists and the consequent loss of Protestant political control. This pattern of segregation is a familiar one, especially in Belfast, where almost the entire working class lives in separate districts. Sometimes this pattern of division is shown in the starkest way by peace walls up to 20 feet high. No one is yet predicting when this segregation can be reversed: some think it will never be. But then few ever thought, in its early stages, that the peace process would work; yet it has.

An example of how dramatic change can take place is seen in Martin McGuinness, who admitted to the Saville inquiry that he was second in command of the IRA in Derry. When he testified that on the night before Bloody Sunday he was out on patrol, prepared to take on the Army, a barrister pressed him: "Taking them on militarily means shooting them, does it not?" Without hesitation, McGuinness replied: "Absolutely, yes." But McGuinness moderated to the point where he declared: "My war is over. My job as a political leader is to prevent war, to ensure a set of circumstances which will never again see British soldiers or members of the IRA lose their lives."

Today, he is second in command not of the IRA – there is no IRA any more – but of Northern Ireland. Every day, he travels from his home in the Bogside to Belfast, where, as deputy First Minister of the power-sharing administration, he works alongside Unionist leaders. Given his past, it is unsurprising that he is not popular among Unionists. But he has – ask anyone – gained respect for his performance in government and his commitment to politics. It is now widely accepted that, as one Unionist leader puts it, "Just because a person has a past, it doesn't mean he doesn't have a future."

A few months after Bloody Sunday he was, at the age of 22, among IRA leaders who secretly met a British cabinet minister. As McGuinness described it: "The only purpose of the meeting was to demand the British declaration of intent to withdraw." This week, he travelled from the Bogside to Downing Street with Unionist colleagues for talks with David Cameron. The delegation presented a united front to the Prime Minister, discussing issues such as corporation tax and enterprise zones.

McGuinness has become so deeply embedded in politics that no one thought it incongruous for the Prime Minister to meet the one-time republican militant whose men, in the words of a Special Branch document aired at the inquiry, "alternated destruction by explosives and arson."

McGuinness and Derry and Britain long ago moved on. For years, the events and effects of Bloody Sunday held up the abandonment of the futile goal of outright victory and the emergence of compromise, but they did not prevent it for ever.

A measure of the distance travelled can be seen in the fact that Derry is one of the four finalists in a contest to become the UK's first city of culture. Next Thursday – two days after the Saville report is published – it will make its final pitch for it.

The Saville report will not satisfy everyone but there is a chance that it will signal that the ghosts of 30 January 1972 can be laid to rest and consigned to history. That is an honourable aspiration but also an immensely challenging one, since some of the more malign shades of Irish history persist for centuries. Yet Derry and Northern Ireland have already achieved a number of apparently impossible goals.

The bid to transform it from city of conflict to city of culture has the blessing of another local Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney. His words, used in the Derry presentation, express the hope that Bloody Sunday need no longer be a corrosive issue:

"So hope for a great sea-change on the far side of revenge.

Believe that a further shore is reachable from here.

Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells."