Sunday 30 January 1972: A bloody day in the life of Martin McGuinness

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The Independent Online

On the morning of Bloody Sunday, Martin McGuinness got up at about 9am and went to Mass – he may have been second-in-command of a group that was killing a lot of soldiers, but that did not rule out his religious observance. He had spent most of the night patrolling with an IRA "active service unit" on the housing estates of Free Derry, largely a no-go area for the security forces at the time.

"Our task was to oppose any attempt by the British Army to launch raids into the area under cover of darkness," he said in written evidence he recently submitted to the Saville inquiry. "As dawn broke and the likelihood of an incursion by the British Army receded, my comrades and I went to safe houses for a few hours' sleep."

McGuinness was 21, and had been on the run in Free Derry since the start of internment in August 1971. Apart from a couple of spells in jail, he has always lived in the Bogside – as a schoolboy, then successively as trainee butcher, IRA commander, republican prisoner and, in recent years, prominent negotiator and politician.

Today, of course, he is Northern Ireland's education minister, a Westminster MP and – this week – the proud occupant of new offices in the House of Commons. But the Bloody Sunday shootings, which took place 30 years ago not far from his original home, were clearly a formative experience for him, as they were for many others. The IRA in the city of Londonderry was relatively small at the time, but after the events of that day its ranks were swollen with angry new recruits.

"The IRA had about 10 rifles of various kinds, some of them very old," he recalls, casting his mind back to the days when ordnance was more important to him than political skills, "with about half-a-dozen short arms and perhaps two or three sub-machine guns; only about 20 or 25 weapons, and some of these would have been obsolete."

The minister who is now in charge of thousands of teachers and civil servants, helped then to command a comparatively small organisation, consisting of fewer than 50 Volunteers. But, he set out in his statement, it had widespread support within Free Derry, with "thousands of people ready to help in different ways".

A heavy military presence, including of course the Parachute Regiment, had been drafted into Londonderry for that day's civil rights march, which was expected to attract large numbers. Some of the organisers had approached the IRA and asked them to keep the peace on the day.

According to McGuinness, his Officer Commanding (OC) asked his opinion on this request, and he replied he was in favour. Later, McGuinness says, "I was instructed to issue orders to all Volunteers that the IRA would not engage militarily with British forces." The decision was that "nothing should happen anywhere in Derry". McGuinness relayed this to his men, reporting that "without exception everyone I spoke to accepted that our approach to the march was sensible". Two "active service units" were to be armed and left to cope with emergencies in the Creggan and Brandywell housing estates, some distance from the march's destination. All other weapons were "placed into a closed dump".

McGuinness's role in the events of Bloody Sunday has long been the subject of controversy, with his enemies accusing him of playing a leading role in instigating the violence. Now he has given his version in two lengthy statements delivered to the Saville inquiry. He is expected to give evidence in person within the next few months.

According to these statements, after Mass, McGuinness went to the house that served as the IRA's base in the Bogside and instructed the active service units to remain in the Creggan and Brandywell estates at all times. He adds: "All other Volunteers were advised they could either attend the march or have the day to spend with their families. Most Volunteers, myself included, attended the march. We were all unarmed." Many thousands of people attended the march. He remembers it as "a nice sunny day, and the mood of the march was cheerful. There was a huge crowd, that was where the focus was". The march began uneventfully but when it was prevented from reaching the city centre "there was considerable anger and it was clear to me that a riot would soon begin. It might last for hours, as was the tradition – you could have written the script."

McGuinness did not want to be arrested in a riot, as he believed that if he was picked up he would be interned. "I knew there would be snatch squads and I did not want to get arrested. But I was not in the least worried or scared." He moved away, remembering that "I had no sense that something massive was about to happen". But a short time later he heard military gunfire and saw "people scattering everywhere".

He says in his statement: "They could have been shots in the air or shots to frighten people at a riot, or they could have been shots to kill people. People were bewildered and trying to make sense of it all. I could not see what was happening beyond a barricade because of my poor eyesight."

He saw a woman with an injured leg, but he did not see any of the 27 people who were killed or injured by troops being shot. "I did see people fall to the ground but this may well have been people hitting the ground in order to take cover." Painting a picture of absolute confusion, he says: "There was still heavy shooting going on. However, I had no impression of being shot at myself or of hearing bullets whizzing past my head. I was bewildered. It was an incredible development. What was happening?"

As the firing intensified, hysterical people called out that soldiers were shooting people, and McGuinness's first thought was to fire back. "I felt helpless, angry and disgusted that there was nothing I could do," he writes. "I wanted to get a rifle, find other Volunteers and try to do something. We had no real idea of how many people had been shot but we knew the situation was becoming increasingly serious.

"I suggested we needed to gather the Volunteers and arm ourselves as it looked likely that the soldiers were coming in. We went immediately to where we knew Volunteers would assemble and close to where weapons were dumped. We were very angry and emotional."

They met in a safe house known as an IRA base in the Bogside. McGuinness despatched men to Creggan and Brandywell, where the IRA patrols reported that all was quiet. This surprised McGuinness, who concluded that the Army's actions were being solely directed against marchers in one confined area.

The IRA members who gathered there concluded that the Army was attempting to draw them into a fight. According to McGuinness's statement, "a critical and difficult decision had to be made. It was concluded that any military engagement would see us fall into a trap and that it would be a serious mistake to take weapons to the scene of the shootings".

They did not know how many people had been shot, he says, but they knew that anyone who had been shot was an innocent marcher. "Everybody knew that no shots were fired on the British Army and that there were no nail or blast bombs or the like thrown that day."

They decided to hold back. McGuinness records: "Having weighed it up, it was my personal view that we should not react. I decided that it was better to let the world see what the British Army had done."

The decision was passed on to the Volunteers.

McGuinness remarks: "I am confident that no one disobeyed the decision." All weapons, apart from those held by the IRA patrols in Creggan and Brandywell, were in a dump in the Bogside to which, he says, only two people had access.

He adds: "I was one of the two. Even the OC did not know where the dump was. This is why I say that there was no maverick action by IRA Volunteers that day. Discipline was very good – no one tried to overturn or flout the decision once it was taken."

The IRA also had explosive devices: "Certainly the IRA had nail bombs, but not in that area," according to McGuinness. "It would have been lunacy of the worst kind for anyone to have nail bombs about them when 30,000 people were on the street."

He says he and several other IRA members walked, unarmed, to the scenes of the shootings. "People were shocked and dazed. A silence had descended on the entire area. Everyone we met felt like ourselves, devastated. It was the slaughter of the innocent, a massacre... This was the worst day that I had ever experienced in my life. It was devastating. I was in a daze."

Later that night McGuinness was party to an IRA decision to fire shots "symbolically" at an Army observation post on Derry walls. But he insists that suggestions that IRA members had been killed on Bloody Sunday and secretly buried were wrong. The notion "is totally ridiculous. I would have known about it, had it happened. You cannot keep something like that quiet, and certainly not for 30 years".

Any shots that were fired at the army, he suggests, probably came from the Official IRA, an entirely separate organisation from his own. The idea that he himself fired the first shot on the day is dismissed as "a total fabrication and a total lie. The allegation is not true and I did not fire a shot".

Having considered this account, many people will say: well, he would say that, wouldn't he? Martin McGuinness would be bound to claim that the IRA did little or nothing on Bloody Sunday.

Yet the huge weight of evidence unearthed by the inquiry over the last few years is broadly in line with the McGuinness version. Suggestions that the IRA went into action on a large scale on Bloody Sunday as yet lack sound supporting evidence.

The alternative scenario – that Paratroopers were simply unjustified in shooting 27 men and youths, killing 14 of them – has tended to be borne out by much of the mountain of evidence that has come to light.

The sheer amount of material amassed, amounting to millions of words, means that conflicting theories gain or lose credibility as corroboration or contradiction emerges.

As the Saville inquiry has years more to run, the jury is still out on Bloody Sunday. But at this stage the McGuinness version squares with the prevailing theory that the IRA was largely inactive on that day, and that Bloody Sunday was one day in a long IRA career on which McGuinness was not an active terrorist but a bystander.