47 years ago the residents of Derry awoke to the aftermath of the Bloody Sunday massacre. The struggle for justice continues.
On Sunday 27 January Socialists, Republican groups, campaigners and the families of victims gathered at Creggan shops for the 46th Bloody Sunday March for Justice. Like every year before, the march wound down through Derry to the Bogside and arrived in front of the famous Free Derry mural, metres away from where the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment (Para 1) opened fire on unarmed protesters in 1972.
Bloody Sunday was one of the most prominent and brutal events in what has become known as ‘the Troubles’. On 30th January 1972, amidst armed occupation by British Paratroopers and inspired by the Civil Rights movement in the US, marchers came out on a crisp winter’s day for a civil rights rally, demanding an end to housing and employment discrimination against Catholics and against the reintroduction of internment for Republicans. The march finished in the Bogside, a heavily Catholic and working class area of Derry, which had organised an effective community defence both against the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British occupiers. British soldiers had redirected the march from its original route down into the Bogside, and at about 4pm, allegedly in response to ‘rioting’, Para 1 opened fire with live ammunition on the march.
In the massacre that followed 28 people were shot, with 13 of them dying where they lay. Many more people were injured by ramming from Army vehicles and shrapnel. The Paratroopers fired on civilians as they fled across nearby Glenfada Park. In total over 100 rounds of ammunition were fired over a 10 minute period. Witnesses said paratroopers lifted the bodies by the hands and feet and dumped them in the back of their APC, as if they were “pieces of meat”.
The cover-up began, quite literally, before the bodies were even cold. In order to try to protect their image, British soldiers planted nail bombs on the lifeless body of 17-year-old Gerald Donaghy. Army Press Officer Michael Jackson briefed the media that the Army had fired in response to gunfire from IRA combattants, and the dead were slandered as terrorists. The Widgery Tribunal that followed accepted these claims uncritically.
The fact that the events of Bloody Sunday were re-opened for further examination is unprecedented, and is a clear reflection of the power of struggle from below. Years of relentless campaigning forced the Government to admit that the Widgery Tribunal had been a whitewash, and an international Inquiry headed by Lord Saville of Newdigate was appointed. The Saville Inquiry concluded in 2010 that the events of Bloody Sunday were ‘unjustified and unjustifiable’ and laid the foundations for the prosecution of members of Para 1. But the Inquiry made no attempt to hold those in power responsible, as Eamonn McCann writes:
“Saville, while giving the families almost all that they’d asked for, manipulated evidence to let senior politicians and military chiefs off the hook. The report was thus along more traditional lines than was allowed at the time. It didn’t deny British culpability but loaded the blame onto those at the bottom and protected those at the top. Thus, Prime Minister David Cameron, to wild applause at the Guildhall Square, felt able to welcome the report whilst insisting that the reputation of the British Army itself remained unsullied.
Cameron couldn’t have described the killings as ‘unjustified and unjustifiable’ had a finger of blame been pointed at, for example, Major General Robert Ford, Commander of Land Forces in Northern Ireland, at the time, or at Michael Jackson, adjutant on the day to Lt. Colonel Derek Wilford, Commander of the First Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, the unit which had carried out the killings.”
This year the Bloody Sunday march set out a clear demand: the imprisonment of General Sir Michael Jackson. Whilst this may not seem a significant development in and of itself it is a crucial part of situating Bloody Sunday in its proper context, in making clear that it was not an anomaly, not simply a case of a few rogue squaddies, but the clear and predictable result of British occupation and repression which forms the core of British polity in Ireland. While condemnation of the paras that fired the shots on Bloody Sunday is one small step in the right direction, they were men uniformed to represent the British state who carried out the killings because they believed, and had good reason to believe, that murder was what was expected of them.
At the march finish in the Bogside we heard from the families of those murdered, both at Bloody Sunday, and by the same regiment at the Ballymurphy massacre only a few months earlier. The fact that families of those killed at Ballymurphy had a clear and prominent place in the proceedings is testament to the political connections established between the victims of British state violence in the North of Ireland. The key message from those marching last Sunday, and those who have campaigned tirelessly for the truth about the massacres of Bloody Sunday, in Ballymurphy and across the North, is that someone needs to be held accountable for the series of brutal atrocities carried out on working class people by representatives of the British state. That is a message that resonates far beyond Derry. The abundance of Palestinian flags, and the placards and banners listing Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Suez alongside Shankill, Ballymurphy and Derry demonstrated the connections between the events of 1972 and the violence perpetrated by the British state elsewhere. Other banners and placards highlighted key social and political issues including climate change, housing, welfare reform and police brutality; evidence of the commitment of organisers and participants to a solidarity not limited to victims of the occupation of the North. As the Bloody Sunday March committee stated:
“We place Bloody Sunday in the context of Ballymurphy, the Shankill, Loughinisland, McGurk’s Bar etc, And we relate it, too, to state assaults on citizens elsewhere: the collusion by cover-up in the killing of Liverpool fans at Hillsborough; the relentless massacre of young black men by police in the US; the continuing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by the Israeli state; the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar; and the drowning in the Mediterranean of refugees fleeing poverty and war.”
Remembering Bloody Sunday and fighting for justice is important because it is a vital part of recognising the scale and nature of imperialism and state violence which are integral to the functioning of capital. In the North of Ireland the British state has tried to whitewash the role of British imperialism by presenting the conflict as a result of age old sectarian tensions between Protestants and Catholics – a narrative which is reified in the Good Friday Agreement which still stifles political expression in the North. Bloody Sunday belies this narrative; in the clear light of day and in front of the world’s press the British state, not paramilitary death squads or terrorists, murdered demonstrators in cold blood. Holding the state and its representatives accountable is the basis for building a world free from the ravages of war and exploitation. In the words of the Bloody Sunday March Committee:
“The world is awash with blood. We march for the cleansing of war and injustice from the earth.”