The facts of Bloody Sunday are now well known. Fifty years ago, on Sunday 30 January 1972, British soldiers shot 31 unarmed civilians during a peaceful civil rights protest in Londonderry, killing six men and seven teenage boys. Another man died four months later.
In 2010, after a 12-year inquiry costing £200m, Lord Saville of Newdigate blamed the massacre on “a serious and widespread loss of fire discipline” by members of the 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment (“1 Para”), who subsequently lied about their conduct. Contrary to the official British narrative, none of the victims “was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury”. They were shot in the back as they fled, sought to help the wounded or lay injured on the ground.
David Cameron, then prime minister, told the House of Commons that what occurred on that day in 1972 was “unjustified and unjustifiable”. He apologised on behalf of the government and country, and said that “what happened should never, ever have happened”.
There was no ambiguity, no equivocation. Bloody Sunday was a day of shame, Britain’s equivalent of apartheid South Africa’s Sharpeville massacre or the US’s Kent State shootings of Vietnam War protesters. And it had terrible consequences.
It destroyed the peaceful civil rights movement. It drove young nationalists into the arms of the IRA, inflaming a conflict that would rage for another quarter century. The Stormont government collapsed, leading to 26 years of direct rule from London. As Saville stated: “Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland.”
Despite all that, justice remains elusive. Had British troops opened fire on unarmed civilians in London or Manchester it is unimaginable that nobody would have been held to account half a century on. But this was Northern Ireland, the victims were nationalists, and not a single soldier has been successfully prosecuted.
Indeed, right-wing Conservatives, the tabloids and assorted military veterans still vigorously defend the soldiers, arguing that they were young men doing their duty in extremely dangerous conditions long ago. The government now plans to ban all Troubles-related prosecutions.
These apologists should read On Bloody Sunday by Julieann Campbell, an oral historian whose 17-year-old uncle, Jackie Duddy, was among those killed. The book lays bare the terrible human suffering behind the bald facts. It weaves 110 first-hand accounts of what happened into a searing narrative that damns not just the soldiers, but the British establishment’s subsequent efforts to conceal their murderous conduct at the expense of those who died or were bereaved that day.
Bloody Sunday did not happen in a vacuum. Five months previously, in response to growing disorder in the province, Edward Heath’s government had introduced internment without trial and arrested hundreds of republican terrorist suspects, many entirely innocent. Nationalists rioted. Violence flared. In Londonderry, amid crackling tension, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association organised an anti-internment march in defiance of the government ban, and the authorities sent in 1 Para to help prevent it reaching the city’s Guildhall from the republican “no go” areas of Creggan and Bogside. As Campbell records, the paras had been involved in the shooting of ten unarmed civilians in Ballymurphy, a nationalist area of West Belfast, six months earlier, and in the brutal suppression of a civil rights protest at Magilligan Strand, a beach near Londonderry, the previous weekend.
The IRA had promised not to piggyback on the march, but the paras were evidently spoiling for a fight. Campbell cites eyewitnesses recalling their belligerence that morning – “their attitude was one of intimidation and scorn”, a primary school teacher said. The press was briefed that “the army is going in hard”. In testimony to Saville’s inquiry, one soldier recalled his lieutenant saying: “Let’s teach these buggers a lesson – we want some kills.”
They got them. Some protesters began rioting in front of the army’s barricades. Midway through the afternoon two companies of paras with blackened faces burst through those barricades and chased the protesters. In little more than ten minutes they fired more than 100 rounds. Protesters fell. Amid the panic and pandemonium priests administered the Last Rites, others first aid. “I remember being more terrified than I’d ever been in my life before,” said Denis Bradley, a local priest. One man was shot trying to reach his dead son, another as he sought to help one of the injured. “He took something white and stepped out,” one eyewitness said. “He turned around and then he was shot in the head. I remember his head exploding and his eye coming out, and I went hysterical.” Edward Daly, a priest who later became Bishop of Derry, recalled “two or three soldiers in the kneeling position firing, down on one knee and firing… They seemed to be very elated and very excited.” Others remembered soldiers breaking into a house where an injured woman lay and shouting: “Let the whore bleed to death.”
[See also: From the NS archive: Bridge over the troubles]
What followed was scarcely less shocking. Witnesses said the paras revelled in the carnage. They were heard whooping. They chucked the dead into their Saracen armoured vehicles with minimal respect. At the hospital they “were joking with each other and laughing and talking about the events of the day as the bodies were carried”, Ivan Cooper, a politician and civil rights activist at the time, told Campbell. “They were jubilant.”
Back at their base, according to a doctor’s son who lived nearby, they “stood around boasting to each other about what they’d done that day, mimicking the actions of shooting with their guns and things. There was no shame. They were cock-a-hoop at a great job.”
The cover-up also began that night. Lieutenant Colonel Derek Wilford, 1 Para’s commanding officer, told ITV News that his men had protected themselves after coming under fire. An army statement claimed they had faced a nail bomb attack and a “fusillade of 50 to 80 rounds”. Reginald Maudling, the home secretary, told the Commons the next day that “the army returned fire directed at them with aimed shots and inflicted a number of casualties on those who were attacking them with firearms and with bombs”.
Eleven weeks after Bloody Sunday John Widgery, the lord chief justice, produced a report, having been advised by Heath that “we are in Northern Ireland fighting not only a military war but a propaganda war”.
Widgery’s perfunctory tribunal ignored eyewitnesses’ testimony and incriminating documentary evidence. He all but exonerated the paras, saying there was “no reason to suppose that the soldiers would have opened fire if they had not been fired on first”. Some victims were innocent, he said, but “there is a strong suspicion that some others had been firing weapons or handling bombs in the course of the afternoon and that yet others had been closely supporting them”. Saville’s report exposed Widgery’s for the appalling whitewash that it was.
Some of Bloody Sunday’s wounded never fully recovered, physically or psychologically. Nor did the bereaved. One mother had a nervous breakdown. Another never sang again. A third would burst into tears a quarter of a century later, saying: “It never gets any easier.” A daughter said of her grieving parents: “You just watched the light going out in their eyes.” Others just bottled up their grief, saying nothing for decades. Widgery’s report compounded their suffering. It portrayed their dead fathers, husbands and brothers as gunmen and terrorists. “He exonerated the paras and condemned the innocent and their families,” said the brother of one of those killed.
For 26 years the bereaved were powerless to change that pernicious narrative. Only when Tony Blair established the Saville inquiry as part of the peace process in 1998 did they have a chance to clear their loved ones’ names. They eventually did so, which was met with euphoric scenes in Londonderry, but by then all but one of the bereaved parents had died.
Though the families finally got the truth, they still have no justice. Following Saville’s report – and fully 40 years after Bloody Sunday – the Police Service of Northern Ireland finally launched a murder investigation in 2012. After reviewing the evidence the public prosecutor decided to prosecute just one soldier for murder. But even that case was later abandoned last year, after key evidence was deemed inadmissible.
Lt Col Wilford, who was sharply criticised by Saville for unleashing the paras, is now 88 and living in a small Belgian village. The so-called Butcher of the Bogside has shown no contrition, no shame. He still insists his men were fired on first. He recently told the Radio Times that, unlike Saville, “I was there”.
Unfortunately for him, so were Campbell’s legion of outraged witnesses, who watched trigger-happy British soldiers gun down UK citizens in broad daylight.
Martin Fletcher is former foreign editor of the Times and author of “Silver Linings: Travels Around Northern Ireland” (Abacus)
On Bloody Sunday: A New History of the Day and its Aftermath by the People Who Were There
Monoray, 384pp, £25
This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed