Bloody Sunday 50 years on — a symbol of ongoing injustice

Free Derry corner in 1969. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Free Derry corner in 1969. Image: Wikimedia Commons

“Tell the world, tell about the murderers ... They won't get us, never. And they will not beat us...”

This cry by a traumatised mother was on the streets of Derry in British-occupied Northern Ireland on January 30, 1972.

That day, British soldiers opened fire on an unarmed civil rights protest of at least 15,000 people, leaving 13 civilians — six of them teenagers — dead. A fourteenth victim later died in hospital from their wounds.

All were shot by British soldiers. Eyewitnesses say most were shot from behind while trying to flee. Others were shot trying to help the wounded.

James Wray, 22-years-old, was shot from behind then fatally shot again as he tried to crawl to safety. Gerry McKinney, 35-years-old, was shot dead with his hands up pleading, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” The bullet passed through McKinney then hit and killed 17-year-old Gerry Donaghy.

Not even killing the teenage Donaghy was enough. The British Army then claimed to have found nail bombs on his body, although civilians at the scene had already searched him and found nothing. The slander is key to the discredited British response to the day’s events — that the massacre was in response to gunfire from the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Instead, all evidence shows it was an unprovoked massacre against an unarmed crowd.

Fury erupted across Ireland. In the Republic of Ireland, in Europe since World War II by population, while protesters burned the British embassy in Dublin to the ground.

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey — an Irish republican elected to British parliament, who witnessed Bloody Sunday firsthand — flew across the Westminster floor in London to smack then-British home secretary Reginald Maulding in the head when he claimed British soldiers acted in “self-defence”.

Fifty years on, despite a public apology for the killings from then-prime minister David Cameron, there remains no justice. No British soldier has ever stood trial over Bloody Sunday and only one has ever been charged — and that prosecution .

The most noteworthy feature of Bloody Sunday, however, is how far from unique it is in the history of Britain’s occupation of the six Irish counties that make up the Northern Ireland statelet.

For instance, Bloody Sunday came five months after the Ballymurphy Massacre in West Belfast, in which 10 civilians were shot dead between August 9–11, 1971.

To coincide with introducing internment without trial, whereby authorities could indefinitely jail anyone they accused of IRA links, British soldiers had set up a “free-fire zone” on civilian streets in the working-class, nationalist neighbourhood. For three days, a paratrooper unit opened fire on everything that moved.

The same paratrooper unit was then sent to Derry, where it committed the Bloody Sunday massacre.

The January 30 civil rights march in Derry was protesting the policy of internment. Almost 2000 people were interned between 1971–75, the vast majority from the nationalist, Catholic community. Torture of those “lifted” off the streets by British troops was widespread.

Unsurprisingly, such horrors led to a surge of young men and women joining the republican armed groups that fought to end Britain’s military occupation. More than two decades of war was officially ended by a peace deal in 1998, but the key issues remain unresolved.

The roots of the violence go back to the 1922 partition of Ireland, when Northern Ireland was created as a sectarian state under British control. As part of its agreement to end the Irish War of Independence, the colonial power granted independence to most of Ireland, except for six counties in the north.

Northern Ireland was deliberately created with an artificial majority of Protestants, who largely supported British rule (known as unionists). In contrast, the Catholic community were largely Irish nationalists opposed to British rule. The Catholic minority faced in jobs, schooling, housing, voting rights and more.

A civil rights movement arose in the 1960s demanding equality for the Catholic minority. It was met with vicious repression from Northern Ireland’s police force and unionist gangs.

In response, working-class nationalist communities sought to defend themselves, engaging in street fighting and building barricades in events such as the 1969 in Derry. This created a “liberated zone” that led to the famous mural declaring: “You Are Now Entering Free Derry.”

With violence spiralling, Britain decided to send troops to its Irish territory as “peacekeepers”. Initially welcomed by many Catholics due to promises the soldiers would protect them from unionist pogroms, it was soon clear it was the nationalist community bearing the brunt of British violence.

With civil, non-violent struggles being made impossible by the actions of the occupiers, who shot unarmed civilians with impunity, the struggle against the sectarian state degenerated into an all-out war.

Britain carried out its war against the nationalist community in the name of “fighting IRA terror”. Yet evidence grows about the depths of British forces’ collusion with unionist death squads that targeted Catholic civilians.

For instance, the close links and active involvement by British forces in unionist paramilitary massacres were detailed in depth in Anne Cadwallader’s 2013 .

A British government-commissioned inquiry in 2020 that 85% of the pro-British terror gangs’ intelligence information came from British security agencies. On January 13, Northern Ireland’s police ombudsman confirmed evidence of “collusive behaviour” between British officers and unionist death squads over 1989–93. At least 19 murders were associated with this collusion.

Yet in an ongoing pattern of impunity, People’s World on January 22 that “the British government is seeking an amnesty for its armed forces, halting investigations and denying victims access to the courts and to a legitimate trial”.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was a recognition that British forces could not defeat republican groups with strong support in nationalist communities, nor that republican armed groups could militarily defeat British forces. But more than two decades on, much of the agreement has not been implemented.

Britain’s fraught process of withdrawing from the European Union (EU) has also highlighted the absurdity of British control over six Irish counties. Despite a majority in Northern Ireland voting to remain in the EU, it is being dragged out by Britain and hard-fought gains from the peace process are being threatened.

In this context, Irish republican party Sinn Fein — currently the most popular party across the island — is campaigning for an all-Ireland referendum on Irish unity as allowed under the GFA.

Ultimately, the campaigns for justice for the many victims of the conflict that rocked Northern Ireland in the last decades of the 20th century can’t be separated out from the conflict’s causes. Britain will not willingly acknowledge its crimes, because to do so would be to admit that controlling a sectarian state in Ireland’s north is itself a crime.