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Bloody Sunday: history reduced to psychodrama

The inquiry report into the Derry massacre rips events from their historical context: the conflict between Irish nationalists and the British state.

Mícheál Mac Giolla Phádraig

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‘It is often said that Irish people pay too much attention to history. This is not true. Irish people pay very little attention to history.’ Eamonn McCann, War and an Irish Town

The report of the Bloody Sunday inquiry and its generally positive reception in Ireland and in Britain suggest an event abstracted from history. The fatal shooting by British soldiers of 14 people attending a civil rights march in Derry on 30 January 1972 appears to lack antecedents – or consequences – other than the personal sufferings of the affected families. The killings seem to have no meaning beyond that of an encounter between innocent victims and evil paratroopers. The soldiers’ behaviour is depicted as irrational and inexplicable, little different to that of the deranged taxi driver who shot and wounded a similar number of people in a rampage through Cumbria two weeks ago.

But Bloody Sunday was a historic event as well as an occasion of private grief. The day had begun with a march organised by the Civil Rights Movement in Derry, part of an upsurge in nationalist resistance to the British military occupation of Northern Ireland and the oppressive regime it sustained. This demand for civil rights – equal treatment in housing, employment and voting amongst other issues – had begun in earnest in 1968. But in October of that year a peaceful demonstration in Derry had been attacked by police with truncheons and water cannons. The conflict gathered momentum with the incursion of British troops in August 1969 and had intensified following the mass internment of republican suspects without trial in August 1971.

Though the Derry march was formally illegal, it drew support from 10,000 people. The British government’s decision to deploy the Parachute Regiment reflected the determination of the military authorities to clamp down forcibly on militant nationalists. The resulting massacre succeeded only in provoking an influx of recruits to the Provisional IRA and destroying the last vestiges of the legitimacy of the British state in Northern Ireland.

The violent reaction of the Northern Ireland government and its employees to the rather moderate demands for basic civil rights was not confined to big marches. In his contemporary account of the early stages of the Troubles in Derry, Eamonn McCann recalls that when, in January 1969, Johnnie McMenamin, a resident of the Catholic Bogside district, ‘saw a crowd of men in his street in the middle of the night smashing up houses and beating up his neighbours’, he did what any ordinary person in such circumstances would do – he rushed to dial 999. He was ‘put through to Victoria RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] barracks before realisation dawned on him that this was ridiculous’ – the men rampaging through local streets were members of the RUC bent on terrorising Catholics suspected of sympathies with the civil rights protests.

After Bloody Sunday, many Catholics in Derry, indeed throughout Northern Ireland, drew the firm conclusion that they could not rely on the authorities of the British state to protect them. Some drew the even more radical conclusion that it was only through expelling the forces of the British state from Ireland that they could win justice and peace.

‘Does it need recourse to law,
To tell ten thousand what they saw?’

This was the question asked by Thomas Kinsella in his poem ‘Butcher’s Dozen’ (named for the 13 who died on the day of Bloody Sunday itself), written in response to the notorious Widgery Report of April 1972, the original enquiry-cum-whitewash into the massacre that exonerated the soldiers and slandered the dead as terrorists. The republican insurgency that continued over the next two decades was the defiant answer to Kinsella’s rhetorical question.

It was not until the military campaign had reached a stalemate and the Sinn Fein leadership launched the peace process in the 1990s that the proposal for a judicial inquiry into Bloody Sunday emerged as part of the quest to restore the legitimacy of the British state in Northern Ireland (and particularly in Derry, its most Catholic city). The inquiry under Lord Saville, established way back in 1998, was particularly popular with the governments of Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern in London and Dublin.

The applause that greeted David Cameron’s apology yesterday, broadcast on a giant TV screen to the crowd assembled outside the Derry Guildhall where the Bloody Sunday Inquiry report was presented to the victims’ families, confirmed the success of this initiative in restoring the faith in British justice. This faith had been weakened, if not destroyed, by the conduct of the RUC in 1969, the paratroopers in January 1972, the Widgery whitewash in April 1972, and a continuing litany of offences throughout the Troubles. The iron fist of the Paras have given way to the big hug of Tony and Bertie, Mo Mowlam and Lord Saville, Nick and Dave.

The Bloody Sunday Inquiry was much more than a mere judicial process. Its prolonged proceedings reflected its wider therapeutic character: it aimed to provide a sort of catharsis for its witnesses through encouraging them to tell their stories, by listening and feeling their pain, and providing affirmation and empathy. The media discussion of the report in terms of pop psychology – with much emphasis on the quest for ‘closure’ and the need for ‘moving on’ – confirms the popular impact of this therapeutic discourse.

Though there have been some complaints at the cost of the Saville inquiry, approaching £200million, this may be considered a small price to win the acquiescence of the nationalist people of Northern Ireland to the authority of the new institutions of British rule. Colonising Irish territory has proved a long and costly process – perhaps colonising Irish minds will prove more effective.

Mícheál Mac Giolla Phádraig is a second-generation Irish writer and a veteran of the civil rights struggle.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill looked at what was behind the obsession with Bloody Sunday and called Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams the ghosts of politics past. Kevin Rooney railed against the way politics is being written out of the history of the conflict. Mícheál Mac Giolla Phádraig thought Henry McDonald’s account of the Troubles was historically illiterate. Or read more at spiked issue Ireland.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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