Beyond Bloody Sunday

In the wake of a landmark report about Bloody Sunday, one journalist's reflections on Northern Ireland's past and future.

The headlines from Northern Ireland in recent weeks have been a study not just in contrast but in contradiction. In mid-June, a long historical shadow seemed to lift, with the publication of a report documenting British military responsibility for the deaths of 14 Catholic civil rights marchers in January 1972 – an event known as Bloody Sunday and a full-throated apology by Prime Ministor David Cameron. Less than a month later, the news is street violence: the worst rioting in years, during the traditionally tense weeks of commemorative marches by Protestant fraternal organizations.

This summer as in 1972, journalists are part of the story in Northern Ireland: local reporters have been covering conflict in their own community, from the start of the Troubles in 1969 through this summer’s events. In the dispatch which follows, one veteran Northern Ireland journalist – name withheld in recognition of the delicate position of news professionals in a still-polarized province reflects on the new Bloody Sunday report, the role of journalists and on the future.

- Bruce Shapiro


In Northern Ireland on June 15 of this year, thousands took part in a short march from one part of a city to its town hall. It is a city divided not only by politics but a wide river, the Foyle, and centuries-old walls. In a place accustomed to conflict associated with marches and parades, this was a very different gathering; it was, in many ways, one of the final steps in a journey that began a long time ago.

The city has two names.

Some call is Londonderry. These are the Unionists and loyalists, mostly Protestant, descendants of those lowland Scots and poor English who were used to "plant" and hold England’s most rebellious outpost as far back as the reign of Elizabeth I. They believe in the union with Britain and are loyal to the Crown. The name itself is a throwback to the prosperous companies who took control of swaths of the north of Ireland under charters granted by the Crown more than three centuries ago.

Nationalists and republicans, the mainly Catholic offspring of the native population, believe in an Irish nation, ruled democratically by the people of an Irish Republic. They call the city Derry.

Those who do not wish to cause offence sometimes refer to it as Londonderry/Derry, prompting one local radio DJ to dub it "Stroke City." 


Divisions around the name are replicated throughout Northern Ireland. As a state, it was created in 1922 with the partitioning of six counties from 26 in the rest of Ireland. The new state and many of its institutions, like the police force and civil service, had substantial in-built unionist majorities. Partly, this was the obvious consequence of the demographic reality, yet it was also the product of establishment discrimination against that portion of the citizenry – somewhere between 32% and 38% depending whose figures you use – perceived as being disloyal to the new state.

Built high on the hills above Belfast, the new parliament buildings at Stormont became the symbol of unionist power, the home of what Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister called "a Protestant government for a Protestant people." Routine discrimination could be found most commonly in employment and housing, both controlled by locally-elected councils. Voting criteria were skewed in favour of mostly Protestant business and property owners and electoral boundaries were drawn up to create artificial majorities. Derry, the second-biggest city in Northern Ireland, had a Catholic majority but a unionist-controlled council, due to gerrymandered voting boundaries. While nationalists were discontent, relatively few resorted to the gun as an expression of their hostility.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA), a clandestine armed group, mounted sporadic action designed to disrupt the state, in turn confirming unionist suspicions and provoking an increasingly discriminatory response. The most obvious target was the police force, very much the uniformed line of defence for the state. Tensions spilt on to the streets periodically, usually centring around traditional marches or elections. So bad were the clashes of August 1969, starting in Derry and spreading elsewhere, that the unionist Prime Minister requested deployment of the British army. Soldiers were drafted in to keep the peace, reinforcing beleaguered auxiliary police in Derry, who were overwhelmingly Protestant, while defending Catholics who were under attack from police-backed loyalist mobs in Belfast.

Civil Rights, the Catholic movement in Northern Ireland, naturally focussed on Derry.

Bloody Sunday

The march of January 1972, though deemed illegal by the authorities, should have been a fairly low-key affair. Journalists deployed to cover it were, in some cases, fairly junior. Most news desks were not expecting much on a wintery day, so perhaps more cubs than usual found themselves covering the march. One was Noel McCartney, who attended a Dart Center event in Ireland a few years back. Having grown up in the city, he was just starting his reporting career and was working for the Derry Journal. One of the Catholic priests at the march was a curate, Denis Bradley. Another present was Martin McGuinness, the second-in-command of the IRA in the city.

Protestors wanted to proceed from the Catholic Bogside district to Guildhall Square in the city centre; in a small city it was a walk of no more than 15 minutes. As usual, they were blocked by soldiers; as usual, a group of mainly teenagers broke away to riot throwing stones, in turn dodging rubber bullets and water cannons; as usual, the main portion of the march moved to a traditional open-air meeting place in the Bogside for a political rally. Speakers were to include a British Labour Lord and 24-year-old Bernadette Devlin, the youngest woman elected as an MP to Westminster. She had just begun her address when British armoured cars sped into the area on the fringes of a several thousand-strong crowd. Dismounting from their vehicles, soldiers from the British Parachute Regiment began firing high-velocity rounds. One 17-year-old was killed as he ran laughing across a wasteground. Others were killed in and around a small rubble barricade and a small apartment courtyard. One of those killed there, witnesses said, was shot twice in the back. Already wounded and trying to crawl to cover, they said, a soldier fired at him from close range.

The shooting lasted for some 30 minutes and when it finished, 13 people were dead or dying and 14 were wounded. Of the dead, eight were aged 20 or under. A doctor from the city who was at the march described attending the autopsies the following day. He said that when he saw the contents of the men’s stomachs it was obvious each had, a few hours before death, eaten their Sunday dinner of potatoes, meat and peas. It struck him forcibly that he, too, could have died. He had eaten the same dinner.


In such a small city, where everyone almost does know everyone, the impact is impossible to over-emphasise. While families grieved and buried their dead, the shock waves crashed over a nationalist population already largely disillusioned with the notion of the British army as impartial peacekeepers.

John Hume, at the time a prominent figure in the Civil Rights campaign and a subsequent recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize, described the shootings as "another Sharpeville and another Bloody Sunday." The Irish government went to the United Nations. Protestors attacked the British embassy in Dublin. The ambassador later wrote that the shooting had "unleashed a wave of fury and exasperation the likes of which I had never encountered in my life, in Egypt or Cyprus or anywhere else. Hatred of the British was intense." A loyalist leader said: "The troops did not shoot enough of them."

At Westminster, Bernadette Devlin, not having been called to speak in the subsequent House of Commons debate, slapped the British Home Secretary in the face and was suspended from attending Parliament. More importantly, all over the north, young men and women flocked into IRA ranks. Within days, the IRA killed more police and soldiers.

The British government set up an inquiry under Lord Widgery, the Lord Chief Justice. He reported ten weeks later in what is now known as The Widgery Report: "There would have been no deaths in Londonderry on January 30 if those who organised the illegal march had not thereby created a highly dangerous situation." He concluded: "Some soldiers showed a high degree of restraint in opening fire, the firing of others bordered on the reckless." The report sparked outrage and weeks of rioting across nationalist areas.

The following year, the Derry city coroner, a retired British army major, was more forthright in his inquest finding: "This Sunday became known as Bloody Sunday and bloody it was. It was quite unnecessary. It strikes me that the Army ran amok that day and shot without thinking what they were doing. They were shooting innocent people. These people may have been taking part in a march that was banned but that does not justify the troops coming in and firing live rounds indiscriminately. I would say without hesitation that it was sheer, unadulterated murder. It was murder."

The official position, as expressed by Lord Widgery, stood. It became a source of deep resentment for families who maintained their loved ones’ innocence but struggled to have their voices heard beyond their own community. The IRA’s campaign escalated. Shootings and bombings became a way of life. Thousands died. Then after two decades of faction, funerals and fear came the first faltering moves toward a peace process. Bradley, the Catholic priest present at the march, was involved in brokering negotiations between the British and the IRA. As part of that process prisoners, both loyalists and republicans, were released early from jail. Ultimately, Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, and unionists formed an uneasy power-sharing government back at Stormont, once the symbol of exclusively unionist power. Central to the deal was British agreement to an inquiry into Bloody Sunday.

No one foresaw the extent, expense or length of the inquiry Lord Saville was appointed to chair. It heard from 921 witnesses, compiled 250 volumes of evidence, cost almost £200 million and took 12 years to complete. For the most part, unionists criticised the cost, while the families of the dead said it was impossible to place a price on justice. This month his report was published.

The Saville Report

Gathering in Derry on the eve of publication, some journalists detected underlying tension among the families of the dead, fearful of the possibility – in their eyes – of another whitewash. In a departure from all convention they, and their representatives, were allowed to read the report summary some hours in advance of it being laid before the British parliament. They would not be allowed to comment until after a Prime Ministerial statement in the House of Commons.

In a concession to the practicality of coverage, some journalists were also to be allowed into a separate "lock-in" reading session. Among them was Vincent Kearney, now BBC Northern Ireland’s Home Affairs Correspondent, who attended Dart Center's Kerry event. Others from the group were deeply involved in coverage; David McKittrick and Barry McCaffrey writing for their respective papers, American Chris Thornton, now with the BBC, working on its hour-long current affairs show for that night, Seamus Kelters producing the BBC’s main news programmes live from the city over a 48-hour period, Angelina Fusco overseeing that operation in Belfast and veterans Brendan Wright and Mervyn Jess respectively reporting for RTÉ and the BBC.

When the large march finally squashed into Guildhall Square to hear Prime Minister Cameron’s words broadcast on a big screen, none knew quite what to expect. There were fears, in the words of one, that this might be "Widgery mark two." In the end, the first sign came not from officialdom, speculative blogs or reporters. Shortly before British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke from somewhere high up on the Guildhall building, between panes of leaded glass, the arms of families emerged, hands gesturing an unmistakable thumbs-up. Baking in the summer sunshine the crowd roared approval, their cheers perhaps carrying in the otherwise still of the city as far as the Bogside and its memorial to the names of the dead.

Prime Minister Cameron’s words came quickly, tumbling over the crowd. One Protestant clergyman subsequently confided: “When he said ‘I am a patriot’ I thought ‘oh no, this is going to be a rehash of Widgery’." The words from London, though, went beyond patriotism.

The Prime Minister told the House of Commons and thousands standing in Guildhall Square that he was "deeply sorry" and that the findings were "shocking." Blame was placed squarely on the army. Soldiers opened fire first and shot innocent people without justification, many then lying about their actions during investigation. Some of the dead and wounded were clearly fleeing or helping the injured. What happened, he said, was wrong.

Unthinkable almost a few months ago, Derry nationalists applauded in acknowledgement. During other parts of a carefully nuanced 20-minute speech, tears rolled freely in a square full with emotion. The crowd remained still when the Prime Minister said Martin McGuinness probably had a Thompson sub-machinegun on Bloody Sunday but had not fired it or done anything which would have justified the soldiers’ shooting. Mr. McGuinness, now Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, quickly denied being armed that day, while at the same time accepting the report’s main findings.

When the Prime Minister finished speaking, the relatives emerged from the Guildhall building and were greeted by rapturous cheers as they punched the air in triumph. John Kelly was there. His 17-year-old brother Michael had been shot at the rubble barricade. Kay Duddy was alongside. It had been her brother Jackie, also aged 17, who was shot as he ran laughing, one of the first to be killed that day. Liam Wray was there. His brother, Jim, had been carrying a Civil Rights banner. He was the man shot from close range as he crawled on the ground, crying out for help. The family of Barney McGuigan were there. He was shot in the back of the head as he waved a white handkerchief and moved to help one of those fatally wounded. When the shooting ended the Civil Rights banner was used to cover his body. Stained red, it is now on display in a museum in the city.

The words of the families reverberated around the square. Tony Doherty, whose father Paddy was killed, said the victims had been vindicated and the soldiers disgraced. "Their medals of honour have to be removed," he said. "The great lie has been laid bare. The truth has been brought home at last."

To the sounds of cheering, others ripped up copies of the Widgery report.

One journalist, a Protestant who in 1972 had been on the march as a Civil Rights campaigner, said that while watching the release of the Saville report there was "always a temptation to shout at the television or radio and question a detail or an observation but what was really important was that a core truth was asserted. A certain human and historical honesty was restored."

Perhaps as important as the reaction of nationalists was the reaction of unionists. Even 38 years later it required a considerable shift in their psyche to accept a report so damning of the army they called their own. Some did not, preferring to centre their comments instead on the relatives of many victims from their community who have yet to receive explanations as to why and how their people died. Others, though, did concede all elements of Saville’s findings with a frankness appreciated by their Catholic neighbours. In a very public show of empathy, the following day, some Protestant clergy brought a symbolic gift to the relatives of the Bloody Sunday dead at the Bogside memorial. Watching Protestant church leaders roundly applauded by nationalists as they approached those at the monument was one of the enduring images of the week, a moment when hope did indeed triumph over history.

In the words of BBC correspondent Vincent Kearney, spoken at the cemetery where the Bloody Sunday dead are buried: "When the sun sets the gravestones cast their shadow towards the city just as the events of that January day cast their own shadow far beyond Derry and are seen by many as part of the reason why so many others died violently."

Now there is the opportunity for two scarred communities to discover whether Bloody Sunday, in which so much pain and grief has been invested, can be part of the future and hope.