Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2789

Bloody Sunday—state terror used to crush dissent

Fifty years ago British troops opened fire on the streets of Derry. Simon Basketter explores how the British state murdered innocent people on Bloody Sunday—and then tried to get away with it
Issue 2789

British troops killed 13 people on Bloody Sunday in Derry on 30 January 1972. A 14th person died later

In a deliberate act of mass murder, ordered from the top, British ­paratroopers massacred unarmed civilians in Derry in Northern Ireland 50 years ago.
 
The Tory government wanted to crush the Civil Rights Movement, which had flourished in the late 1960s in protest at the second class treatment of Catholics.
 
British troops were sent into Northern Ireland in August 1969. The armed sectarian police force in the North could no longer ­contain an effective insurrection in Derry, the province’s second largest city.
 
People were fighting back against a system where access to jobs, housing, and effective votes depended on whether you were Catholic or Protestant.
 
The Labour government acted to prop up a Unionist government that ran Northern Ireland as a sectarian, one party state.
 
Just five months before the 30 January massacre, ­internment without trial was introduced. Hundreds of Catholics were rounded up, detained and tortured. A march was organised in opposition to internment—and was deemed illegal. 
 
It was scheduled to begin in the Creggan area of Derry and to weave through the Bogside before proceeding to Guildhall Square in the city centre. 
 
It never got that far. Soldiers went into the Bogside and opened fire. Thirteen died on the day and one more shortly after. A month earlier, General Harry Tuzo, the army commander in Northern Ireland, told the then Tory government it had to make a choice.  
 
It was “between accepting that Creggan and Bogside were areas where the army was not able to go or to mount a major operation which would involve, at some stage, shooting at unarmed civilians.”
 
On 7 January 1972 General Robert Ford declared in a memo to Tuzo, “I am coming to the conclusion that the ­minimum force necessary is to shoot selected ringleaders.”
 
Four days later prime ­minister Ted Heath told his cabinet, “A military operation to reimpose law and order would be a major operation necessarily involving numerous civilian casualties.”
 
Bloody Sunday meant the end of the Civil Rights Movement. The massacre drove young men and women to join the Provisional IRA. 
 
Within weeks of Bloody Sunday the government replaced the Unionist Stormont parliament with direct rule from Westminster.
 
The British ­government tried to cover up the truth of its butchery from the moment the last shot was fired. The army claimed it fired because it was shot at by the IRA and that demonstrators were armed with nail bombs. This was a lie.
 
Former head of the British Army, Sir Michael Jackson, was second in command in Derry on Bloody Sunday. He wrote entirely false reports of what the soldiers did on the day, including a number of alleged personal accounts of senior officers and a shot list. It describes unnamed people firing an inaccurate number of bullets at people who, in ­reality, were in completely different places.
 
Apparently bullets went through entire buildings. Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, the highest judge in Britain, headed an inquiry. It was a whitewash. Successive governments continued to cover up the truth about Bloody Sunday.
 
It took long campaigning by relatives of the murdered to get their names cleared. Finally in 1998 the Labour government set up a new public inquiry under Lord Saville.
 
In 2003 Jackson gave ­evidence to it. He could remember next to nothing and could not explain why none of the shots described in his list appeared to match any actually fired.
 
Jackson agreed that he must have been ordered by someone to write down his fiction—but couldn’t remember who. But he said, “The ­requirement may have been instigated in London”. 
 
Jackson’s documents were at the time of the massacre used in press releases, in ­parliament and at the first inquiry to prove the army’s version of events.
 
But Saville concluded, “We have found no evidence that anyone involved in military information falsified any Army or government document relating to Bloody Sunday, nor any evidence that anyone involved in military information disseminated to the public anything about Bloody Sunday, knowing or believing that information to be untrue.”
 
The reality, was that ­evidence Saville showed revealed that the orders for the massacre of civilians came from the top of the British establishment with, at least, the connivance of the British government. 
 
Jackson ended up head of the British army.Bloody Sunday exposes the brutality at the heart of the British state. And it also shows that if anything critical of the state emerges, our rulers will try to convince us that it was an aberration.
 
Importantly there was a wave of revolt immediately after Bloody Sunday in both the north and south of Ireland. There were strikes, ­protests and riots across Northern Ireland. In every major town thousands stopped work, marched, and occupied British‑owned businesses. 
 
A week after Bloody Sunday, 50,000 defied a ban and marched in Newry. In Southern Ireland ­thousands immediately gathered in angry protest outside the British embassy in Dublin. Thousands of workers joined a general strike.
 
Marched
 
In Cork for three days ­running 10,000 people marched. Irish prime minister Jack Lynch was forced to declare 2 February, the day of the ­victims’ funerals, a public holiday. 
 
Some 100,000 people marched, burning the British embassy to the ground. Some 15,000 people marched in London.
 
Bernadette Devlin, now McAliskey, the socialist and Westminster MP, punched the Tory home secretary Reginald Maudling in the face.
At a protest afterwards she said, “Maybe you felt better after I had hit Maudling in the House of Commons. But if you think my fist is going to bring down the Tory ­government, you’ve got another think coming. 
 
“The Labour Party certainly isn’t going to do it, and the only people who can do it is you. Look around Britain today and you will see the miners being kicked on their picket lines. 
 
“It is not our function in life to die for Ireland. It is our ­function to live, work and ­struggle for a ­workers’ republic. 

“It is not sympathy or ­feelings of frustration that are needed now. You must go away ­determined to organise and act.”


‘It is what happens to people in a class society’
Eamonn McCann was one of the organisers of the civil rights march in Derry in 1972. He has campaigned for the truth to come out about the massacre ever since. He spoke at a rally organised last week by People Before Profit in Derry. This is an excerpt from his speech.
 
“The people who refuse to come clean about Bloody Sunday—the ruling class, the establishment, whatever you want to call them—are the same people who won’t complain about any other aspect of life.  
 
These are people who swear that they are in favour of equality and yet entrench the rotten rich above us all and concentrate on making the poor poorer.  
 
The people swearing that they were committed to the environment go round the next day with investments in fossil fuels, fuelling the fires that scorch the earth. Bloody Sunday is not just a discrete thing that happened in Ireland back in 1972. 
 
Remember 1970 in Kent State after Richard Nixon ordered the bombing of Cambodia. Students protested, and the National Guard killed four people.  
 
Eleven days later, protesting black students at Jackson State College were killed by the cops. Those things are connected. They are coming from the same root. They are all examples of what happens to people living in a class divided society. 
 
If they rise up, their lives count for nothing.  The Bloody Sunday committee produced a poster that said Jail Jackson. Michael Jackson was a captain on Bloody Sunday.  His career afterwards rose like a rocket. Eventually he was appointed Chief of the General Staff—number one soldier, right at the very top.
 
What he did on Bloody Sunday was to cover up murder and to tell lies about it. And he lied when he gave evidence at the Saville tribunal in London.  Saville rightly exonerated all the dead and the wounded. But Saville also exonerated Jackson, and that was part of the cover-up too.  
 
It was a triumph that the dead were declared innocent. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that it was based upon exonerating the British Army.  What Bloody Sunday illustrates is the way in which the state can murder its own. Bloody Sunday shows that the class which rules over us is rotten to the core.”

 
For more, go to pbp.ie and bloodysundaymarch.org
 
Hear Eamonn McCann speak on Bloody Sunday at a Socialist Worker online meeting on Tues 1 Feb, 7pm, details here

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance
One-off