January 30th was the 30-year anniversary of a sad chapter in the
long struggle in Northern Ireland, Bloody Sunday. This year the
demonstrations marking the event in which 14 Catholics were
killed at the hands of British soldiers were peaceful. But with a
new, massive inquiry into the massacre having been launched in
1998 and with a final report not slated until 2004, I thought we''d
just take a quick look at the incident which precipitated the
bloodiest single year in Ireland''s conflict, known as "The
For those of you not too familiar with the situation in Northern
Ireland, understand that it was in 1920 that the British, operating
under the principle of self-determination, partitioned the six
northern counties of Ireland, Ulster, into Northern Ireland, with a
separate Protestant-dominated Parliament which was included
under the umbrella of the U.K.
Within Ulster, you had a Catholic majority in the City of Derry
(Londonderry to the Protestant minority). Throughout the North,
however, Catholics had been abused and treated as second-class
citizens and by 1968 violent clashes erupted as the Catholics
sought gains in civil rights. As tensions and incidents of terror
grew, the government introduced "internment" without trial for
the purpose of rounding up militant Catholics, as best
represented by the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
In 1971, a more militant wing of the IRA (the Provisional IRA,
or "Provos") split off and initiated a new campaign of terror
against the British soldiers who were entering Ulster, and Derry,
in increasing numbers. By the end of the year, 8 soldiers had
been gunned down in the Derry area after a Provo was killed by
the British. That was just the start.
Catholics began to hold large demonstrations to protest the
internment policies, as well as the growing presence of British
soldiers (who had been sent under the guise of protecting the
Catholics from Protestant hard-line groups).
On Saturday, January 22, 1972, a protest 20 miles north of Derry
turned ugly when Britain''s elite Paratroopers ("Paras") roughed
up the demonstrators. The stage was set for the following
British Prime Minister Edward Heath went along with the
Commander of Northern Ireland land forces, Major-General
Robert Ford, and Ford''s policy of "shoot(ing) selected ring
leaders among the Derry Young Hooligans (an offshoot of the
IRA)." But for their part, Catholic leaders were set to hold a
peaceful, non-violent demonstration against internment in Derry.
Neither wing of the IRA, the Provos or the Official IRA, was to
carry guns and IRA leaders took steps to move weapons away
from the action so as not to tempt any of its members.
Frank Lagan, a divisional commander of the Royal Ulster
Constabulary (the police force) responsible for Derry, tried to
convince Maj.-Gen. Ford that the protest slated for Sunday,
January 30 would be peaceful. But Ford was suspicious of
Lagan''s Catholicism and his links to the civil rights movement
so he told Prime Minister Heath that "military action was
Meanwhile, Martin McGuinness, currently #2 in Sinn Fein (the
political wing of the IRA), was a 22-year-old leader of the
Provisional IRA back in 1972 and best described by an organizer
of the less militant Official IRA. "I would be friendly with
Martin, but I am convinced that he is a very ruthless man.
Martin wasn''t political, Martin was a gunman who had a
primitive, physical-force philosophy about the soldiers: send
them home in boxes and free Ireland." [Clarke / Johnson]
As Ford assembled his force to meet the protesters on January
30, according to some sources, McGuinness met with a handful
of Provos, as well as with the youth wing of the IRA, and
distributed two nail bombs to be thrown at the soldiers in the city
centre. The stage was set.
As people returned from mass in Derry that Sunday, they were
shocked to see large numbers of troops massing for the
demonstration, including the Paras, who had never been
deployed in the city before. Ford told the soldiers to be prepared
for terrorist attacks.
The plan was to disrupt the 10-20,000 demonstrators and scoop
up the Provos. And so when the Catholics were prevented from
going beyond an established barricade and forced to seek another
spot for the speechmaking, the Paras swarmed in. After 15
chaotic minutes, seared into the minds of those who witnessed
the tragedy, 27 protesters were hit by fire and 13 lay dead. [A
14th would die later from wounds received.]
Of 108 rounds that went off that day, British Paratroopers were,
by best evidence, responsible for all the gunshots. 5 of those
killed were shot in the back. 6 of the 14 were aged 17. None of
the victims were found to have any weapons of any kind on
In the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday, the British
Government, in a total whitewash, cleared the Army, claiming
that the troops were acting in self-defense and pointing
to the fact that 4 of the victims were on the security force''s
wanted list. The whole inquiry was an abomination.
The world knew the truth, however, as U.S. Senator Edward
Kennedy called the tragedy "Britain''s My Lai," while 50,000 in
Dublin attacked the British embassy, burning it to the ground.
And, as you can imagine, in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday,
recruits flooded into the IRA and 1972 became the bloodiest
single year of the Troubles, with over 450 killed (134 British
soldiers) in various attacks.
But it wasn''t until 1998 that British Prime Minister Tony Blair
authorized a new investigation, one that is controversial in its
own right. For starters, the final cost for the inquiry, slated to
wrap up in 2004, is now estimated to exceed $200 million.
Many of Britain''s better known barristers have already earned
over $1 million in legal fees. And for their part, Protestants point
to the fact that over 1,000 of their faith were murdered in
unsolved IRA killings, so where is their investigation? Many on
both sides also agree that the money is better spent on education
and other programs in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, it appears
that the truth will finally prevail.
Or will it? Despite statements from over 1,000 witnesses,
representing all sides, there are still some troubling issues. The
British Army has destroyed almost all of the weapons involved
in the incident, while the role of Martin McGuinness is still
unclear. McGuinness, after all, is now a member of the British
Parliament (along with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams...though
they have not been sworn in because they refuse to pledge
allegiance to the Queen). More than one witness still claims that
at least two IRA members did fire shots at the demonstration, but
most of these would agree the shots came after British soldiers
had commenced the killing. [Those who believe this to be
impossible point to the fact that not one of the bullets fired that
day hit a British soldier.] Obviously, if it was proved
McGuinness had a greater role than he has admitted, it would be
hard for him to maintain his seat. [McGuinness is implicated in a
vast array of other terrorist actions as an IRA member, separate
from Bloody Sunday, but the high profile nature of the current
inquiry would carry a lot more weight concerning his political
And so now the people of Ulster and Derry wait for a final
judgment to be handed down. I suspect few will really be happy
over the verdict and it''s doubtful that those responsible (who are
still alive) will see any jail time.
**As a footnote, Martin Gilbert is the famous British historian
whose works I have used often for this spot. So I had to see if he
had any thoughts on Bloody Sunday, as spelled out in his recent
"History of the Twentieth Century." What follows is a typical
rewrite of the facts.
"On Sunday 30 January 1972, in Northern Ireland, there was a
Roman Catholic protest march in Londonderry against the
British Government''s policy of internment without trial. As the
march was ending, and most of the 10,000 marchers dispersing,
stones were thrown at the troops - members of the Parachute
Regiment - who responded by chasing after the stone throwers.
As they did so, shots were fired, allegedly by IRA snipers. The
troops returned fire, killing thirteen people. A British
Government inquiry, while insisting that the IRA had opened fire
first, admitted that the troops had returned the fire ''very
Mr. Gilbert needs to get his facts straight for future editions of
this tome. The people were murdered.
"Martin McGuinness: From Guns to Government," Liam Clarke,
Frances Gibb / London Times
Irish American Magazine / Article by Brian Dooley