50th anniversary of Derry’s Bloody Sunday: the struggle for justice continues

Bloody Sunday mural, Bogside, Derry (Suzanne Mischyshyn/Creative Commons Licence.)

Half a century has passed since the British Army shot 28 peaceful civil rights demonstrators on January 30, 1972, in Derry city, Northern Ireland. Thirteen innocent people were killed in what soon became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. Another victim died later. Seven of the victims were in their teens.

Bloody Sunday did not mark the beginning of the conflict in Northern Ireland; sectarian pogroms, curfews, bombings, gun attacks and rioting had developed rapidly over the previous few years. Atrocities with multiple victims, such as the IRA’s slaughter of five workers on Brougher Mountain in February 1971 by a bomb believed to be intended for the British army, and the British army massacre of eleven civilians in Ballymurphy in August 1971, had already taken place. But, Bloody Sunday is, without doubt, a pivotal moment. It is justifiably regarded as a major factor in the prolongation of the years of conflict in the North that are often euphemistically referred to as the ‘Troubles’. 

Although the British government under David Cameron offered an “apology” in 2010 for the crimes of the British state on 30 January 1972, demands for justice by relatives of the victims still remain unanswered, 50 years on. Not one military commander, let alone British cabinet members, has ever been held to account for these murders.

 30 January 1972

An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people attended the march on 30 January 1972. The march was due to start in the Creggan area of Derry, go to the Bogside and finish at Guildhall Square in the city centre. But the march was brutally stopped when soldiers started firing at the demonstrators in the Bogside. The marchers were calling for civil and democratic rights, jobs and better housing. They were also outraged at the state policy of the ‘internment without trial’ of hundreds of people. Reports were coming from the internment camps of systemic torture of internees at the hands of soldiers.

As well as attracting mass support from Catholics in the North, the civil rights movement, which sprang up in 1968, initially attracted layers of Protestant workers and youth who were drawn to the socialist ideas espoused by sections of the civil rights movement. But sectarian bigots, like the unionist demagogue Ian Paisley, the main nationalist and unionist parties and the British and Irish political establishment attempted to sow divisions to derail any cross-community movement that could unite working-class people.

What was needed was a socialist mass united movement of Catholic and Protestant workers to overcome the sectarian divisions that had been fostered. This was entirely possible at a time of an escalation in the class struggle internationally. The Northern Ireland civil rights movement was hugely influenced by the civil rights struggle in the USA, the anti-Vietnam war movement and by the revolutionary May events in France in 1968.

Civil rights protests and marches faced vicious state oppression from the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the notorious ‘B Specials’ on orders from the Unionist-dominated government in Stormont. This only vastly expanded the support of the civil rights movement, which became more radicalised. ‘Free Derry’ was proclaimed by residents in the Catholic working-class Bogside area of Derry city and the state forces were kept at bay by barricades thrown up by the community. This display of elements of working-class self-rule in an urban setting, where ideas about the way forward, including socialist and Trotskyist ideas, were freely discussed and debated, was anathema to the Unionist government and British capitalist state and the Irish government in the south.

The powerful labour and trade union movement was in a position to harness this mass mobilisation and to unite the working class against the Orange and Green bosses. But the tops of the movement failed to give a lead and the forces of Marxism were too weak to decisively influence events. If the civil rights campaign had developed a cross-community socialist programme that linked with the powerful labour and trade union movement, events could have taken a different turn. An opportunity was missed and the situation across the North began to descend into sectarian conflict. The government in Westminster sent British troops to the streets of Derry and Belfast in August 1969 as the ‘Battle of the Bogside’ saw people rise up against an attempted invasion of their community by the armed state forces. Militant, the forerunner of Militant Left (CWI Ireland), opposed the troops being sent, warning that they would inevitably be used against the Catholic population and wider working class.

At the time, the small forces of Militant in the north of Ireland were participants in the mass struggles for civil rights in Derry and active in the Derry Young Socialists. The first issue of Militant Irish Monthly was produced in January 1972.  The paper pointed out that it was in the interests of both Protestant and Catholic workers and youth to build a united workers’ movement with socialist policies. The paper was sold in the Bogside and elsewhere in Derry city and in Belfast in the days leading up to Bloody Sunday.

“Derry – this was murder”

 Before the second issue of the Militant came out in May 1972, its sister Militant newspaper, produced by Militant supporters in Britain, was unambiguous about what had happened on Sunday 30 January: “Derry – this was murder”, ran the front-page headline (Militant Issue number 90, 4 February 1972).

Militant carried eyewitness reports of the terror on 30 January. Brian Docherty, a Militant supporter, wrote: “I was in Chamberlain Street when the Paras attacked. The crowd retreated in panic and I ran into the courtyard at the back of Rossville flats, but I stopped when I saw that we had been outflanked by soldiers, who had taken up positions at the corner of the flats… Suddenly I realised that it was gunfire. I dived behind a wall. I looked up and saw a para who fired his rifle and hit a youth who was only 12 feet away from me. Someone shouted out at me: “Look, he’s been wounded,” and we rushed over and carried him to the other side of the block and he was taken to hospital. The man was unarmed and he was shot down by a British soldier as he ran for cover.”

Paul Jones, another Militant supporter, wrote: “William McKinney, aged 27, was shot dead by troops. When Mrs Collins went to help him, she was told to leave him alone by a paratrooper. When she persisted, she was hit on the head with a rifle. Later, when she was able to reach the boy, along with the ‘Knights of Malta’ and McKinney’s mate, McKinney was dead. Mrs Collins says that she neither saw nor heard either nail bombs or shooting before the Paras opened up… James Rea, say the residents of the maisonettes opposite Rossville flats, was sheltering for cover, already wounded in the arm when paratroopers approached him. ‘Don’t shoot. I haven’t a gun,’ he shouted. The paratroopers then demanded that he surrender, which he did, and then he was shot dead.”

Militant stated that the responsibility for the massacre in Derry “lies not just with the paratroopers, who are candidates for the role of the Praetorian Guard of British imperialism, but the Tory government, finance capital which backs them and the system they represent. The terrible bloodletting in Northern Ireland is the legacy of centuries of domination by the British ruling classes. Their rule has traditionally been one of blood and iron. This massacre is just the latest in a chapter of horrors so far as the Irish people are concerned.”

At the time, taking this clear stance was not universally popular. Militant supporter, Peter Taaffe, who visited Derry a number of times in the late 1960s and 1970s, to meet and discuss with socialists, wrote that “1972 saw a massive escalation in the conflict in Northern Ireland. At that time, it was not at all easy or ‘popular’, in Northern Ireland or Britain, to point out the facts of the situation in Northern Ireland, even to the most advanced workers. On Sunday 30 January, at the height of the miners’ strike [in Britain], 13 unarmed demonstrators were shot down in Derry. Our headline was: ‘Derry – this was murder’. We said that the day would ‘go down in history as the North of Ireland’s Bloody Sunday.’ This edition came out when a rally of striking miners took place in Trafalgar Square. Many miners reacted – and not at all positively – to the brutal facts outlined in the pages of Militant. ” (From The Rise of Militant) 

Peter Taaffe was in ‘Free Derry’ at the invitation of local socialists only a week before Bloody Sunday. “Then it was still possible to find, at least in Derry, enthusiastic support for the ideas of a non-sectarian, class alternative.” But in the aftermath of the massacre on the streets of Derry, the Militant newspaper reported: “The outraged Catholic youths have flooded towards the Provisional and Official IRA… There will now be a new influx of Catholic youth into the IRA… the rage of the Catholic population is entirely understandable. They feel like striking back, with arms, against those responsible for this massacre. 

“But to propose a new campaign of terror and reprisals is no way to avenge the dead and will only reproduce the bloody events in Derry on a larger scale later….A campaign of individual assassinations of British soldiers can only provide an excuse for further repression. Also, it can only reinforce the hostility of the ordinary soldier to the Catholic population.”

Militant opposed the dead-end of the IRA campaign and made clear that “the ruling class can only be made to pay for these events only if a strategy for a united working-class attack on the whole capitalist system is worked out.”

A trickle of new recruits had been joining the IRA, but vicious British army repression turned this into a torrent. Poverty, discrimination and state repression, including internment without trial, and most decisively Bloody Sunday, drove Catholic youth into the IRA.

A report in Militant pointed out: “One thing is absolutely certain; the British army… has welded practically the whole Catholic population against them by their methods.” But the February 1972 edition of Militant warned: “There is no way to bring about the withdrawal of British troops and British imperialist domination except on a class basis.”  

Following the events of Bloody Sunday, the whole of Ireland was convulsed by protests, strikes and riots. Up to 50,000 protested in Newry a week after the massacre, a general strike broke out in the South of Ireland. Tens of thousands marched in Cork and 15,000 protested in London. Many workers in the south blamed the right-wing Irish government for doing nothing to protect Catholics in the North.

The rage against the British government culminated in a mass march of some 100,000 on the British embassy in Dublin. The Irish government and police were compelled to stand back impotently as the crowd burnt the embassy to the ground.

Because there was no lead from the tops of the workers’ organisations, either in the South or the North, this movement inevitably subsided or, in part, was drawn down the dead-end of paramilitary campaigns. But the events of Bloody Sunday further deepened the morass which British imperialism found itself in over Northern Ireland. 

 Aftermath and the fight for justice 

Within weeks of the massacre in Derry, the Westminster government, facing opprobrium from around the world, replaced the Unionist Stormont parliament with direct rule from Westminster. But this did nothing to placate working-class Catholics. The British state’s campaign of repression acted as a recruiting sergeant for the IRA. The mass civil rights struggle was effectively over – the violent ‘Troubles’ would ebb and flow but drag on for three decades.

Immediately after Bloody Sunday, an inquiry into the events was set up, the Widgery Tribunal defended the state, falsely insisting that some of those shot had been “firing weapons or handling bombs.”

In an April 1972 article entitled, ‘Derry murders condoned – The Widgery whitewash’, Peter Hadden, a leading supporter of Militant in the North, lambasted the Tribunal findings: “The publication of the Widgery report has given the people of Northern Ireland yet another taste of ‘impartial’ British justice. Quietly ignoring the statements made by the people of the Bogside, by numerous journalists and the wealth of medical evidence which corroborates these, Widgery has laid the responsibility for the 13 deaths on Bloody Sunday on the IRA for firing first, and on the Civil Rights Association for organising the march.

In general, the tribunal’s findings are based upon the canopy of lies submitted by the army as evidence. Widgery’s grounds for accepting the army claim that they were fired on first, against a mountain of evidence to the contrary, are simply that ‘there was no reason to suppose the soldiers would have opened fire’”.

In truth, the tops of the British army were preparing for a violent crackdown in the weeks running up to Bloody Sunday. In late 1971, General Harry Tuzo, the army commander in Northern Ireland, told Ted Heath’s conservative government that they had to decide “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”.

Peter Hadden’s article concluded with Militant’s argument that “only the immediate withdrawal of all the troops, the disbandment of the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] and UDR [Ulster Defence Regiment], and their replacement by a defence force based on the organisations of the working class, can provide any solution. The call for the ending of military tyranny and the creation of a trade union defence force, linked to an overall socialist programme, is the only worthwhile answer for the labour movement. [Militant, No. 102, 28 April 1972].

The Widgery report was only binned in 1998 when the British government, under pressure to deliver a negotiated settlement to the conflict, agreed to another inquiry. The Saville Inquiry, which heard evidence for five years and took another five years before issuing a report, had no choice but to clear those killed on 30 January of any role in using weapons or bombs on Bloody Sunday. For many relatives, this was a relief and some justice after years in which their loved ones had been slandered by the establishment and right-wing media.

But Lord Saville concluded that soldiers did not set out to shoot demonstrators. They were only guilty of “losing their self-control and firing themselves, forgetting or ignoring their instructions and training”. In effect, this exonerated senior army figures and the British government which had a policy of terrorising the population and attempting to crush the mass movement.

Michael Jackson was second in command in Derry on Bloody Sunday. He wrote false reports of what the soldiers did on 30 January 1972, which were used by the British media and politicians to justify the shootings. In 2003 Jackson gave evidence to the Saville Inquiry and said his false reports were probably “instigated in London”. Jackson is seen defending his role and that of the paras in a recent BBC programme on Bloody Sunday, by veteran journalist, Peter Taylor, who was on the ground in Derry during the week of the massacre. For ‘Sir’ Jackson there was no trial for this role in the killings but promotion from the establishment and he became head of the British army.

The Conservative Prime Minister from 1972, Ted Heath, went before the Saville Inquiry and likewise claimed to have difficulty remembering his role in events. Yet it is on record that in a cabinet meeting earlier in January 1972, Heath stated, “A military operation to re-impose law and order would be a major operation necessarily involving numerous civilian casualties.”

The Tory government is fiercely opposed to any prosecutions or genuine investigations into atrocities in the “dirty war”, including the murderous role of their agents who operated in both loyalist and republican paramilitary organisations. Only one soldier who was on the ground in Derry on 30 January 1972, ‘Soldier F’, faced belated prosecution on two murder charges over the killings of William McKinney and James Wray and five attempted murder charges. But the Public Prosecution Service withdrew the charges in July 2021.

In 2019, Tory cabinet minister Gavin Williamson blurted out why successive governments take their approach: “It’s not just about Northern Ireland, but about Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts before that and in the future,” he said.

The ruling class and state terror

Bloody Sunday is not an aberration of the rule of the capitalist class. The ruling class is quite prepared to resort to such lengths of mass state terror again should they feel it is in their crucial interests. This is a feature of the ruling classes everywhere when they find their essential interests under threat, as seen recently in the bloody crackdown against demonstrators in Kazakhstan and by the ongoing brutal repression by the Myanmar ruling generals.

Militant Left supports the struggle of the relatives of the Bloody Sunday dead for full justice and also the campaign for justice by other relatives of those who died in the 30 years-long conflict. As the notorious Widgery whitewash and the Saville inquiry have shown, there can be no confidence in the state investigating itself – only a genuinely independent investigation involving relatives, anti-sectarian trade unions and the wider working-class communities can find out the full facts.

Of course, many things have changed considerably in Northern Ireland since Bloody Sunday. The Unionist dominated Stormont government is long gone and Catholics are no longer systemically discriminated against by the state. This is largely a result of the unrelenting opposition of working-class Catholics over decades, who were no longer prepared to be second class citizens. But the system that creates poverty discrimination and oppression for all working-class people still exist.

The only way to guarantee the end of state repression and state massacres, like Bloody Sunday, is to remove the profit system and rule of the capitalist elite that will resort to such brutal measures to protect their enormous wealth, privilege and rule and to struggle for a socialist society. In the North of Ireland, this means building a united cross-community working-class movement of Protestants and Catholics that can continue the struggle in the spirit of the courageous left-wing youth and civil rights activists in Derry and elsewhere, who in the face of vicious state repression from one of the world’s biggest military powers fought for equality for all, for jobs and homes for all, and to remove this system of exploitation, poverty, sectarian division and oppression.


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January 2022