Bloody Sunday, which occurred in Derry exactly 50 years ago, is perhaps the most significant post-war event to reveal the brutal nature of the British ruling class and its UK state whenever it faces a serious democratic challenge. We are posting two articles on Bloody Sunday, one by Joseph Healey of Anti-Capitalist Resistance, the other by Kevin Bean first posted in Weekly Worker.
1. BLOODY SUNDAY – 50 YEARS OF BRITISH INJUSTICE IN IRELAND
I went with Anger at my heel
Through Bogside of the bitter zeal
– Jesus pity! – on a day
Of cold and drizzle and decay.
A month had passed. Yet there remained
A murder smell that stung and stained.
On flats and alleys-over all-
It hung; on battered roof and wall,
On wreck and rubbish scattered thick,
On sullen steps and pitted brick.
And when I came where thirteen died
It shrivelled up my heart. I sighed
And looked about that brutal place
Of rage and terror and disgrace.
Then my moistened lips grew dry.
I had heard an answering sigh!
There in a ghostly pool of blood
A crumpled phantom hugged the mud:
“Once there lived a hooligan.
A pig came up, and away he ran.
Here lies one in blood and bones,
Who lost his life for throwing stones.”
Butcher’s Dozen by Thomas Kinsella
When the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella penned these lines he spoke for most of Ireland and for those outside who witnessed the appalling murder of innocent, unarmed Irish protesters by the forces of British imperialism in Ireland. My first encounter with that terrible day, apart from seeing it reported on Irish television news, was when, as a 15 year old Dublin lad, I watched a furious crowd of 20,000 people burn the British embassy there to the ground, two days after the massacre. Feelings were running so high that there was talk of the Irish army marching over the border and several British businesses were attacked. For many it was the latest in a long long line of British atrocities in Ireland, which we had all learned about in school.
Bloody Sunday effectively ended the first phase of the struggle of the Irish nationalist population in the North of Ireland against the blatant injustices and apartheid like state which had been established with the partition of Ireland in 1921. It had been a gerrymandered statelet from the first, carved out from the 9 nine counties of Ulster, into a smaller unit of 6, to ensure a Protestant and Unionist majority. James Craig, its first Prime Minister, described it as “A Protestant state for a Protestant people”. The British state hived it off effectively and not for nothing did contemporary observers in the 1920s compare the police powers there as akin to those of Mussolini’s Italy. It was left to the Unionist elite (mostly landowners and large industrialists) to run it as they wished and as late as the 1960s MPs in the British Parliament were unable to put questions about what went on there as it was legally within the remit of the government of Northern Ireland and that regime was given carte blanche to run it as they saw fit. With a gerrymandered voting system and an almost caste system when it came to the allocation of housing, education and jobs, the only recourse for Nationalists who didn’t like it was to emigrate. For those who spoke out the brutal Protestant only police force (the Royal Ulster Constabulary) and their even more brutal reservists, the B Specials would see to it that they were silenced.
The wind of change stirred in 1969 with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement in the US and the student revolts in Paris etc. Most of the leaders were moderate Nationalists, many from a Social Democrat background, like John Hume and Austin Currie. They sought to challenge the status quo through peaceful means and via demonstrations and protests. This was seen as an existential challenge to the sectarian Northern Ireland state and the police and B Specials were unleashed on the demonstrators. Several brutal attacks on the demonstrations followed, along with attacks on Nationalists by Loyalist mobs, as had happened in the 1920s following partition, when pogroms occurred in parts of Belfast and Catholic workers had been driven from the shipyards.
The British government felt forced to act as the scenes of violence in the North of Ireland proved deeply damaging for the UK state, particularly when viewed from the USA, where there was a large Irish population. British troops were dispatched to Ireland, supposedly to support the police and civil powers and to restore order. The British army was supposedly impartial and would act as a buffer between the two communities but in fact Britain was maintaining its old imperial interests in Ireland and many of the regiments sent had deeply sectarian backgrounds and a strong anti-Nationalist and pro-colonial feeling. Some of these troops had been used a few years before to try and suppress anti-colonial struggles elsewhere in Britain’s empire. Ironically looking back at the centenary of the Irish War of Independence the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries had also been sent to Ireland in 1920 to support the police and end disorder.
Unionism, was in a state of crisis, as it saw the pillars of its sectarian state shaken and called on Britain for support, while allowing its own sectarian police forces full leeway to crush the Civil Rights Movement.
The march and rally in Derry in January 1972 was due to be one of the largest demonstrations yet by the Civil Rights Movement. Many young Nationalists and Catholics had been had been encouraged by the rise of the movement and also by the fact that the world was now watching the North of Ireland in a way which it had not been for the preceding 60 years. There was also real hope and a sense that change was in the air. The Civil Rights Movement had been modelling itself on the one in the US and using anthems such as “We shall overcome” borrowed from that movement.
The Irish Republican Army, which believed in the use of armed force to drive the British out of the North of Ireland, had been in existence since 1921 but had been a marginal force, sometimes almost disappearing but it re-emerged in 1969 and carried out some small attacks on British forces and police. It had a limited role beside the much larger peaceful Civil Rights Movement, which had the support of the Catholic Church and much of the Catholic bourgeoise.
Britain had introduced internment without trial in an attempt to arrest and detain those Nationalists believed to be in the IRA without access to civil trials, via the Diplock Courts, which were judge only courts, which gave no real voice to those accused. This led to huge resentment in the Nationalist communities and many now turned against the British Army, which some of them had regarded as neutral referees in 1969 when they first arrived. Egged on by the Unionists and Heath’s Conservative and Unionist Party government, with all of their ties to the Unionist elite, the British army was turned into an instrument of oppression against the Catholic community.
The march in Derry was to protest against Internment and large numbers were expected. Whole families took part in the protest which was centred in the traditionally Nationalist Bogside area of the city. The notorious Parachute regiment, which we now know had carried out a massacre in Belfast’s Ballymurphy a year before and had escaped with impunity, were brought in to support the police and to supposedly ensure that the IRA did not infiltrate the protest and carry out attacks. When the demonstrators being held back by police started to throw stones and petrol bombs the troops were let off the leash and murdered 13 innocent demonstrators in cold blood. The fiction was that those who died had been in the IRA and that the troops had been protecting themselves against IRA fire. This is the line held to this day by the elderly commanding officer of the regiment at the time and some sections of the Unionist community, some of whom flew the flag of the Parachute regiment on flagpoles in Derry this week.
The global outcry after the massacre was immense and the British state had to cover its tracks. It did this, as it had done many times before in its imperial history, by establishing a seemingly impartial legal inquiry which would investigate the incident and acquit British troops of any guilt. This was the Widgery Inquiry which was a farce. Widgery, as expected, cleared the troops of any guilt and claimed that they had been acting in self defence but was unable to find any evidence of the weapons which the victims had been allegedly carrying. Naturally it was denounced as a kangaroo court.
The Civil Rights Movement had achieved one of its main aims, as the Irish journalist, Fintan O’Toole wrote recently in the Irish Times: “The truth is that those methods were in fact successful; by the end of 1972, the Orange State was gone. The unionist monolith would never return to power.”
The anger and resentment produced by both the massacre and the cover up moved the Troubles into a new phase – that of armed conflict. Many of those killed in Derry had been young men and many of their friends who has witnessed the massacre now joined the IRA. In an interview held in 1992 one of the friends of a victim, who had himself been on the march, described how he and six of his friends had joined the IRA as a result and as he had witnessed “how British rule in Ireland will always result in oppression and bloodshed.” He had learned the lesson that generations of Irish nationalists had learned before him, that there was no reasoning with British imperialism in Ireland. Many historians now argue that Bloody Sunday was the central turning point in the Troubles and convinced many young nationalists that peaceful protest against Unionism and the British was ineffective.
Decades later the Saville Inquiry which took 12 years and interviewed hundreds of witnesses overturned the Widgery Inquiry and pronounced all those killed innocent and found that the troops had deliberately killed them and that there had been no involvement by the IRA in the march and no attacks on the troops. David Cameron later apologised to the victims’ families on behalf of the British state. The sting in the tail was that the Saville Inquiry had promised those giving evidence that no prosecutions would follow.
The families of the Bloody Sunday victims still believe that those responsible should be brought to trial, as should all of those state forces who carried out atrocities in the North of Ireland. The current British government is currently wanting to push through legislation which would ensure that this never happens. They want to close the book on the crimes carried out by British forces and their Loyalist paramilitary allies in Ireland.
Only two years ago in Dublin a theatrical event was held to commemorate another Bloody Sunday, that of the massacre of Irish civilians at a football match by British troops on the rampage in 1920. The event recreated the scene and gave voices to the characters of those who had been murdered. The play “The White Handkerchief” named after the infamous white handkerchief which the Catholic priest, Father Edward Daly, held before him as wounded victims of Bloody Sunday were carried behind him, is being performed both physically and online by the Derry Playhouse, in the city in which the massacre took place.
Two events separated by 50 years in the long line of murderous actions by the agents of British imperialism and colonialism in Ireland. The events of Bloody Sunday are a reminder that there will never be justice for the victims of British violence in Ireland but they also revealed the true nature of the Northern state and Britain’s murderous role there.
2. SHEER UNADULTERATED MURDER
Fifty years ago this weekend, 14 unarmed civil rights marchers, protesting against internment without trial, were murdered by British paratroops on the streets of Derry.1 These cold-blooded killings revealed the true nature of British repression in the Six Counties of Northern Ireland and had an electrifying effect throughout Ireland and internationally. In the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday, the ranks of the Provisional IRA experienced an influx of young people determined to strike back against the British state. Large-scale protests and strikes swept Ireland – the British embassy in Dublin was burnt down – and boycotts of British interests and goods were launched from New York to Berlin.2
Far from crushing opposition, the actions of the British state on Bloody Sunday only intensified the resistance of sections of the nationalist population of the Six Counties and resulted in what has been called ‘the darkest year’ of the Troubles. If the state murders in Derry gave a further impetus to the IRA’s armed struggle, they had an even more dramatic political impact. Within three months, the unionist state had effectively collapsed under the weight of nationalist resistance, the devolved government at Stormont was suspended by UK prime minister Edward Heath and direct rule from London, which lasted for nearly 30 years, was instituted on March 24.
As well as these immediate effects, the events of Sunday January 30 1972 have continued to cast a very long shadow over politics in Ireland and Britain. Following a public outcry about the killings, the Westminster parliament established a tribunal of inquiry under the lord chief justice of England, Lord Widgery, to investigate the events on that day.3 This official inquiry and its report in April 1972 were widely held by nationalists to be a state whitewash that not only covered up the murderous attack by British troops on the civil rights marchers, but also propagated deliberate lies as part of a wider attempt to de-legitimate any criticism of, and opposition to, the British state in Northern Ireland.4 In subsequent press briefings, British officers and ministry of defence spokespeople created a wholly fictional account of what had occurred. Claiming that the paratroopers had come under attack from “gunmen” and nail bombers, the official narrative was that “all the army shooting was at identified targets in return of fire” and that four of the dead were on the army’s wanted list.5 The establishment media, Tory ministers and unionist politicians joined in the attack, fully backing the actions of the paratroopers and justifying the murders. Typical of the establishment response was the Daily Telegraph. Its January 31 editorial equated civil rights protesters with the IRA and blamed both for the deaths:
It [the civil rights movement] does not murder; it simply creates conditions favourable to the murders attempted by others and leaves the army in the last resort with no alternative but to fire. Its courage may be less than that of the IRA; its guilt is not. The IRA has promised to avenge the dead. Their blood is on its own hands.6
But if this knee-jerk defence by the Tory government and their friends in the media was only to be expected, the ways in which the British army’s operation on Bloody Sunday were justified by the state still left plenty of unanswered questions about what really happened on that afternoon. Individual reporters and other eye-witnesses challenged specific aspects of both the British army’s official story and the findings of the Widgery Report, and supported the accounts of Bloody Sunday given by the nationalist population of Derry’s Bogside. Journalists on the ground reported that the paratroopers’ firing was indiscriminate and that nobody present heard the nail bombs or the fusillade of shots allegedly directed at the British army. A photographer standing directly behind the paratroopers as they ran towards the crowds of protestors was quoted as saying: “I was appalled. They [the paratroopers] opened up into a dense crowd of people. As far as I could see, they did not fire over people’s heads at all. There appeared to be no warning.”7 A reporter from The Times found the reaction of the paratroopers “interesting”:
They seemed to relish their work, and their eagerness manifested itself, to me, mainly in their shouting, cursing, and ribald language. Most of them seemed to regard the Bogsiders and people who took part in the parade as legitimate targets.8
These, and other critical accounts in newspapers, such as The Guardian and The Daily Mirror, gave weight to the argument that individual soldiers or units were either out of control or that military discipline had, to some extent, broken down.9 A widely quoted verdict given by the Derry city coroner at the end of the inquest into the 13 deaths only strengthened these arguments. He concluded:
It strikes me that the army ran amok that day and they shot without thinking of what they were doing. They were shooting innocent people. These people may have been taking part in a parade that was banned, but I don’t think that justifies the firing of live rounds indiscriminately. I say it without reservation: it was sheer unadulterated murder. (my emphasis)10
This type of argument is frequently used by liberal critics to explain the crimes of the state. It is a version of the ‘bad apple theory’, namely that the state and its institutions are essentially sound, while serious problems or breakdowns in ‘acceptable’ standards are ascribed to incompetence or wilful wrongdoing by individuals, not the interests of the ruling class or the nature of the state itself. Put simply, for many of the journalistic critics or the Derry city coroner, the presence of the British army in Derry or the overall strategy of the British state in Northern Ireland itself were not to be questioned. Rather, it was the implementation of the state’s policy and the conduct of individual actors that might be justifiably subject to scrutiny and critique. So, apart from the people of the Bogside and other nationalist communities who had suffered similar British state repression, along with some radicals on the left, both the official Widgery whitewash and the liberal bad apple theory were left largely unchallenged, both at the time and in the years that followed. The important questions – the deployment of paratroopers in Derry, the orders they were given on the day and the wider political responsibility of British ministers and senior military commanders for the operation – remained unanswered, despite subsequent official inquiries, stalled legal cases and prosecutions, and intrepid investigative journalism.
Widgery’s official whitewash (1972 vintage) was replaced by a new revised version in 2010: the Saville Report into the events of Bloody Sunday.11 The Saville inquiry reflected the shifts in British government strategy during the peace process and was framed politically as part of building a ‘new Northern Ireland’ that had come to terms with its violent past.
Saville’s findings differed significantly in a number of ways from those of Widgery. For example, Saville concluded that “there was a serious and widespread loss of fire discipline among the soldiers of Support Company” and “despite the contrary evidence given by soldiers … none of them fired in response to attacks by nail or petrol bombers.” Moreover, the report added, “many of these soldiers have knowingly put forward false accounts in order to justify their firing.”12 In condemning the soldiers and exonerating their victims, who were deemed not to be posing a threat of causing death or serious injury, the conclusions of the 2010 inquiry were in line with the views of both relatives campaigning for justice and the wider nationalist population of the Six Counties about what had taken place on Bloody Sunday. Prime minister David Cameron appeared in full penitential mode as he offered an apology on behalf of the British government and state for this historical atrocity and subsequent besmirching of the paratroopers’ victims: “What happened on Bloody Sunday”, he said, “was unjustified and unjustifiable”. For Cameron, the inquiry was “absolutely clear” and there were “no ambiguities” about its conclusions.13
However, although both the apology and the report were widely welcomed by nationalists and campaigners, the really important issues were deliberately ignored by Saville. Thus, in discussing the operational decisions in the days leading up to the civil rights’ march and on the day itself, Saville focussed on the role of individual officers on the ground, such as colonel Wilford CO 1 Para, whose men committed the murders, and the argument of the commander of land forces in Northern Ireland, major general Robert Ford, that “the minimum force required to deal with the ‘Derry Young Hooligans’ [a military slang term for the militants of the Bogside] was, after clear warnings, to shoot selected ringleaders.”14 Likewise, by not looking too closely at the way the British army covered up in the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday, especially the role of general Sir Michael Jackson – a junior officer at the time who went on to become army chief of staff – the focus was shifted away from the higher political and military echelons to the grunts on the ground. Moreover, the wider context of British military strategy and operations in the Six Counties were consciously excluded from the inquiry.
By restricting the terms of the investigation to the immediate events in Derry and omitting to mention the role of the paratroop regiment in previous atrocities, such as the Ballymurphy massacre in August 1971, it was possible for Saville to conclude that there was no culture of tolerance or encouragement of the use of unjustified lethal force by the British army.15 So, in successfully insulating the military and political institutions of the state from serious scrutiny, an inquiry that took 12 years to report and cost £195 million (including the £97 million m’learned friends earned in fees), making it the longest running and most expensive public inquiry in British history, was money well-spent for the ruling class.16 If Widgery had slapped on a thick coat of whitewash in 1972, Saville’s gloss was more subtle and the brush strokes more delicate in 2010, but as far as the political class was concerned the overall decorative effect and cover-up was pretty much the same. Indeed, in terms of public relations success and political impact, Saville’s suave obfuscations did a very much better job than Widgery’s blatant lies. Unionists and Tory backwoodsmen might bemoan the implied slurs on the British army’s ‘good name’ while disgruntled, ageing ex-squaddies were (unjustifiably, as it turned out) fearful of the legal consequences of being hung out to dry, but in terms of the response of nationalist politicians in the Six Counties and the liberal media at home, it had all worked rather well for the political and military leadership of the British state.17
Bloody Sunday has been correctly seen as a pivotal moment, a decisive turning point in Ireland’s contemporary history. In 1972, Derry, the second-largest city in the Six Counties, occupied a central place in the nationalist population’s insurgency against the British state and the IRA’s war for national liberation. The description given in the Saville Report itself captured the situation and the atmosphere well:
The situation in Londonderry in January 1972 was serious. By this stage the nationalist community had largely turned against the soldiers, many believing that the army, as well as the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary], were agents of an oppressive regime … A large part of the nationalist area of the city was a “no go” area, which was dominated by the IRA, where ordinary policing could not be conducted and where even the army ventured only by using large numbers of soldiers.18
The alienation of the nationalist population that Saville refers to was part of a much wider hostility to the Northern Irish state that had grown in intensity during the late 1960s. Its proximate causes were the state’s attempts to suppress the civil rights movement that initially demanded the ending of repressive laws, discriminatory employment practices, and a gerrymandered electoral and local government system. This had broadened out into a mass mobilisation of wide sections of the nationalist population campaigning for full civic equality and fundamental political and social change.19 The novel features and political rhetoric of this movement frequently borrowed from other popular protest movements internationally in this period, such as the black civil rights movement in the US.20 Street demonstrations and campaigning brought the movement not only into direct confrontation with the state in the shape of the RUC, but also produced clashes with unionist ultras mobilised in a ‘Protestant backlash’ by increasingly important fringe loyalist politicians such as Ian Paisley.
By the summer of 1969, the challenge of the civil rights movement presented the unionist state with a crisis it was no longer able to contain, and it was only saved from collapse by the intervention of the British government. Following the ‘Battle of the Bogside’ in August, attacks by unionist mobs on nationalist areas in Belfast resulted in widespread violence and the deployment of British troops in support of the civil authority at Stormont.21 This brought a momentary stabilisation, but the Northern Irish state had been fundamentally weakened by the civil rights challenge and was unable to restore its old position over the nationalist population. Its authority was further weakened by divisions within the unionist bloc, with sections of the unionist right demanding firm action against the nationalist population to maintain the status quo. These years were to be the founding moment of the provisional republican movement and the beginnings of its campaign against the Northern Ireland state and the British presence in Ireland. This period of heightened communal polarisation and the collapse of state authority produced an insurrectionary mass movement: a “community in revolt rather than a hermetically sealed secret society of gunmen and bombers”, as one former IRA volunteer has described it.22 The movement that emerged from the crisis had a much wider social base than the pre-1969 IRA. Amongst many young nationalists in particular, this was a time when the structures and institutions of the state appeared to be thrown off and revolution seemed possible. A ‘pool of energy’ had been released:
We realised that they [the state] weren’t all-powerful … We had no-go areas and we had an armed organisation … All of this resulted in a discussion about what could replace it.23
The British state also understood the serious potential of the movement that was developing. The state had a wide range of political, military and economic instruments at its disposal and deployed different combinations in response to the threats the state faced in the Six Counties at different periods. Before June 1970 the Labour government had attempted to persuade the unionist regime at Stormont to reform itself and make concessions to the civil rights movement, as a way of heading off the challenge of a radicalised nationalist population. While Harold Wilson’s government accepted the legitimacy of Stormont and had deployed troops to prevent the collapse of the Northern Ireland state, it also tried to develop a strategy of reform and attempting to draw nationalist politicians into some form of remodelled cross-community government, an idea that would later become a key element in British policy after 1972.24 The election of Edward Heath’s Conservative government in June 1970 marked a clear shift towards a much more directly repressive strategy, although there were earlier signs that the British army was already adopting a more active ‘counter-insurgency’ strategy towards nationalist communities.
The support, the strength, and the militancy of the Provisional IRA, which had been formed in December 1969, grew in step with each episode of increased state repression, such as the Falls Road curfew in July 1970 and the introduction of internment in August 1971. By the late spring of 1971 the British state was facing a well-organised and strategically coherent armed insurgency, with support drawn from sections of the nationalist urban working class and the rural poor. Operating from ‘no-go’ areas in Belfast and Derry, the IRA could mount frequent attacks on the British army and RUC, as well carrying out an effective bombing campaign against commercial targets and business districts in the city centres. The degree of popular support the Provos enjoyed amongst these sections of the nationalist community not only provided a ready stream of recruits and a high degree of communal legitimacy but also ensured that any incursions by the state forces into these areas were frequently met with militant opposition and riots. In areas like Ardoyne and the Bogside, the IRA’s campaign of armed resistance went hand-in-hand with popular mobilisation and mass confrontations with the British army and the RUC.25
The events and the significance of Bloody Sunday can only be fully understood in the context of wider British strategy to combat this insurrectionary mobilisation. Although both Widgery and Saville addressed this context, they rejected the view, widely-held in the nationalist community, that the paratroopers’ attack on the crowds in the Bogside was premeditated and fully in line with Britain’s counter-insurgency in the Six Counties in this period. In the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday, Widgery’s report dealt with these arguments head on:
It was suggested that 1Para had been specifically brought to Londonderry because they were known to be the roughest and toughest unit in Northern Ireland and it was intended to use them in one of two ways: either to flush out any IRA gunmen in the Bogside and destroy them by superior training and firepower; or to send a punitive force into the Bogside to give the residents a rough handling and discourage them from making or supporting further attacks on the troops … there is not a shred of evidence to support these suggestions.26
Saville reached similar conclusions, albeit in more diplomatic language. He rejected arguments that:
“the politicians in both the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland governments, as well as the military authorities, had planned not simply to stop the civil rights march and to mount an arrest operation against rioters … but rather to use 1 PARA for the purpose of carrying out some action, which they knew would involve the deliberate use of unwarranted lethal force or which they sanctioned with reckless disregard as to whether such force was used. On this basis it was submitted that the civil and military authorities bore responsibility for the deaths and injuries on Bloody Sunday. These allegations were based on one of two propositions, either that what happened on Bloody Sunday was intended and planned by the authorities, or that it was foreseen by the authorities as likely to happen. We are of the view that neither of these propositions can be sustained.”
While an establishment figure like Widgery in the early 1970s could adopt a very positive presumption of innocence and legitimacy as far as the policies and actions of the British state and its agents were concerned, by the more sceptical 2000s a similarly establishment legal figure like Lord Saville had to adopt a much more circumspect tone. The campaign by the families of the victims and the experience of decades of state cover-ups, from the Birmingham Six to Hillsborough, had weakened the credibility of official reports and legal pronouncements. As a result, Lord Denning’s ‘appalling vista’ was now a reality for many people in Ireland and Britain.27 Even so, Saville inevitably sided with British state by concluding that:
“genuine and serious attempts were being made at the highest level to work towards a peaceful political settlement in Northern Ireland. Any action involving the use or likely use of unwarranted lethal force against nationalists on the occasion of the march (or otherwise) would have been entirely counterproductive to the plans for a peaceful settlement; and was neither contemplated nor foreseen by the United Kingdom government. So far as the Northern Ireland government was concerned, although it had been pressing the United Kingdom government and the army to step up their efforts to counter republican paramilitaries and to deal with banned marches, we found no evidence that suggested to us that it advocated the use of unwarranted lethal force or was indifferent to its use on the occasion of the march” (my emphasis).28
Marxists do not make the same presumption of innocence as Lords Widgery and Saville with respect to the bona fides of bourgeois states, capitalist governments and their armies, especially when it comes to the role of the British state in Ireland. What we attempt to do is to look at the various interests and dynamics that shape state policy and assess how these might determine the actions of state agents and the outcome on the ground. In the broadest sense, the British state in the 1970s retained (as it still does today) vital geo-political and strategic interests in Ireland as a whole. Given the rivalries of the cold war and the wider strategic threats, Britain required a stable and friendly neighbour across the Irish Sea, and so could not be at all indifferent to what happened on either side of the Irish border. Dublin was, in general, a reliable partner in British attempts to stabilise the northern state and was to prove so throughout the Troubles: its role during the peace process from the mid-1980s onwards was invaluable for British policy makers.
The economic interests of British capitalism demanded stability, although Northern Ireland had really ceased to be a positive economic asset for British imperialism from the 1920s onwards. By the 1970s its declining shipbuilding, engineering and textile industries, high levels of unemployment and relatively generous levels of public spending, paid for by the British treasury’s subvention, meant that Northern Ireland was very much a financial liability. When combined with spending on the counter-insurgency campaign and the armed bodies of men which maintained British rule, these levels of state expenditure made it an expensive drain on the British state.
The British state’s interest in Northern Ireland were primarily political in this period, and it was these political imperatives that generally shaped British military policy and counter-insurgency strategy.29 There were, of course, deep historical and constitutional ties between Britain and Northern Ireland. Even before the 1800 Act of Union, British government policy in Ireland had long exerted a reactionary pull on British domestic politics and governance. Likewise, historically British policy in Ireland had been a contradictory combination of the colonial and the domestic, and so it continued to be in the 1970s. Although in many senses a place apart since partition in 1920-25, Northern Ireland was constitutionally an integral part of the United Kingdom, and an enforced alteration to its status would represent a serious and possibly fatal undermining of the British state’s sovereignty, authority and standing internationally.
Above all, sections of the political class argued that the state faced a number of internal and external challenges so serious as to call into question its legitimacy and its ability to maintain its basic functions in a capitalist society. The British Conservative Party had intimate links with the Ulster Unionists, whose MPs at Westminster took the Tory whip and had acted on occasions as British government ministers. There was a right-wing pro-Unionist backbench lobby that saw any attack on ‘Ulster’ as an attack on the fundamental position of the United Kingdom as a whole. Right-wing Tories like John Biggs-Davison and Enoch Powell saw the defence of the union as vital for the health of the nation. Their argument went that if a state could not defend its territory and see off challenges to its authority within its own borders, then it had ceased to be able to act as a state. It would be prey to both external predators and other internal threats from a militant working class, and all kinds of dissident, racial minorities who denied the essential authority of the capitalist state. This kind of talk was not confined to the fringes: cabinet ministers talked about a similar threat of extremism in the working-class movement and compared striking miners to the IRA. Thus, far from being peripheral to the concerns of the British ruling class, the crisis in this place apart – Northern Ireland – was in fact at the very heart of what many contemporaries saw as the crisis of the British state in the 1970s. To these representatives of the ruling class, the war in Northern Ireland was one the state could not afford to lose.
In retrospect these fears (and hopes for some of us) of an impending revolutionary situation in Britain may have been overstated, but for many at the top of government and the armed forces, in the City and the leading boardrooms, these threats were very real indeed. The collapse of the northern state and the serious challenge of a militant mass movement against British rule in the Six Counties gave an all too real face to these deep fears of chaos, decline and disorder in Britain itself. This climate of opinion helps us to understand both the mentality of the Tory government that presided over the Six Counties in 1972 and the operational strategy of the British army officers charged with dealing with the insurrection on the ground.
The Provisional’s campaign did present a threat to the state, but it was the mass resistance embodied in Derry’s no-go areas, like the Bogside and the Creggan, that posed the most serious challenge to the British state’s authority. In an area populated by some 30,000 people, its writ did not run – as Lord Saville acknowledged in his report. The Derry “young hooligans” whose ringleaders, general Ford suggested, should be shot, were not simply criminals or delinquents, as far as these agents of the ruling class were concerned. Their power and their threat to the state lay not in the stones they could throw or the petrol bombs they might hurl across the barricades. The power they held in their hands was much greater than that.
It lay in the example they gave of working-class people taking on the capitalist state and the established constitutional order and holding it at bay for years. The mere existence of Free Derry and areas like it throughout the Six Counties were living examples, symbols of a potential alternative order, brought into existence by the militancy of an insurgent mass movement.
Neither Widgery nor Saville wanted to reveal that truth or show why the British state had to defeat this mass movement it faced in 1972. Both had to obscure these political truths along with the specific mechanisms by which the British state and its agents decided to deal with what they saw as a major problem. We will probably never know the exact chain of command, the real sequence of events or the details of the orders given, both immediately before and after Bloody Sunday. Despite the hierarchy and the bureaucracy of states and armies, their operations and actions are rarely as tidy and clear as they would like us to believe.
However, like the working-class people of Derry, we know who is really responsible for the murders on Bloody Sunday. The paratroopers pulled the triggers and their officers urged them on as they ran into the Bogside to get some kills, but ultimately the key preparators of the massacre on Bloody Sunday were to be found not around the Rossville Flats or in Glefada Park, but far away around the cabinet table in Downing Street.
- Thirteen people were shot dead on January 30, with the fourteenth dying four months later as a result of injuries sustained on the day.↩︎
- For the growth of the Provisional IRA after Bloody Sunday, see K Bean and M Hayes (eds) Republican Voices Monaghan 2001. Also, B Hanley The impact of the Troubles on the Republic of Ireland, 1968-79: boiling volcano? Manchester 2018 discusses the impact of Bloody Sunday south of the border.↩︎
- National Council of Civil Liberties Justice denied; a challenge to Lord Widgery’s report on ‘Bloody Sunday’ London 1972.↩︎
- E McCann, M Shiels and B Hannigan Bloody Sunday in Derry: what really happened Dingle 1992, pp91-129.↩︎
- The Times February 1 1972.↩︎
- The Daily Telegraph January 31 1972, quoted in L Curtis Ireland: the propaganda war Belfast 1998, p45.↩︎
- The Times February 1 1972.↩︎
- The Times February 1 1972, quoted in L Curtis Ireland: the propaganda war Belfast 1998, p41.↩︎
- For further examples of journalists’ accounts, see Curtis Ireland: the propaganda war pp40-51.↩︎
- Quoted in E McCann, M Shiels and B Hannigan, Bloody Sunday in Derry pp9-10.↩︎
- See sections 5.4, 3.76 and 3.82 of the Saville Report: www.gov.uk/government/organisations/bloody-sunday-inquiry.↩︎
- See sections 2.13 and 3.19: www.gov.uk/government/organisations/bloody-sunday-inquiry.↩︎
- www.bbc.co.uk/news/mobile/10322295. For details of the inquest into the August 1971 Ballymurphy massacre, which only began in 2018 and concluded in 2021, see www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-56986784. The coroner concluded that the 10 people shot dead by the paratroopers were ‘entirely innocent’.↩︎
- For the debate in the House of Commons see hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2010-06-15/debates/10061522000002/savilleinquiry. For unionist responses, see www.bbc.co.uk/news/10320609; www.bbc.co.uk/news/10205654. Sinn Féin’s response was initially positive: www.sinnfein.ie/ga/contents/18851. For some other nationalist reactions, see cain.ulster.ac.uk/issues/politics/docs/sdlp/md150610.htm. The reaction of ex-soldiers and the Tory military lobby is outlined in www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/northernireland/7831748/Bloody-Sunday-soldiers-criticise-Saville-report-findings.html.↩︎
- See section 2.6: www.gov.uk/government/organisations/bloody-sunday-inquiry.↩︎
- B Purdie Politics in the streets: the origins of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland Belfast 1990.↩︎
- E McCann War and an Irish Town London 1993.↩︎
- N Ó Dochartaigh Civil rights to armalites: Derry and the birth of the Irish Troubles Basingstoke 2005.↩︎
- T McKearney ‘Putting the Provos in context’ Sunday Business PostAugust 7 2005.↩︎
- Former republican prisoner Felim Ó hAdhmail, quoted in K Bean The new politics of Sinn Féin Liverpool 2007.↩︎
- P Neumann Britain’s long war: British strategy in the Northern Ireland conflict 1969-1998 Basingstoke 2003.↩︎
- For Ardoyne, see F Burton The politics of legitimacy: struggles in a Belfast community London 1978, while E McCann War and an Irish town London 1993 covers Derry in this period.↩︎
- Section 2.21-2: cain.ulster.ac.uk/hmso/widgery.htm.↩︎
- In 1980, the master of the rolls, Lord Denning, upheld an appeal by the West Midlands police against a civil action brought by the Birmingham Six for injuries they received in custody. He said, in his judgment, the consequence for the English legal system of accepting that police officers were lying was such “an appalling vista” that every sensible person would reject further legal action. www.irishtimes.com/news/appalling-vista-observation-stuck-1.160004.↩︎
- Sections 4.2-4.4: assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/279167/0030.pdf.↩︎
- K Bean ‘Northern Ireland is at war with the Irish Republican Army Provisionals’: Northern Ireland policy and ‘the crisis of the British state’ 1970-1974 – unpublished paper, conference on contemporary British history, University of London 2010.↩︎
1. Ballymurphy Massacre- Mark Laggan
2. Review: Ballymurphy Precedent (Channel Four) – Socialist Democracy
3. Emancipation & Liberation – Irish coverage, 2002