Monday, 30 January 2012

This Day in History: 30 January 1972

I doubt that there are many people unfamiliar with the massive U2 hit “Sunday Bloody Sunday” but few people know what the song is about and the tragedy that inspired it. 

It was forty years ago today that soldiers of the British First Parachute Regiment (1 Para) opened fire on unarmed protestors, killing thirteen immediately and wounding fourteen others, with one man dying several months later of his wounds.

Banner and Crosses carried by the families of the Bloody Sunday victims on he annual commemoration march.
Photo credit: Sean Mack [

As a South African, I find the similarities between this event and those of the 16 June 1976 to be particularly chilling.  Both events featured young people marching against civil rights abuses, both involved armed forces opening fire on unarmed protestors and both resulted in the deaths of innocent people.

So what happened on the day that would forever be known as Bloody Sunday or the Bogside Massacre?

The Bogside Area, Derry, Northern Ireland, 30 January 1972

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) organised a march to protest against the practice of internment without trial which was introduced in August 1971.  Authorities decided to let the peaceful march go ahead but there was a heavy army presence.  The march was intended to culminate at the Guildhall but barricades were erected and the protestors were redirected to Free Derry Corner.

Bottom of William Street one minute before the British First Parachute Regiment opened fire, killing thirteen civilians – an event now known as Bloody Sunday, Derry, Ireland, 1972
Photo credit: Gilles Peress [

Eye witness accounts at the Museum of Free Derry speak of some altercations at the barricade, with protestors throwing stones, but nothing unusual by Derry standards.  The mood was upbeat when the march began just before 3pm but it was shortly before 4pm that the first shot rang out.

Five more shots were reported at 3.55 pm but it was reported that at 4.10pm soldiers of the Support Company opened fire on the crowd and did not stop firing until 30 minutes later.

Seven of the fourteen victims were teenagers and many were shot from behind as they were fleeing the scene or attempting to assist others.

Fr Daly waving a bloody handkerchief as he and several others carry the fatally wounded Jackie Duddy, 17, past British soldiers on January 30, 1972, known as Bloody Sunday.
Photo credit: Stanley Matchett [

The first victim was seventeen-year-old Jackie Duddy. 

Four witnesses, Edward Daly, then a Catholic priest, Mrs Bonner, Mrs Duffy and Mr Tucker, all stated that Duddy was unarmed at the time he was shot and that he was running away from soldiers when he was shot. Three of these witness stated that they saw a soldier take deliberate aim at Duddy as he fled across the courtyard of Rossville Flats – CAIN Web Service

The Roots of the Protest

It is not sufficient to only look back to 1971 to understand the situation in Derry on the day of the march.  The Museum of Free Derry gives a comprehensive background to the rise of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, dating back to when the country was formed in 1920.

Politics and location had worked in favour of the mainly Protestant Unionists (those in favour of remaining part of Britain) while the mainly Catholic Nationalists saw increasing infringements on their civil rights.

Significantly, NICRA was formed in 1967 to campaign against inequalities in the allocation of public housing, discrimination in jobs and workplaces, and an unfair voting system.  It seems bizarre that in the late 1960s in Northern Ireland, property plural voting still existed and citizens had to campaign for "one man, one vote". 

It is believed that the blossoming civil rights movement became a mass movement on the 5 October 1968 when police attacked protestors at a NICRA rally in full view of the world’s media.

In the two years that followed, conflict escalated between between Unionists and Nationalists and tensions increased when Terrence O'Neill’s November 1968 Reform Package angered and disappointed both parties.  Riots began to break out with increasing frequency throughout 1969 and 1970, with increasing activity by the once-dormant IRA. 

The government felt justified then in introducing internment without trial on 9 August 1971.  Known as Operation Demetrius, this involved dawn raids by the British Army over two days, involving the mass arrest and internment without trial of 342 people suspected of being involved Irish republican paramilitaries.

The operation resulted in the displacement of 7,000 people as families fed to Ireland and other locations.  Those arrested were housed in internment camps, scarily reminiscent of the Nazi-era concentration camps and perhaps a precursor for the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay. 

The Denial

If the facts above make you deeply suspicious of Britain’s track record in human rights, wait until you hear about the aftermath of the events of Bloody Sunday.  On 19 April 1972, a report by Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, largely exonerated the British Army of any blame for Bloody Sunday.

The report by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, stated that if the illegal march - protesting against internment without trial - had not taken place there would not have been any deaths - BBC News

The most severe criticism that Widgery offered was that the shooting "bordered on the reckless" but his ridiculous account was accepted not only by the British government and Northern Irish Unionists, but much of the British and international media too.

It was not until 30 January 1998 that British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced a new enquiry into Bloody Sunday.  Known as the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, the inquiry lasted for 12 long years before the Saville Report was published on 15 June 2010.  The report was so damning of the actions of British soldiers and the aftermath that Prime Minister David Cameron immediately apologised on behalf of the United Kingdom for the “unjustified and unjustifiable” events of Bloody Sunday.

"The report leaves me in no doubt that serious mistakes and failings by officers and soldiers on that terrible day led to the deaths of 13 civilians who did nothing that could have justified their shooting," he said - BBC News

Such is the extent of the cover up and distortion of the events of Bloody Sunday that members of the public, jaded from years of IRA attacks, were incensed by Cameron’s words.  They have been so terrorised over the years, and lied to on so many occasions by the media and their own government, that they forget that fourteen innocent people were murdered that day.



  1. My recollection was that at the time there was very considerable cynicism about Widgery. I don't think that most people have lost sight of the fact that fourteen people were shot in cold blood that day. However there is still a body of opinion that does not want to see those responsible for the decision to use live ammunition held to account.

  2. Hi Owen. Always good to hear from you. This was a little before my time (I was born in 1973), so thank you for your input. I'm glad to hear that there was cynicism surrounding the report. I got the feeling from the BBC news archives that they certainly weren't questioning the report but then I guess they have to be objective. None of the other reports I read seemed to show outrage about the events or the outcome of the inquiry - I shall have to investigate more.

    I often ponder whether it is more important to get answers than hold people to account. I really do believe in the powers of truth and reconciliation commissions and commissions of inquiry.

  3. mm, my impression after the inquiry was that the families were mainly relieved to have the truth of how their relatives had died as innocent victims finally established. And in the end their acceptance was the most important political "fact on the ground".

    Nevertheless the legacy of Saville is the acceptance that members of the armed forces were able to take the law into their own hands by killing innocent people and then continuing a cover up that poisoned the lives of the relatives for decades, ultimately cost hundreds of millions of pounds of public money to sort out that should not have had to be spent, and perhaps pointed the way for the perpetrators of the Baha Musa murder and cover-up to believe that they too could get away with a similar brazen lie.

    Widgery was seen as having done the job for which Edward Heath had appointed him and made it clear that the claim that we had an independent judiciary in Britain was one that could only be made subject to very substantial reservations.

  4. Owen, I have to admit to knowing little about Baha Musa before you mentioned it. I was not in the UK at that time and didn't realise the significance of the inquiry last year. Just another topic for research I guess


I love comments but delete spam.

HINT: use the "Name/URL" function to get a free backlink straight to your blog!

© A Passion to Understand

This site uses cookies from Google to deliver its services - Click here for information.

Blogger Template Created by pipdig