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 maligned 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 only 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.
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 exists.
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.