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. Half of the victims were in their teens.
Bloody Sunday did not mark the beginning of the conflict in Northern Ireland, in fact, pogroms, curfews, bombings, gun attacks and rioting had developed rapidly over the previous few years. Atrocities with multiple victims such as the IRA slaughter of 5 workers on Brougher Mountain in February 1971 and the army massacre of 11 civilians in Ballymurphy in August 1971 had already taken place. But, Bloody Sunday is without doubt a pivotal moment in history that 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, 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 to 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, and 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 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 then 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.
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, (1992)
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 based on Peter’s activity in Derry 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.