The year 1972 began with a revitalized civil rights movement in Northern Ireland due to the government’s internment programme.
Indeed since last August, arbitrary arrests and detentions of members of the minority community have continued unabated. The number of internees approached one thousand. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) responded by organizing non-violent protest marches against internment.
A march took place in Magilligan, County Derry, just eight days before Bloody Sunday. The malevolent behavior of the British Army’s 1st Parachute Regiment foreshadowed what was to come on January 30.
John Hume was one of the leaders of the Social Democratic and Labor Party and Member of Parliament for Stormont at this time. Because of his internment, he boycotted parliament. His boycott, however, did not deter him from leading civil rights marches, even though they had been banned by the Stormont government.
On January 22, he marched at the head of 2,000 peaceful anti-internment protesters in Magilligan, where internees were being held at a World War II military base turned into an internment camp.
The march route took protesters to the shore where they sang the American civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome”. It would be one of the last times the line – “Deep in my heart, I believe we will someday overcome” – would be sung at a civil rights march during The Troubles.
Barbed wire was stretched along the beach to the water’s edge, blocking the path of civil rights marchers. Soldiers from the 1st Parachute Regiment in riot gear stood behind the barbed wire. An army officer ordered the protesters to stop as they were on Ministry of Defense property. Hume challenged the officer in charge demanding the right to demonstrate against the internment, while some marchers went into the water to circumvent the wire barricade.
What happened next is described in Paul Routledge’s book titled “John Hume”: “Suddenly the soldiers charged forward with flailing batons, smashing everyone in sight.” They insulted the protesters, calling them “Paddy’s” to dehumanize them. The soldiers also kicked them as they tried to flee on the sand.
When Hume regrouped the marchers, the soldiers attacked again. This time they fired “rubber bullets and CS gas into the crowd”, driving people off the beach.
According to the CAIN timeline of Ulster University’s Troubles events, Hume accused the soldiers of “reprimanding, brutalizing and terrorizing protesters”. He said the officers of the 1st Parachute Regiment would not listen to reason, and he admitted to being frightened by the regiment’s intense hatred and needless violence. He expressed fear that “someone will be killed” at the NICRA anti-internment rally scheduled in the city of Derry the following week.
His concern was justified. The First Parachute Regiment was the elite of the British Army. Authorities sent them to Derry to signal the hard line that would be taken against non-violent protests, and the regiment was given overall command to curb the march ahead.
Five months earlier, members of the First Parachute Regiment sent a vicious message to Belfast’s minority community. They shot and killed ten people in Ballymurphy. Last year, in Northern Ireland’s longest coroner’s inquest, Mrs Justice Keegan exonerated the Ballymurphy victims, finding they were ‘completely innocent of any wrongdoing’ and posed no threat for the soldiers who shot them without justification.
The First Parachute Regiment embarked on the same course in criminal conduct on Bloody Sunday, when tens of thousands of non-violent demonstrators gathered in the streets of Derry city to protest against internment. During a 30-minute period, soldiers wantonly shot and killed 13 protesters and injured 18, one of whom later died of his wounds. The British government tried to cover up the truth of this atrocity with the Lord Chief Justice’s Widgery Report of 1972. This report wrongly blamed the death on the organizers of the march and unconditionally exonerated the soldiers.
The Widgery report was scorned as a whitewash, and a new inquiry into Bloody Sunday was commissioned by the British government decades later. The 2010 Lord Saville Report found that none of the victims posed a threat and that the soldiers acted without justification. The truth about Bloody Sunday was out and the culprits were in the spotlight. It had taken 38 years, but the blame and responsibility for Bloody Sunday was finally placed on the first Parachute Regiment to which it belonged.
In light of the Saville Report, then British Prime Minister David Cameron apologized on behalf of the government to the families of those killed for the pain, injury and loss of a lifetime with which they had to deal. to live. Speaking of the regiment’s conduct in Derry, he said: “What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unwarranted and unjustifiable. It was wrong.”
Bloody Sunday ushered in the deadliest year of The Troubles. 495 people were killed in 1972 and nearly 3,000 more would die before the Good Friday Agreement fueled peace.
Bloody Sunday also ended the civil rights era in Northern Ireland. Ivan Cooper, one of the organizers of the march, said: “Bloody Sunday destroyed the civil rights movement and paved the way for the hardliners” of the IRA.
Civil rights leader Bernadette Devlin, the youngest woman ever elected to Britain’s parliament and a participant in the march, agreed with Cooper’s assessment. Christine Kinealy, in her book on The Troubles titled “War and Peace”, quoted what Devlin said about Bloody Sunday when she was interviewed by a newspaper decades later. Devlin called it the day “when the civil rights movement ended and the armed struggle began”, and said that day “was the point of realization for me that the punishment for demanding equal rights in your society was that your government would kill you”. The experience radically transformed Devlin’s beliefs. She was not alone in this case.
Bloody Sunday in the United States galvanized the American civil rights movement and led to the Voting Rights Act. In Northern Ireland, the hope and belief that non-violent civil disobedience would lead to change and reform of government was extinguished in the murderous streets of Derry on January 30, 1972. Bloody Sunday ended the movement of civil rights and pushed society into the abyss.
Irish Central History
Do you like Irish history? Share your favorite stories with other history buffs in the IrishCentral History Facebook group.
This article was submitted to the IrishCentral Contributor Network by a member of the global Irish community. To become an IrishCentral contributor, click here.