The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Ireland, Bloody Sunday’s ‘communal wound’ reopened on eve of St. Patrick’s Day

In 1972, British soldiers opened fired on protesters in Derry, killing 13 people. More than 47 years later, one of the soldiers has been charged.

A British soldier grabs a Catholic protester on Jan. 30, 1972, remembered as "Bloody Sunday." British paratroopers killed 13 protesters in Derry. (/AFP/Getty Images) (Thompson/AFP/Getty Images)
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Before the violence that would make it infamous, “Bloody Sunday” had begun with beautiful weather and buoyant spirits.

On the afternoon of Jan. 30, 1972, more than 10,000 people marched through the streets of Derry in Northern Ireland to protest the British army’s imprisonment without trial of suspected members of the Irish Republican Army.

“There wasn’t a cloud in the sky,” recalled Eamonn McCann, a journalist and civil rights activist who helped organize the march. The un-Irish weather added to the good mood among the marchers, many of whom walked with their families, chatting and smoking cigarettes.

“It was almost carnival-like,” McCann told The Washington Post.

But when British soldiers blocked them from reaching the center of town, the marchers turned back towards a Catholic neighborhood called the Bogside. Some protesters began insulting the soldiers, McCann said. Others threw rocks, according to reports.

“It was all very ordinary,” McCann said.

Until the gunshots rang out.

McCann stood, stunned, as he saw marchers he knew cut down by bullets. When he finally realized what was happening, he dropped to the ground and crawled 70 or 80 yards along a gutter to safety.

By the time the shooting ended, 13 protesters were dead. Another died a few months later. Fourteen more were injured.

The massacre would have a long and dark legacy. The British army insisted protesters had opened fire — a false claim that wasn’t retracted until almost 40 years later. In the meantime, new recruits flocked to the IRA, deepening a sectarian conflict that would claim about 3,600 lives before a peace agreement was reached in 1998.

“It hardened people’s hearts,” McCann said of Bloody Sunday.

On Thursday, as Ireland and the world prepared to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, those hardened hearts were tested again when prosecutors announced they would charge one of the soldiers who fired his weapon that day. Sixteen other former soldiers will face no action.

That decision has rekindled anger over the shootings at a time when Brexit threatens to reimpose a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, stoking fears of renewed tensions.

On Thursday, fresh graffiti marred a mural near the site of the massacre.

“No Justice," it said. “No Peace.”

‘12 minutes of shooting’

Just shy of 30 at the time, McCann was walking through the crowd to hear a young politician named Bernadette Devlin deliver a speech from the back of a pickup truck when the gunfire began.

“My first reaction was bewilderment before terror,” he said.

“There was 12 minutes of shooting,” McCann said, during which he crawled on his hands and knees for nearly the length of a football field before reaching a corner to hide behind.

“One of the first things I did was have a cigarette,” he recalled. As he leaned against the wall, he peered around the corner at the chaos in the street.

It wasn’t the first time he had heard gunshots.

“For a year and a half, the war had been winding up,” McCann said. “The Troubles,” as the 30-year-conflict is often called, unofficially had begun in the summer of 1969 with a three-day riot in Derry that was dubbed the Battle of the Bogside. The British army had been sent into Northern Ireland to keep the peace, only to escalate the conflict. In August of 1971, British soldiers killed 11 Catholic protesters in Belfast. The IRA responded by killing seven soldiers in Derry in the six months that followed.

Yet neither McCann nor many of the other marchers yet understood how bad the war had just become.

"I went to a friend’s house to have a cup of tea,” he said. As they drank, they began to hear that a couple of protesters had been killed. Soon it was a handful. Then a dozen.

“It took a couple hours for it to sink in how big this was,” he said.

The British army claimed that those shot were snipers who had fired at soldiers trying to break up an illegal march. But the IRA insisted no one had shot at the soldiers. And marchers, bystanders and journalists described soldiers shooting people in the back or with their hands up.

“British soldiers kill 13 as rioting erupts in Ulster,” read a front-page headline in the New York Times.

“Our immediate policy is to shoot to kill as many British soldiers as possible,” the newspaper quoted an IRA spokesman as saying.

An initial investigation found that the soldiers’ actions had “bordered on the reckless” but did not discipline them. “There is no reason to suppose that the soldiers would have opened fire if they had not been fired upon first,” Lord Chief Justice John Widgery said.

It wouldn’t be until 2010 that a massive second investigation revealed the truth.

Launched in 1998, the Saville Inquiry remains the longest public inquiry in British legal history. It cost more than $250 million and involved more than 2,000 witnesses, 430 days of oral testimony and more than 125,000 documents, according to CNN.

“None of the casualties shot by soldiers of Support Company was armed with a firearm," the report found. (One victim may have had nail bombs in his pocket at the time he was shot — his family claimed they were planted by soldiers.) “None was posing any threat of causing death or serious injury,” the report continued. “In no case was any warning given before soldiers opened fire.”

The findings were a vindication for McCann, who had published his own pamphlet on the incident, titled “What happened in Derry,” in February of 1972.

“One of the bewildering things about Bloody Sunday was why did the [soldiers] come in at all,” he said. “There wasn’t anything happening that could possibly, rationally justify sending armed soldiers, particularly armed paratroopers, into the Bogside.”

The Saville Inquiry found that 21 soldiers had fired 108 rounds. That’s one part of the report with which McCann disagrees.

“I have no doubt that it was many, many more than that,” he said.

A wound not yet healed

Nearly all of those killed or injured on Bloody Sunday came from two Catholic areas of Derry: the Bogside or the Creggan housing estates, where the march began.

Although the massacre would echo around the world and roil Northern Ireland for decades, its toll was felt most acutely in those tightly knit neighborhoods.

“It was a communal wound,” McCann said.

Nearly half a century later, that wound has not yet fully healed.

Relatives of those killed marched Thursday morning to the city hall, where their family members had been turned away in 1972. There, they learned that only one soldier — known as “Soldier F” because military witnesses were granted anonymity in the Saville Inquiry — would face prosecution.

The soldier, now in his late 60s or 70s, will be charged with the murders of marchers James Wray and William McKinney, as well as the attempted murders of four others, the Public Prosecution Service said. There was insufficient evidence to charge 16 other soldiers, prosecutors said.

Wray’s brother, Liam, told the BBC that while his family was “relieved," he was “very saddened for the other families."

“Their hearts must be broken,” he said.

“I’m feeling devastated," said Linda Nash, whose brother, William, was killed on Bloody Sunday.

Several families, including the Nashes, have said they will appeal the decision.

McCann, who still lives “a couple hundred yards from where this happened,” said he, too, was frustrated by Thursday’s announcement.

“I think this is inadequate,” he told The Post. “It’s a sort of token gesture.”

Yet, like many of the families he met with Thursday morning, McCann said he had some sympathy for Soldier F.

“This guy is a lance corporal who is being charged, very low-ranked,” he said. “The implication of all this is this guy is going to be the only person prosecuted for murder or attempted murder. He is going to be the one carrying the can while the people who devised the battle plan, so to speak, and sent the paras in, knowing what was likely to happen, they are off scot-free."

McCann, who has written several books, including one about Bloody Sunday, said the prosecutors’ decision reminded him of the words of Rudyard Kipling, who he called “the imperialist poet of Britain."

“I don’t often quote him,” McCann said with a laugh. “But he talked about how, after the battle is over, it’s the ‘poor bloody infantry’ who get the blame. And here we have it again. The upper classes are let off the hook, the lower classes pay the price.”

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