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True memories of Bloody Sunday


Mural by Bogside Artists depicting all who were killed by the British Army on the dayIt was meant to be a peaceful march. But as we have all too often seen, peaceful protests, whether they be in compounds, on the streets or on sea, can end up as bloody affairs. The date of 30 January 1972, sometimes known as Domhnach na Fola (Bloody Sunday), was one such event.

A civil rights demonstration had been organised in defiance of the authorities in the Northern Irish town of Londonderry. The British Parachute Regiment was given the task of controlling it. By the end of the affray, 13 people were dead — another subsequently died in hospital — and 15 were left wounded. It catalysed 30 years of bloody conflict in Northern Ireland. Before the year was out, the British Army had lost 100 men.

Lord Saville's mammoth 5000 page report of that seminal moment of 'The Troubles' has been eagerly anticipated. It constitutes one of the final steps of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Contributions from the legal fraternity have been impressive and plentiful. Lord Saville has been able to call upon his Commonwealth colleagues, the Canadian judge William Hoyt and the former Australian High Court Justice John Toohey.

Thousands gathered to listen to the verdict. Most got what they wanted — the admission that the killings of Bloody Sunday were 'unjustified and unjustifiable'.

Rarely can a report have been rendered with such crystal clear findings. Prime Minister David Cameron issued a formal apology in the House of Commons. The report, he said, had been 'absolutely clear', leaving room for 'no ambiguities'. The civilians who were felled by bullets had been unarmed. False claims had been made by various soldiers about the presence of 'nail bombers'. Some continued to fire as the protesters fled or lay wounded. The regiment should never have been deployed to the Bogside in the first place. Prosecutors in Northern Ireland are considering the possibility of bringing charges against the offending parties for perjury.

Not all are in favour of these findings. For one thing, the sheer length of the inquiry — a staggering 12 years — has made various commentators suspect its veracity, its balance. The cost also has been enormous, some 200 million pounds. Questions have been asked as to whether the inquiry unintentionally compromised national security or breached privacy provisions during the investigations.

Then there are the usual countering arguments: How many Derrys have there been? How many other bloody events committed by the IRA? And wasn't Martin McGuiness, current Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, armed at the protest? Violence can be labyrinthine and entangling in its complexities.

There is little doubt that another inquiry was required after the problematic findings of Lord Chief Justice Lord Widgery, who, as David McKittrick of The Independent explained, did 'more to damage the country's reputation in Ireland than almost any other single act during the history of The Troubles'.

Widgery's 'whitewashing' effort, made 38 years ago, took a mere 558 dismissive words, exonerating the paratroopers while condemning the protesters. 'Some', went the devastating verdict, 'are wholly acquitted of complicity in such an action; but there is a strong suspicion that some others had been firing weapons or handling bombs.' The deluge of violence was duly prepared.

Exposing the use of naked and lethal force against civilians, even if they be unruly in exercising their right of protest, is certainly in the public good. While the unionist and republican factions remain divided on their views of the British army, their differences are unlikely to precipitate any long term effects in light of this report. As Voltaire claimed, 'To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.' True reconciliation can only ever take place with a true recounting of memory.

Binoy KampmarkBinoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, troubles, northern ireland, bloody sunday, Lord Saville



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Existing comments

wonderful outcome for the many who always knew the truth and although it has taken a long time to have that truth known to others i can only imagine everyone's feelings.

rhonda danylenko | 17 June 2010  

Thank you for your article! This is a momentous day for the Catholics of Northern Ireland. Never in our wildest dreams did we believe that a British government could offer us an apology. Cameron and Rudd have been courageous in supporting the imposed second class citizenship on people in Ireland and in Australia. Let us learn from this - will we be apologising, in the future, to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan (and Australia) for the loss of life caused by invaders?

'To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.' If the living were shown respect there would be no need to owe anything to the dead - except peace.

deirdre penhale | 17 June 2010  

As an Irish person living for many years in Australia, it was good to read this report and know that the IRA were not always totally bad and deserved to have a report like this after many years of fighting for peace.

Breda O'Reilly | 17 June 2010  

There are always dangers in getting troops involved in civil conflict. They are not trained to be police that need different skills. The Northern Ireland "troubles" were caused by the ruling class (The Protestants) having all the best jobs and the Roman Catholics being treated as second class citizens. This may be over simplistic but there always were churchmen on both sides trying to ease the political conflict.

John Ozanne | 18 June 2010  

Thank God the truth came out in the end. Having visited Ireland with my daughter, I loved the experience, I felt I had "come home" .The sense of loss as I sailed from Dublin back to Wales was a strong reminder of what my forebears expperienced as they were exiled from Ireland through the port of Cork, without a trial, several centuries ago! They too, were innocent but I doubt anyone will say "sorry" to them!

Gavin O'Brien | 23 June 2010