By a strange coincidence, two sad events happened in the first six months of 1972, both of them on Sunday afternoons. Here are my thoughts on the first:
‘Bloody Sunday’ – Londonderry, Northern Ireland, 30th January 1972
As someone who doesn’t consciously remember this event, I grew up with the knowledge that this was a dark day – but why?
I must admit that my feelings about the event have changed over time. Initially I was apathetic about it. I then started to read up on the subject and wondered about how this could have been a miscarriage of justice (see Tony Geraghty’s The Irish War, 1998) as it all seemed very unlikely that well-trained soldiers would open fire on civilians without warning or provocation. Surely something must have justified it?
Then, in 2010, the new Coalition Government led by David Cameron gave an apology on behalf of the British Government for Bloody Sunday. It was also interesting to read the views of the conservative columnist Peter Hitchens who had long argued that the whole affair was a disgrace and a stain on the reputation of the United Kingdom.
I also found the film ‘Bloody Sunday’ (2002) very powerful. I had previously favoured Jimmy McGovern’s ‘Sunday’ (also 2002) but ‘Bloody Sunday’ betters it in every way and it’s a shame it took me 8 years to actually see it. The portrayal of the paratroopers is extremely interesting, played as they were by real ex-military personnel and mercanaries. The rising tension and frustration is palpable.
Although it is never a good idea to base one’s ideas solely on the entertainment media (as sentimentality can give rise to false ideas about a subject) the mounting evidence DOES suggest that some of the paratroopers from Support Company ‘lost the plot’ and started shooting at random. As part of the grim machinery of war, I am led to believe that most of those implicated are now dead (some killed in the Falklands War?) and so we can never hear their side of the story again (neither did the Saville Inquiry).
Here are my views as to why certain paratroopers in Support Company did open fire:
- Certain members were part-time Territorials, they were less disciplined and (as Geraghty demonstrates) were excited by the prospect of violence.
- The paratroopers had been briefed to expect trouble and to put on a show of strength – tragically misinterpreted by the more aggressive ones.
- The Parachute Regiment is known for being an extremely tough and violent opponent. They were not a wise choice for urban warfare on UK soil where political subtleties are required.
- Few members of the security forces had been in this part of the Bogside recently and it was considered to be the IRA’s back yard. An IRA attack was thought to be inevitable.
- Some paratroopers thought that the firing of their colleagues was actually Republican gunfire aimed at them, and attempted to fire back at an unseen enemy.
- Tensions in Northern Ireland were extremely high and soldiers and policemen were being killed regularly. Some Paras were eager to take revenge.
- A handful of the soldiers simply did not care anymore and actively did take revenge thinking they could get away with it.
As a result of these, and no doubt several other factors, 13 Catholic men lost their lives that January afternoon in the cold, grey concrete jungle of the Bogside. It has been proven that none of them were engaged in criminal activity (except for some of the younger men possibly throwing stones and rioting). Being shot with 7.62mm bullets from SLR rifles meant that they stood little chance of survival.
Sadly, the foolish actions of a small number of men in Support Company stained the reputation of the Parachute Regiment, the British Army and the United Kingdom. It undoubtedly did cause more young men to join the IRA and it made the UK armed forces a particularly hated target of Republican aggression.
However, one fact that I will never change my opinion on is how the Republican movement cynically used this event to maximise publicity for their cause without ever considering or condemning the terrble slaughter that was being committed by the IRA. The seemingly endless martyrdom of the 13 marchers was in stark contrast to the apathy the Republican movement felt towards the deaths of others. It is sobering to think that many of those killed by the IRA and other Republican terrorists were civilians, and quite a number of them were Roman Catholics, the very people the IRA were sworn to defend. Maximising publicity for the few who were killed by the British in dubious circumstances does nothing for a cause when you are unwilling to show compassion in return. Even now in 2012 the cases of The Disappeared (IRA victims) has not been resolved.