By Mark Buckley
This Sunday January 30th marks both the day and the date of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, which took place in Derry in 1972. Fourteen unarmed Irish people were killed by British soldiers as they were taking part in a demonstration for civil rights and its aftermath.
For decades British governments, the army chiefs and the media all maintained that these unarmed civilians or others had fired on the soldiers who then returned defensive fire. This version of events was upheld by no less than the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, in the Widgery Tribunal.
It was all a pack of lies.
It was the later Saville Inquiry, whose report was not published until 38 years later in 2010, when many of the bereaved were long dead, which identified the truth that this was an unprovoked attack on unarmed civilians, that these killings were ‘unjustified’ and ‘unjustifiable’, and that there had been a massive cover-up at every level. As a result, the Prime Minister then David Cameron was obliged to issue an apology.
The civil rights movement in the north of Ireland was a response to the deeply entrenched discrimination against Catholics, which covered every area of life from schools to housing, to jobs and healthcare. The process of ‘gerrymandering’ (the artificial designation of election boundaries and property qualifications for voting) meant they were even denied effective voting rights.
The movement was also inspired by the US civil rights movement and was in turn was part of the chain of events begun in 1968, the upheavals which reformed the revolutionary left in Europe after its virtual destruction in the aftermath of World War II.
In hindsight it is now clear that the most far-sighted and resolute of those revolutionary forces in Europe, and the one which was best able to reconnect with the mass of the population was the emergence of the Sinn Féin leadership of Gerry Adams and his now fallen comrade Martin McGuinness.
There should be no ambiguity about the reason for the eventual victory of Bloody Sunday campaigners. It was not because there was an outbreak of morality among the British Establishment, or that the judiciary finally thought it should examine the evidence. It was because the emerging Sinn Féin leadership resolutely insisted on a removal of this gross injustice.
On almost every front, up to an including the Good Friday Agreement itself, they skilfully exploited contradictions between the British ruling class on the one hand, and their US and European counterparts, kept their own supporters and the mass movement together and were determined in the necessary taking next steps at each stage of the process. As a result, they have a prospect of leading Ireland North and South after the next set of elections.
There are further lessons from the struggle. Voting rights are currently being removed both here and in the US, and poorer people, Black, Asian (and Latino) voters are being targeted. Healthcare is being decimated. These same demographic groups are bearing the brunt of the pandemic, along with the eugenicist assault on disabled people.
Eventually, the same determination as the civil rights marchers and their successors will be needed to reverse these enormous attacks. For now, we should honour them.