Heaney’s Ireland: Bloody Sunday

The crisis in Northern Ireland began in 1969, when British troops were sent to the British possession to suppress nationalist activity by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), as well as to stop religious violence between Protestants and Catholics.

On Sunday 30 January 1972, a Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) march had been organised to protest against the British policy of internment (the imprisonment or confinement of people, commonly in large groups, without trial) of suspected Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland. Between ten and twenty thousand men, women and children took part in the march.

The march was prevented from entering the city centre by members of the British Army. The main body of the march then moved to ‘Free Derry Corner’ to attend a rally. A number of people continued on towards an army barricade where local youths threw stones at soldiers, who responded with a water cannon, CS gas and rubber bullets. As the riot began to disband, soldiers of the First Parachute Regiment were ordered to move in and arrest as many of the rioters as possible.

In the minutes that followed, some of these paratroopers opened fire on the crowd. During the next 30 minutes these soldiers shot dead 13 men, as well as shooting and injuring a further 13 people. The dead were all male, aged between seventeen and forty-one. Another man, aged fifty-nine, died some months later from injuries sustained on that day. The wounded included a fifteen-year-old boy and a woman.


The killings brought worldwide attention to the crisis in Northern Ireland and sparked protests all across Ireland. In Dublin, the capital of independent Ireland, outraged Irish citizens lit the British embassy aflame on February 2.

Almost immediately after the killings, the British government appointed Lord Widgery as the Lord Chief Justice. A Tribunal was held between 21 February 1972 and the 14 March 1972. Most key witnesses, including those shot and injured, were not called to the Tribunal. His report was published on 18 April 1972, pardoning the army, instead insinuating his “strong suspicion” that those killed had been “firing weapons and handling bombs”

On July 21, 1972, the IRA exploded 20 bombs simultaneously in Belfast, killing members of the British military and a number of civilians. Britain responded by establishing a new court system, allowing a ‘trial without jury for terrorism suspects’. Conviction numbers exceeded ninety percent.

Over a period of many years the relatives of those killed on 30 January 1972 campaigned for a fresh inquiry into the killings. On 29 January 1998 Tony Blair, then British Prime Minister, announced that there would be a new inquiry led by Lord Saville.

The main hearings of the new Inquiry took place between March 2000 and January 2005, making it one of the longest and most expensive in British legal history. The final report and conclusions of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry were initially expected to be published in the summer of 2005. There were many delays before the report was published on 15 June 2010.

Many people in the Unionist community have criticised the cost of The Saville Inquiry and the extent of media attention given to the killings of ‘Bloody Sunday. Part of the reason for this difference is the fact that the Widgery Report into ‘Bloody Sunday’ left doubts about the innocence of those killed whereas no such doubts are attached to those killed, for instance, in the Omagh bombing. In addition those who died in other major incidents were killed by members of various anti-military groups. However, in Derry it was state forces, in the form of the British Army, the very people who were meant to protect life and uphold law and order, who carried out the killings.

The IRA officially disarmed in September 2005, finally fulfilling the terms of the historic 1998 Good Friday peace agreement. It was hoped that the disarmament would bring with it an end to decades of politically motivated bloodshed in the region.

Prime Minister David Cameron called the killings “unjustified and unjustifiable”. The families of the victims of Bloody Sunday felt that the inquiry’s findings vindicated those who were killed, raising the question of prosecutions and compensation.

*This website gives the events of Bloody Sunday, as well as important prior events, in a chronological order: http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/events/bsunday/chron.htm



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