Bloody Sunday (Jan 30, 1972)
The Watershed

Bloody Sunday was, if you like, the end of the old, because it was the last time there had been a major march where thousands and thousands of ordinary people came out onto the streets in protest. The march had been declared illegal by the authorities, but it went ahead. The authorities decided it was too large to try and control. When the march was coming to its end, to its destination, at what was known as Free Day Corner, a section of the crowd broke away and started to storm British army troops.

The army, in the guise of the paratroopers, who had been engaged the previous weekend in a fray with the Catholic community in Derry, overreacted. They chased the stone throwers and, in a couple of minutes, they shot 13 dead--a 14th was to die later. That was the first huge assault on the Catholic community, which united the Catholic community.

The second assault was when the propaganda machine of the British government tried to argue that the army was simply fulfilling its duties, because it was chasing people whom they identified as petrol bombers or people with weapons. In the end, they had to admit that they couldn't prove that any of those shot dead were responsible for any actions.

The result was that British authority--not the authority of Unionists, but British authority in Northern Ireland--collapsed completely. World opinion was very condemnatory of what had happened that day. And major political decisions had to be taken. It meant that you no longer had a civil rights aspect to the conflict; it moved from the politics of the street to straightforward warfare between the IRA and the army and the police; it meant that the British government removed all authority from the Northern Ireland government. And, two months after Bloody Sunday, the British government took over direct responsibility for anything it had done in Northern Ireland.

The suspension of the Northern Ireland Parliament was obviously significant in an historic way. It was the first time that Britain had taken away power from the Protestant population and from their political leaders. It was a huge shock to those very same people. But it was more than that. It was a reaction, first, to international opinion after Bloody Sunday. But, secondly, it was a reaction to the fact that the British find that, because they did not control security--that was in the hands of the Northern Ireland government--they could not control the war.

Bloody Sunday was a watershed. There's absolutely no question about it. It was an even greater recruiting agent for the IRA than anything that had happened heretofore. It was an embarrassment to the likes of Adams and company, having to turn away so many people, so many people wanted to join.

It was a huge learning curve for the British authorities. It isolated the Unionist community in a way that it had never been isolated before, because direct rule was introduced two months later. And the psychological shock [to the political system of Northern Ireland] was enormous.

The Aftermath of Bloody Sunday: Direct Rule, Negotiations

After Bloody Sunday, you have the introduction of direct rule, which some people saw as a victory for the campaign, and, therefore, the campaign should stop and accept what had been gained up until then. ... The moderate Catholic opinion was that the IRA campaign had to stop.

The IRA believed that they were being tackled by a conspiracy made up of the Catholic hierarchy, of Constitutionalist politicians north and south, of the people who'd accepted partition in the first place, and of people who would be prepared to compromise so that British rule in Ireland would be maintained. And, therefore, their enemy had now widened to include part of their own community.

... You were dealing with a movement which had an historic mission, rich in religious symbolism, convinced of its own morality and the certitude of its cause, which believed, "We go to the end of the road, and we don't stop anywhere before the end of the road."

The [Republican movement] did see the introduction of direct rule as a kind of victory. And, you know, it's a bit like a greedy man: "We've got this much, we can get more." They believed they had, to use their own words, "The Brits on the run." And they were afraid that if they stopped at this stage, what would happen would be that they would be hoodwinked by the British somewhere further down the line.

So, the Republican movement was fighting on two fronts. They were fighting on the front of their own historic sense of destiny, which they saw as going in the right direction. They were also fighting on the front of trying to take control of the whole anti-partitionist movement in Ireland, that is, that they wanted to take control, not only from the SDLP, that is the Constitutionalist Party, but from the Irish government itself. And they believed that history was on their side to achieve this.

They were arguing very strongly that it is a long war, that we do have to continue, that there are people who are careerist politicians in the Catholic community, who are simply looking after their own interests. They're not looking after the destiny of the Irish people for which several thousand, down the centuries, had given their lives. They were part of an historic movement, the IRA was, and they had to continue it.

They were emboldened by the imposition of direct rule. They could see what damage it did to their Unionist opponents. They believed that Unionists would then begin to start asking questions about the nature of the British guarantee, and that that might persuade some Unionists to move in the direction of some form of Irish unity. Sinn Fein at that stage was producing a document which talked about a federal Ireland rather than a united Ireland, talked about an agreement ... whereby it was possible for Protestants to have control over their own identity, have their own sense of autonomy, but inside a British-free Ireland.

[The Negotiations following Bloody Sunday]

... The memoirs of [British] politicians at the time tell us that they considered it a mistake to have gone into negotiations, because this was a movement working on moral certitude, not on political pragmatism.

We can work on the assumption that when the IRA had their meetings with British politicians in 1972 they were not skilled negotiators. They had no experience at all of political dialogue. They had never had to argue with anyone. They were essentially a sect. They talked to each other. They reinforced each other's prejudice. There was no one there to challenge them. And so, when they got into dialogue with the enemy, they have no resources to challenge the enemy intellectually. And for that reason, the talks were a waste of time.

From the point of view of the British government, one of the ways that it believed that it might win the war was the division inside the Catholic community. The Catholic community, as the '70s went on, was very badly split over how the campaign should continue. A majority, the vast majority, disapproved fundamentally of the IRA campaign. They saw the violence as being immoral, as being counterproductive, as harming their own community economically and in other ways, and as, in fact, not only driving a wedge between the Irish and the British, but also driving a wedge between the people of Southern Ireland and the people of Northern Ireland.


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