National Sections of the L5I:

Ireland: 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

January 30 marks the 50 year anniversary of Bloody Sunday. On that day in 1972 the British Parachute Regiment murdered 13 unarmed civil rights protesters in Derry, a fourteenth victim died of his injuries shortly afterwards and there were a further 15 wounded. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association had called a protest against internment and the march was banned on the recommendation of the British Army.

The massacre finally put paid to the myth that the British Army was ‘keeping the peace’ and stood between two warring tribes ‘to keep them apart’. It was a defining moment in alienating the whole nationalist community in the north of Ireland and confirming to them that Britain was not serious about reforming the sectarian edifice of the six county Unionist state.

In the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, mass resistance in the North increased. Catholic workers in hundreds of factories came out on strike with impromptu protests throughout the six counties. The Provisional IRA escalated its armed campaign and recorded a huge surge in recruitment. In the Republic of Ireland, unparalleled protests took place with three days of strikes and marches in villages, towns and cities across the island. Trades Councils often organised the protests with whole workplace contingents on the marches. This culminated in a General Strike on the third day when 12 of the 13 were buried.

The British Embassy in Dublin was burnt to the ground and MP Bernadette Devlin, elected on a civil rights ticket, famously punched Home Secretary Reginald Maudling in the face in the House of Commons. Irish building workers also walked off their sites in London and Birmingham. Internationally, there were protests in many cities including New York, where John Lennon attended, San Francisco, Paris, Montreal and Naples, to name but a few. Two of New York’s union leaders, representing transport workers and the longshoremen, announced a boycott of British exports.


The discredited Widgery Tribunal, which took place immediately after Bloody Sunday, formed the basis of the British government’s response for 38 years. The Report cleared British soldiers of any wrongdoing and claimed that they had come under fire. The relatives of the murdered waged a long and determined campaign to expose the truth and finally, in 2010, a new inquiry, the Saville Report, vindicated the relatives and declared the killings ‘unjustified and unjustifiable’.

After 12 years of investigation, and 38 years after the events, the Saville Report vindicated the innocence of the victims and merely confirmed what the people of Derry knew already but it was a victory for them that Britain finally owned up. Even David Cameron, Tory prime minister, was forced to apologise in the House of Commons.

Saville states that soldiers gave no warning they were about to fire and ‘Despite the contrary evidence given by the soldiers we have concluded that none of them fired in response to attacks or threatened attacks by nail or petrol bombers’. The order to fire should not have been given. Some of the victims had been running away from the soldiers and were shot in the back. Some were even helping other injured victims and none of them were armed. The report also said that soldiers had ‘knowingly put forward false accounts’ during the investigation.

The army press releases on the evening of the massacre all claimed soldiers being under heavy gunfire but this was clearly a lie. Captain Michael Jackson, second in command on the day, was rewarded for his cover up account by eventually assuming the top post in the army. His ‘shot list’ turned out to be a fabrication, with none of the shots described in the list conforming to evidence of shots actually fired.


The Saville Report exonerated the innocent, although it did not draw the obvious conclusion that this was unlawful killing or murder. Twelve years on and still no prosecutions of soldiers! Unsurprisingly it absolved the British Government for it did not find any conspiracy in the government or in the higher echelons of the army to use lethal force against demonstrators in Derry. Lt Colonel Wilford, in charge of the Paras that entered the Bogside, was criticised for going further than his orders warranted and it concluded that a number of Paras had lost self control so, for Saville, it all boils down to a few bad eggs!

This disingenuous theory diverts attention from the role senior figures in the army and government played on Bloody Sunday and indeed throughout the north of Ireland in this period. The Report heard how Major General Ford, commander of land forces in the north, wrote a memo to General Tuzo three weeks before Bloody Sunday. ‘I am coming to the conclusion that the minimum force needed to achieve the restoration of law and order is to shoot selected ringleaders among the Derry young hooligans, after clear warnings have been given.’

Prime Minister Ted Heath four days later told his Cabinet, ‘A military operation to reimpose law and order would be a major operation necessarily involving numerous civilian casualties.’ Clearly the British Government had been discussing the Civil Rights march and its response prior to Bloody Sunday, even sending a memo to the British embassy in Washington warning of hostile reactions if there was trouble in Derry. Furthermore, the same Parachute regiment had already served notice of its murderous intent when eleven unarmed civilians, including a priest, in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast were killed the previous August as part of its operation to intern hundreds of nationalists without trial. A coroner’s report in 2021 found that all the civilians in what became known as the ‘Ballymurphy Massacre’ had been innocent and killed ‘without justification’.


So Bloody Sunday was not a one off incident or an aberration in policy, let alone a question of a few bad eggs in an otherwise splendid army. It can only be understood in the context of Britain’s occupation of part of Ireland and the sectarian state it helped create and prop up since 1921. The ‘Northern Ireland’ state could only survive by way of systematic social oppression of Catholics with discrimination at every level including housing, voting and jobs. In 1968, Catholics finally said enough is enough and flocked to the streets to fight for civil rights and equality.

They were met with savage attacks from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and loyalists. The overwhelmingly Protestant RUC were driven out of Derry’s nationalist Bogside in August 1969 so British troops were deployed to restore control. As troops increasingly took to the streets, it became clear to all those struggling for civil rights that the army and their masters in Whitehall were not going to concede serious reforms of the state, their priority was breaking all resistance to it.

In August 1971, internment without trial was introduced to cut the head off the protest movement. As the army and police rounded up around 350 people, several cases of torture leaked out notably the 14 ‘hooded men’ who had been taken to Ballykelly army ‘torture centre’. Mass resistance grew, 8,000 workers held a one day strike in Derry, a rent and rates strike was organised throughout the Catholic community, and thousands of attacks on soldiers and police ensued.

Internment was not the only ploy used by Britain. The British Army operated curfews, sealed off whole areas, mass raids and of course the shootings. Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday were part of this general strategy of repression operated by both Tory and Labour governments. Of course, Labour sent in the troops and was as zealous as the Tories in shoring up the corrupt and bigoted Orange state.


So, the role of the army was not a neutral one, they were used by the British government to smash resistance to the northern state. The artificially contrived nature of that state, as a sop to the minority Unionist enclave in the north east of the island, could not exist without a permanent military back up and draconian repressive laws like the Special Powers Act so admired by apartheid South Africa.

Partition was Britain’s answer to the War of Independence in 1921. The northern state that was founded then became a prison house for Catholics. Integral to its existence was systematic social oppression of a minority on the basis of their identification with Irish nationalism and a united Ireland. Any challenge to the institutionalised discrimination would inevitably rekindle a national struggle. Bloody Sunday hastened that struggle and made it more intense.

Today, as we commemorate Bloody Sunday as another British atrocity for which there has never been justice served, we are still faced with a dysfunctional state shored up by British force. ‘Northern Ireland’s’ permanent state of crisis, its rapidly diminishing, if not already disappeared, Unionist majority, the continuing farce of a DUP/Sinn Fein executive, and the unravelling of Brexit on an island that never wanted it, have all raised the question once again of British withdrawal and a united Ireland.

The fight for a Workers’ Republic is the best way we can avenge and remember the brave civil rights protesters that were cut down by the British government and their army on that shameful day in Derry. It is also the only way we can build a united Ireland, free of British Imperialism, free of capitalist governments north and south, and owned and controlled by Irish workers.