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‘Life Cheapens’: On Bloody Sunday and the Troubles

Yesterday the Saville Report, which looked into the events of and surrounding Bloody Sunday in 1972, was published after 12 years. It is the longest and most expensive public inquiry in UK history, costing £195m ($288m). Today I bring you a short excerpt from Northern Ireland: A Very Short Introduction by Marc Mulholland, which talks about Bloody Sunday and other incidents from the Northern Irish Troubles.

Bloody Sunday, on 30 January 1972, was the debacle that led to the almost complete collapse of Catholic opposition to political violence. Confronting a relatively small-scale riot the elite parachute regiment shot dead thirteen unarmed demonstrators (a fourteenth died later of wounds). One British army officer indicated perfectly the self-defeating militarism of counter-insurgency: ‘When we moved on the streets we moved as if we in fact were moving against a well-armed well-trained army.’ Not one of the fatalities on Bloody Sunday was an IRA man. Had the British army fired on a similar crowd a month later, again targeting men of military age, they would hardly have been able to avoid enemy kills. Bloody Sunday led to a mass influx into the ranks of the Derry IRA. The relentless bombing campaign was accelerated; of the city’s 150 shops only 20 were left trading. Almost one third of the 320 killed in Derry during the Troubles died in street clashes and gun battles during this period (54 of them members of the security forces). Unwilling to fight on two fronts, the British army was concentrating on extirpating the IRA, the overt command structure of which made it apparently more vulnerable to direct strikes than the rather nebulous loyalist mobilizations. Also, no small point, the Catholics were the subversives and the minority; they were a more enticing target than the majority Protestants, loyal to the crown. Catholics increasingly believed that security forces were part of a general siege on their community. The moral authority of state forces, based upon notions of the even-handed application of law, disintegrated.

A not untypical incident in the strongly Protestant town of Portadown in July 1972 is illustrative. The annual Orange march to Drumcree Church had always passed through ‘the tunnel’ marking the entrance to Obins Street, a Catholic enclave. In the communal tension of 1972, this was certain to spark serious disorder. To ensure safe passage for the Orangemen, army bulldozers cleared away Catholic barriers and fired CS gas to disperse nationalist rioters. The Orange parade was headed by a group of at least 50 men of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), a loyalist paramilitary, who stood on either side of the road up to the tunnel. They threatened to invade the Catholic area, with the 3,000 men they held in reserve, if a shot was fired. Later that month Obins Street came under armed attack from loyalists. IRA members fired back, only to attract a security-force sweep to ‘clear out IRA nests’. In the absence of a complete ban on Orange marches and with the UDA a legal vigilante organization, the security forces were in a genuine bind. But the Catholic reaction can be imagined.

Certainly sentiments of revenge loomed large in the motivations of IRA volunteers. One ‘jocular’ song was entitled ‘My Little Armalite’ (the standard IRA rifle, smuggled from the United States):

I was stopped by a soldier, said he you are a swine,
He beat me with his baton and he kicked me in the groin.
I bowed and scraped, sure my manners were polite,
Ah, but all the time I was thinking of my little Armalite.

There was a bravura too, a certain intoxication with violence. One account, by Maria Maguire, briefly a Provo member, captured well this enthusiasm for outlawry as a caper:

On 27 January [1972] came the most prolonged incident of all, involving Meehann and seven other Volunteers and a detachment of the Scots Dragoon Guards. There was a four-hour gun-battle over the border near Forkhill, County Armagh, the British acknowledging afterwards that they had fired 4,500 rounds at the Provisionals’ position, although no one was hit on either side; the day’s one casualty was a farmer’s prize pig. Meehan strolled nonchalantly into Dundalk afterwards, and when a reporter asked him how he got on, said happily: ‘we pasted them.’

In the heavily militarized urban areas, a virtual war psychosis existed. Reporters found that the civilian population understood quite sophisticated military terminology. Shoot-outs were often dramatic, prolonged affairs, far from the grubby modus operandi of back-street assassination. A republican remembers such a firefight in Ballymurphy estate, Belfast, in July 1972:

We fired thousands of rounds at them. We tried to hit them from the house in Whiterock, from Corrigan Park, from Westrock and from Springhill. Bryson brought the Lewis gun up to the verandah of the flat above Mary’s Shop in Springhill Avenue. He stood up on two bins with the Lewis mounted on a piece of wood held by pigeon-holes in the brickwood, and raked Corry’s [a factory from which ‘enemy’ snipers were operating]; but they were still there.

Important was a widespread sense of martial pride. After August 1969 Irish Catholics could hardly identify with locally recruited Protestant security forces. British squaddies with Glasgow, scouse, or brummie accents were alien, and they were closely connected with deeply internalized mythologies of foreign oppression. ‘Cromwell’s men are here again’, as a popular republican song put it. The IRA, for many in the Catholic ghettos, provided validation for their sense of martial pride. To fight was good enough in the hothouse of early 1970s Northern Ireland. It was with this sentiment that one anti-internment song recalled the violence that greeted the introduction of internment in 1971:

On that black day in August, when Faulkner showed his hand,
He thought that by internment he could break our rebel band.
But the boys from Ballymurphy, how they showed the way that night
When they taught those English soldiers how Irish men can fight.

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