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24 January 2002Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Bloody Sunday: why now?
The sudden obsession with Bloody Sunday tells us more about politics today than about events in Derry 30 years ago.

by Brendan O'Neill

It might be 30 years old this month, but Bloody Sunday - that fateful day in January 1972 when British paratroopers shot dead 13 unarmed civilians on a civil rights protest in Derry, with a fourteenth dying from his wounds six months later - is big news.

From the British barristers accused of making a mint out of the ongoing Bloody Sunday Inquiry to the made-for-TV film that blamed the bloodshed on trigger-happy paras; from demands that UK prime minister Tony Blair apologise for the shootings to soldiers' own stories of being racked with regret over what they did, Bloody Sunday has hardly been out of the headlines in 2002. 'This looks to me like a severe case of delayed-reaction guilt', says one Irish commentator.

But why now? Army majors, politicians and journalists weren't always so keen to debate the rights and wrongs of Bloody Sunday, much less face up to their 'guilt'. On the heated Monday after Bloody Sunday, the then Northern Ireland prime minister Brian Faulkner would 'not hear' any criticisms 'whatsoever' of the British Army, instead pinning the blame for the killings on the marchers themselves: 'Those who organised this march must bear a terrible responsibility for having urged people to lawlessness.' (1)

Three months later, in April 1972, the British government-sponsored inquiry under Lord Widgery claimed to have 'put a stop' to all the 'uncertainty' over Bloody Sunday, by finding that, although the paratroopers' behaviour might have been 'sometimes excessive', the protesters had been asking for trouble: 'There would have been no deaths…if those who organised the illegal march had not thereby created a highly dangerous situation in which a clash between demonstrators and the security forces was almost inevitable.' (2) Widgery might have been written off as a 'whitewash' by the Bloody Sunday families and nationalists in Northern Ireland, but it remained the British authorities' story for the next 25 years.

In February 1972, The Sunday Times suppressed a report by its award-winning Insight team into the events of Bloody Sunday, claiming that the matter was sub judice because of the Widgery inquiry - though according to one media expert, 'this was legally incorrect, as The Sunday Times knew' (3). In the same month, Thames Television withdrew a documentary on the 'aftermath of Bloody Sunday' after being leaned on by the British government (4).

Bloody Sunday only became a public debate after the IRA ceasefire
In 1987, Tory Northern Ireland secretary Tom King refused to open a new inquiry, claiming that we know what happened because 'we have Widgery'. And as late as 1993, Tory prime minister John Major would only concede that those killed on Bloody Sunday 'should be regarded as innocent', while his Northern Ireland secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew could still see no reason to apologise: 'An apology is for criminal wrongdoing and there is nothing in the Widgery report to support that, and therefore it would be wrong.' (5)

Today couldn't be more different. Far from falling back on Widgery, Tony Blair has set up a new Bloody Sunday Inquiry with what one politician calls 'remarkable inquisitorial powers' (6) - which has already spent 50 million pounds and two years 'leaving no stone unturned' in its apparent quest for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Far from a lack of debate, the National Lottery has funded an ITV film starring former British soldiers as their reckless, gun-toting selves who took aim at unarmed Catholics who wanted nothing more than their civil and democratic rights. And far from defending the indefensible, some former military top brasses have 'opened up' about their feelings of guilt and sorrow, with one claming that the terrible events of Bloody Sunday have made him 'anti-war' (7).

So what has changed? Why has the Bloody Sunday families' version of events - that the British soldiers indiscriminately killed unarmed civilians in cold blood - now become accepted almost across the board? After all, there was no such heated debate, TV dramas, new inquiries or handwringing during the twentieth or twenty-fifth anniversaries of Bloody Sunday, which would have made more sense as traditional anniversary choices for a rethink and reassessment.

Nothing about Bloody Sunday has changed - that remains the atrocity it always was. But today's obsession with Bloody Sunday has little to do with Bloody Sunday itself. Rather, it is the British elite's inability to hold a line on just about anything that has led to today's self-flagellation over what happened in Derry 30 years ago.

It is striking that Bloody Sunday only became a live, public debate among the British government and military after the IRA ceasefire in August 1994 and the end of the conflict in Northern Ireland. From 1969 to 1994, the British authorities fought a war against the Irish republican movement, which was demanding a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland and an end to partition.

Sections of the British elite are at each other's throats
Britain denied that the Troubles was a war, instead claiming to be simply upholding law and order against the criminals of the IRA. But it was broad-based support for the IRA within nationalist communities that allowed the IRA to conduct a 25-year campaign against British forces, and which also gave the lie to the British authorities' claims that the IRA was just a small gang of criminals. Indeed, Bloody Sunday did much to heighten nationalist support for the IRA. Despite Britain's propaganda, on the ground the security forces and the judiciary operated as they normally do in war time: combating, killing and imprisoning the enemy.

As during any conflict, differences of opinion that army majors, soldiers or politicians might have had about Bloody Sunday, army tactics or anything else would have been settled behind closed doors. The threat of the IRA forced the establishment to close ranks against its common enemy and to settle questions and problems in private. So Northern Ireland was the one issue which politicians agreed should never be turned into a 'political football', instead enjoying bipartisan all-party agreement in parliament. With the end of the conflict in 1994 - and in the absence of the common enemy of the IRA, who at least reminded the British authorities what they were all against - cracks in the establishment started to appear. Debates that once would have taken place in private emerged into the public arena, including that most tense of questions - Bloody Sunday.

The first serious call for a new inquiry into Bloody Sunday was made by the British Irish Rights Watch Foundation to the United Nations in 1994, 22 years after the event but just months after the IRA ceasefire (8) - followed by the Irish government's demand for a new inquiry in 1997 (9).

Since the mid-1990s, there has been squabbling between different sections of the British elite over who was responsible for Bloody Sunday. In a 1992 TV documentary, Lieutenant-Colonel Derek Wilford, who was commanding officer in Derry during Bloody Sunday, defended his soldiers tooth and catapult, claiming that they had acted properly in the face of a severe riot. Six years later, in 1998, he was trying to pin the blame for the killings on the British government rather than the army, claiming that '[such an action] has to come from higher than the brigade commander. The germ of it must have started in London' (10).

Wilford was even disowned by the army in 1999, when he dared to suggest that most Catholics in Northern Ireland were 'closet republicans' anyway, and so maybe some of those on Bloody Sunday got what they deserved. 'Colonel Wilford retired from the army 16 years ago', responded the army, sternly, '[and his] views are potentially damaging to the army's position of absolute impartiality. They were, in short, as inaccurate as they were unhelpful' (11). Which was a bit rich, considering that the army once argued that not only might the Bloody Sunday dead have been republicans, but that some of them were armed and had shot at paratroopers.

Even worse than the squabbling is the self-loathing
Meanwhile, Frank Mann, a soldier who served in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, agreed to play the part of Lieutenant Wilford in ITV's Bloody Sunday shown on 20 January 2002, in an attempt to help him come to terms with his feelings of guilt. Mann claims that while soldiers like him at the time of Bloody Sunday 'had all basically accepted the army line', it is now time to question what really happened. And he, too, wonders if London rather than the military was to blame: 'As I understand it, there was a real element of wind-up that came all the way from Downing Street.' (12)

Major-General Ken Perkins, who was head of 24 Infantry Brigade in Northern Ireland in January 1972, slated ITV's Bloody Sunday for showing individual soldiers in a bad light, while seeming to let the government of the hook: 'However the British government and the top brass come out of [this film], the Parachute Regiment get a really raw deal.' (13) Perkins' main criticism of the film is that it 'glosses over what passed between the Ted Heath government and the army commander in Northern Ireland and what instructions were given to the commanding officers of the paras' (14). In other words, it didn't question deeply enough all that stuff that the elite would only have discussed in private in the past, instead just picking on individual soldiers.

The British government, for its part, seems to be trying to pin the blame for Bloody Sunday on the military - with its inquiry under Lord Saville at the Guildhall in Derry demanding that those who fired the shots on the day account for themselves, and even trying to name the individual soldiers publicly (before a court ruled that this could pose a threat to the men's lives). The tenet of the inquiry so far suggests that it was the individual paras and maybe some of their generals, rather than the government or the top of the military, who were reckless and indiscriminate.

Sections of the British elite are at each other's throats over the events of 30 January 1972, publicly passing the buck and the blame among themselves. It would have been unthinkable for such divisive debates to have taken place during the Troubles, when the state displayed a solid and united front against the threat posed by the IRA to the stability of the United Kingdom. But with the end of the conflict, and the instability of the peace process that followed, nothing seems certain - except that the British elite finds it difficult to close ranks or act in a singular or determined fashion on just about any issue. Which is why Bloody Sunday - that most deadly question that the authorities refused to address for 25 years - has exploded over the past five years, highlighting the authorities' insecurity and spinelessness.

Even worse than the squabbling over who is to blame for Bloody Sunday, the British authorities have partaken in a bout of self-flagellation over the events in Derry. Tony Blair might not have issued an official apology, but he's more than made up for it with endless comments about that 'terrible day' and the British government's 'responsibility' to the 'victims'. At the same time, former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland are jumping on today's Bloody Sunday bandwagon to 'expel their demons' and make themselves feel better about the terrible things they have committed in the name of the UK over the years. If there's anything more off-putting than the British elite's squabbling, it's its self-loathing.

The inquiry is about making Northern Ireland more emotionally attuned
Bloody Sunday hasn't burst back on to the scene as a result of further demands from the victims' families, human rights groups and the Irish government for a new inquiry, or as an automatic response to the end of the conflict in Northern Ireland - it is now being used by the New Labour government to bolster the Irish peace process, in an attempt to reach that all-elusive 'reconciliation' in Northern Ireland.

The Bloody Sunday Inquiry under Lord Saville at the Guildhall in Derry, which has been running for two years and is likely to run for two more, is Northern Ireland's equivalent of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) - set up by the African National Congress government in 1994 as a part-showtrial, part-therapy session for those still 'coming to terms' with the previous 30-year conflict between the black masses and the minority apartheid rulers.

The aim of the TRC was not to bring people to justice or even to hold them to account, but to allow perpetrators and victims to spill forth their emotions, admit to what they had done, shed a few tears, apologise, and then go home again. The idea was that what South Africa needed even more than radical change and political transformation was therapy, a helping hand to 'get over' things. And the Bloody Sunday Inquiry promises the same for Northern Ireland.

As Bernadette McAliskey, Irish political activist and MP for Mid-Ulster at the time of Bloody Sunday, argued in an interview on spiked: 'This inquiry is like therapy. It has allowed people to tell their stories, it has had a therapeutic effect for many people in Derry - but that is not what an inquiry is about. It is not the function of public inquiries to facilitate people's grieving processes' (15). Whatever McAliskey might think a public inquiry 'should be about', the Bloody Sunday Inquiry won't be it. Rather than being a traditional legal investigation of the whats, wheres and whys of Bloody Sunday, the inquiry is giving space for everybody affected by the events of 30 January 1972 to open their hearts and express their emotions, becoming what one Irish journalist called 'a very emotional experience'.

The inquiry is now a fully-fledged institution of the Irish peace process - a peace process that is not so much about resolving the conflict in Northern Ireland and addressing fundamental political questions, as it is about 'reconciling two different cultures' and making Northern Ireland a more open and emotionally attuned society.

Northern Ireland is being imprisoned in its past
And it won't stop with Bloody Sunday. Unionist politicians have complained about nationalist and Catholic victims of the Troubles getting 'special treatment', asking why there are no inquiries into the IRA bombings of Enniskillen, Warrington and Omagh. Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland says that Northern Ireland needs to 'share its pain', by allowing Unionists and Protestants to grieve about past atrocities too - while David Ervine of the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party says that the Protestant community 'also needs a share of truth and reconciliation', wondering 'when will they see the docudrama about Enniskillen or Bloody Friday, the July day in 1972 when 22 IRA bombs exploded in Belfast in the space of 75 minutes, killing nine people?' (16).

A friend of one of those killed on Bloody Sunday once said that he wanted to know the truth, because the truth 'can help set people free'. But today's obsession with Bloody Sunday is taking place at a time when, far from being freed to get on with their lives and to move society forward, people in Northern Ireland are being imprisoned in their past, encouraged to wallow in the terrible events of the past 30 years.

What kind of monument is that to the 14 people killed on Bloody Sunday?

Brendan O'Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Bernadette McAliskey: 'It has nothing to do with finding the truth', by Brendan O'Neill

TV UK, 24 January, by Dolan Cummings

spiked-issue: Ireland

(1) The Times, 1 February 1972

(2) Report of the Tribunal Appointed to Inquire Into the Events of 30 January 1972 (Widgery Report)

(3) Chapter 15: The role of the media during internment, Internment, John McGuffin, 1973

(4) See Extracts from The British Media and Ireland - Truth: the first casualty, Campaign for Free Speech on Ireland, 1979

(5) Bloody Sunday: 30 January 1972, BBC Online, 29 January 1998

(6) Lords Hansard, 29 January 1998

(7) Col Wilford: Don't blame my soldiers, BBC Online, 24 March 2000

(8) 'Bloody Sunday' - Submission to the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on Summary and Arbitrary Executions, British Irish Rights Watch, 1994

(9) 'Bloody Sunday', 30 January 1972 - Bloody Sunday and the Report of the Widgery Tribunal, Irish government, June 1997

(10) Bloody Sunday hypocrisy, Weekly Worker, 5 February 1998

(11) Col Wilford: Don't blame my soldiers, BBC Online, 24 March 2000

(12) Back in action, Guardian, 18 January 2002

(13) A bloody travesty, Major-General Ken Perkins, Sun, 21 January 2002

(14) A bloody travesty, Major-General Ken Perkins, Sun, 21 January 2002

(15) See Bernadette McAliskey: 'It has nothing to do with finding the truth', by Brendan O'Neill

(16) Spreading the pain, Jonathan Freedland, Guardian, 23 January 2002

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