For many on both sides of the Irish Sea, the killing of 14 unarmed civil rights demonstrators by members of the British army’s Parachute Regiment on Bloody Sunday in 1972 remains the defining outrage of Northern Ireland’s 30-year Troubles. It was certainly the most politically damaging to Britain. The shootings, which took place in Derry’s Bogside district 50 years ago on Sunday, shocked these islands and the world. They still do and they still should. Bloody Sunday was not the only senseless act of violence during the Troubles. Many more killings were carried out during those 30 years by paramilitary groups from both sides than by the security forces (and more than five times as many in the case of the IRA). But the shootings in Derry made the Northern Ireland crisis deepen dramatically, led to a steep escalation of violence, caused a boost in IRA recruitment and did huge reputational harm to Britain, its Northern Ireland policy and its institutions.
Almost as bad as Bloody Sunday itself was the official attempt to cover up what happened, and the lies that were consistently told, including at the highest level of government and in the first judicial inquiry that was announced days after the killings. In the end it would take nearly 40 years before the UK government acknowledged the truth about 30 January 1972 and apologised, after Lord Saville’s inquiry found in 2010 that none of the casualties were posing a threat or doing anything that would justify shooting them. Even now, many aspects of Bloody Sunday remain sources of dispute, in particular the failure to pursue individual soldiers through prosecutions.
Half a century on, it is important to acknowledge this still unquiet legacy. Northern Ireland has been at peace, more or less, since 1998. The threat of violence, including state and paramilitary violence, is decisively diminished. Power is now shared, not hoarded as it still was when the Troubles broke out. Northern Ireland is indeed unrecognisable in many ways from 50 years ago. But not in every way. This weekend’s anniversary has in no sense been the occasion for the different traditions to embrace one another in a spirit of shared sadness and remembrance.
Instead, the commemorations retain a distinct edge. The DUP first minister of Northern Ireland, Paul Givan, has refused to attend any of the events at all this weekend (instead, on Thursday, his allies commemorated the killings of two police officers in the days before Bloody Sunday). The SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, whose constituency includes Derry, has said the parachute regiment were “sent to my city to murder” and has called for an official apology from the army. In Derry on Sunday, the Irish prime minister is likely to be present, but not, it currently appears, the British one.
Perhaps this edginess is unavoidable, given the raw emotional power of an event like Bloody Sunday, which many still living remember vividly. Yet it is not many years since the UK and the Irish Republic together navigated some important Irish historical centenaries in imaginative and cooperative ways which helped to strengthen the peace process and good relations across our islands rather than weakening them. We seem to be slipping back from such a farsighted approach now.
Nowhere is this more obvious at present than in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol of the UK’s Brexit withdrawal agreement. The instability caused by Brexit washes over into many other things, including anniversaries like Bloody Sunday, and other Troubles milestones still to come. Not everything about Northern Ireland should be blamed exclusively on the British government. But unless the British government engages constructively, consistently and honestly in Northern Ireland, real dangers follow, just as they are doing now.