Category: Archive

Changed utterly

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The rain beat down hard on the black broken canopy of umbrellas that was raised outside the cathedral in Derry where thousands stood to mourn the 13 dead. Those who were there remember that day in the first week of February 1972 as one of the wettest, darkest winter days in what had been, even by Northern Ireland standards, a very grim winter indeed. The conflict known as the Troubles had already cost hundreds lives. But the events of Jan. 30, 1972 did more than end lives.

Though perhaps few among the mourners may have realized it, along with the victims of Bloody Sunday the Northern Ireland that they had known was also being buried that day. It is doubtful if any one there would have grieved at its passing.

Five months earlier, the introduction of internment without trial had marked the failure of the system of law and order to cope with the growing security crisis. Bloody Sunday would bring about the collapse of the political structure that had supported that system.

Already, the British government, under Conservative Party leader Edward Heath, had warned the Unionist prime minister, Brian Faulkner, that his government in Stormont was living on borrowed time. Since the introduction of troops on to the streets of Belfast and Derry in August 1969, the Stormont government had been struggling to keep control of a deteriorating situation. Britain had been reluctant to commit its soldiers in the first place, fearing that once in, it would be impossible to get them out. Since the days of the Home Rule debate in the first decades of the 20th Century, a powerful body of political opinion in Britain had wanted to keep the Irish problem at arm’s length. By 1920, that view was shaping government policy in Ireland. The partition of Ireland was an experiment intended to achieve just that goal: by devolving power to Belfast and Dublin, the British could, they hoped, distance themselves from a problem which had divided the nation, brought the British army to the brink of mutiny, and led to the demise of the Liberal Party.

That experiment was now undergoing its severest test. Five months before Bloody Sunday, the British army had reluctantly agreed to Faulkner’s demand for internment without trial. The British government had concluded then that it was the lesser of two evils, the other being Direct Rule. Internment proved a disaster, from both a security and a political point of view. But it was nothing compared to the consequences of Bloody Sunday.

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The rapid escalation of violence was the most immediate consequence of the massacre. Before Bloody Sunday, over a three-year period, the Troubles had claimed 250 lives. In the 11 months to the end of 1972, another 470 would die, almost double the number. Support for both wings of the IRA mushroomed. The more militant Provisionals especially benefited. Gerry Adams wrote in his autobiography, “Before the Dawn,” “Money, guns, and recruits flooded into the IRA.”

Some of that money came from the U.S., where Irish Northern Aid had one of its best fund-raising years ever. Between January and July 1972, the INA reported that it raised $313,000, compared to $128,000 for the previous six months. And that was probably a gross underestimation, since sometimes considerable sums of money traveled across the Atlantic by courier and went unreported. The Provisional IRA’s gun-running network based in New York also stepped up its activities, and by the end of 1972 was averaging between 200 and 300 weapons per year.

Bloody Sunday solidified the already hardening alienation of the nationalist population from the state. It allowed the IRA to create “no-go” zones in the Catholic districts of Belfast and Derry where the police and army could not patrol without grave peril. The “no-go” zones in turn facilitated the Provisionals’ bombing campaign, which throughout 1972 laid waste to the centers of Belfast and Derry, as well as other, smaller towns. Bombers were able to make bombs, load them up, launch attacks, and have a safe base to which to return, beyond the prying eyes of the army and police.

Attacks on troops and police also escalated. In 1971, 44 soldiers had died at the hands of the IRA. One hundred and eight soldiers were to die in 1972, 105 of them after Bloody Sunday. Seventeen members of the RUC and 26 members of the Ulster Defense Regiment also lost their lives that year.

However, it was not just republican violence which escalated after Bloody Sunday. Loyalists began to respond to the increasing level of IRA violence by assassinating Catholics. Nine days after Bloody Sunday, they claimed their first victim. Another 120 would die before the end of the year, the majority of them murdered by the Ulster Defense Association. But it was not just the IRA’s escalating campaign that was provoking loyalists.

A political change was brought about by Bloody Sunday which enraged them and sent thousands of working-class Protestants into the ranks of the UDA and the UVF, leading to the bloodiest period of sectarian violence in the history of Northern Ireland. On March 24, the British prime minister announced the imposition of Direct Rule from London. Stormont was suspended after 50 years. The 1921 experiment in devolved government had failed. First internment, and then Bloody Sunday, had proven to the British that the Unionist government could not be trusted in charge of security. But at a deeper level, it was seen that government by majority rule was itself flawed, and could not guarantee stability. Britain would try again to establish devolved government in Northern Ireland but under a drastically revised system that would include, in the first attempt in 1974, moderate nationalists, and then in the second, in 1998, militant republicans.

There were other more immediate political consequences from the shootings of Jan. 30. A crowd of 35,000 burned down the British Embassy in Dublin on Feb. 2 and the British ambassador, Sir John Peck, reported experiencing a “wave of fury and exasperation the like of which I have never encountered in my life, in Egypt or Cyprus or anywhere else.” Dockers in Australia refused to handle British cargo.

In the longer term, Bloody Sunday convinced the British that both their security strategy and their political approach toward Northern Ireland would have to be revised. The British abandoned any effort to restore the old Stormont model. The Good Friday agreement that is currently carrying the hopes of the majority of the Irish people, north and south, in their search for a solution to the Northern Ireland conflict might well be called a direct descendent of the changes that were set in motion by the events of that dark day in Derry 30 years ago.

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