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A Sunday to Remember

Kirsty O'Rourke | University of York

Sunday, Bloody Sunday, Bloody Sunday’s the day’. The day that musicians, including John Lennon, decided it was essential to sing about. That it was essential to call out the British government and condemn, not only their actions but also their investigation into the day. The events of Bloody Sunday (1972) have been contested from the start.

Bloody Sunday Mural, Derry/Londonderry
Bloody Sunday Mural, Derry/Londonderry

On the 30th of January 1972, there was a civil-rights march in Derry/Londonderry to protest the structural discrimination, state repression, and inequalities suffered by Northern Ireland’s (NI) Catholic minority, this included protesting the British policy of internment. The British Army shot dead thirteen civilians that took part in this demonstration. Graham Dawson argued that this was ‘the most devastating instance of the British state’s use of armed force against a section of its own citizens’. It has been regarded as a pivotal event in the Troubles.

Within a matter of weeks, the British government launched an inquiry, ultimately leading to the publication of the Widgery Report in April. During this investigation, Prime Minister Edward Heath had a meeting with John Widgery, the former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, where he stated the British ‘were in NI fighting not only a military war but a propaganda war’. Part of this propaganda war was the narrative of Britain as a neutral party intervening between warring tribes – the Troubles are continually shown as an internal conflict. Therefore, the Widgery Report claimed that those protestors were either members of, or affiliated to, the IRA. He concludes that there was ‘no reason to suppose that the soldiers would have opened fire if they had not been fired upon first’. By 2010, following almost four decades of sustained protest by the families of Bloody Sunday’s dead, the Saville Inquiry was launched. The inquiry demonstrated that those marchers who were shot dead, were peaceful, innocent protestors. They were victims. However, this revised narrative has struggled to find acceptance with some politicians.

Houses of Parliament, London
Houses of Parliament, London

On the 30th of January 2022, Bloody Sunday reached its fiftieth anniversary. Across NI there were many commemorations taking place. There was the annual march in Derry/Londonderry demanding justice and multiple speeches by people including Jeremy Corbyn, the former Labour leader, speaking out and asking for justice for the ‘Bloody Sunday families’. However, there has been a noticeable lack of official commemoration in England. The commemoration in the House of Commons (HoC) coincided with a debate on ‘Veterans: Protection from Prosecution’; legislation that looks to protect veterans from prosecution for actions taken during the Troubles. An analysis of discourse is an important form of investigation when ascertaining the influence of mediating narratives. Analysing discourse means looking at the ‘raw’ language, the authority of the speaker, the context, other topics being discussed, and the history behind the topic. The memory of Bloody Sunday acts as strong opposition to this legislation and therefore the government, during the commemoration, has looked to obscure the history.

Bloody Sunday Memorial, Derry/Londonderry
Bloody Sunday Memorial, Derry/Londonderry

Commemoration is an important mode of shaping memory. It can be used to help victims of historical injustices to assert themselves in the narrative. The historiography explains that commemoration helps people whose narratives have been suppressed and concealed; the annual march in Derry/Londonderry is an example of this. The continuation of this march shows that there are many who believe that justice has not been achieved and the narrative of Bloody Sunday is still contested. The dominant narrative of the Troubles as an ‘internal conflict’ does not consider the role of state violence; victims of state violence feel their narrative is being silenced.

Crosses Carried on the Bloody Sunday March
Crosses Carried on the Bloody Sunday March

Commemoration is a powerful tool that victims can use to assert their voices. Simultaneously, however, it can be used by states to construct identities to be ‘proud of’. Historians argue that state commemoration inevitably becomes about the ‘good’ things for community pride. On the 6th of November 2018, the HoC came together to commemorate the Centenary of the Armistice. Multiple MPs stood to remember those who died in the Second World War. This commemoration included a discussion on the need to ensure that those who fought were remembered correctly. Sir Edward Leigh noted that at the 50th anniversary ‘the coverage…was relentlessly negative’ however as the ‘historiography [had] now changed’ it was imperative to show the public that this was ‘a sacrifice worth making’. This shows that commemoration is an active process that is continually reinterpreted and renegotiated. The HoC is a place where commemoration takes place and where the narrative of certain histories are revised and updated.

At the start of the debate on veteran immunity, the Secretary of State for NI, Brandon Lewis, commemorated those killed on Bloody Sunday as ‘unjustified and unjustifiable’. He states that ‘it is important that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, but remember these difficult moments in our history’. Here, Lewis reinstates the conclusions of the Saville Inquiry. However, Lewis follows this by asserting that the way for Britain and NI to ‘come together to build a better shared future’ is to ‘remain committed to addressing the issue [of legacy and victims] through [the] legislation’ that protects veterans from prosecution. Yet, Wave, the largest NI victim’s group, has said that this legislation shows the lack of understanding of ‘the nature of the pain and trauma that continues’ and is a ‘damning inditement of the British justice system’. Michael McKinney, a victim’s brother, stated that the Bloody Sunday families ‘send a very clear warning to the British government as they pursue their [legacy] proposals’. He declared that they will ‘meet them head on’. Those families believe that the legacy proposals will prevent them from achieving justice and will silence them. Historians continually explain how the past is an arena of conflict; the conflict in NI has been transformed from violence to politics. It is remembered or forgotten depending on the present ‘needs’ of politics. Here, it becomes necessary for the government to obscure the history of Bloody Sunday to allow their legislation to be passed.

During this debate, Colum Eastwood, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, commemorated the victims of Bloody Sunday and stated that ‘the parachute regiment were sent’ to Derry/Londonderry and murdered ‘people who were unarmed, marching, for civil rights – [interruption]’. This interruption was Sammy Wilson, Chief Whip of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), disagreeing shouting ‘shame’ and responding that ‘they [the parachute regiment] were protecting the people of NI from republicans’. The use of the word ‘republicans’ treats Irish republicans, who want to see a unified Ireland, as a homogenous group that is violent. His interruption reinstates the false narrative of the Widgery report; the phrase ‘protecting the people…from republicans’ suggests that those who marched for civil rights were dangerous. The memory of this event is distorted through discourse. This was the only interruption that occurred during this debate, and it was not questioned or refuted. While the government may ‘officially’ state that those victims were innocent, the discourse in parliament shows it is a narrative still contested.

Politicians often use ‘polarisation’ in their speeches to ‘legitimise’ their arguments. Through securitisation theory, it is discussed how states use this discourse of polarisation, ‘security’ and ‘existential threat’, to justify extraordinary measures. During this commemoration, Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP, and Lewis repeat that there should not be ‘a moral equivalence between the brave men and women who served in our armed forces and the police’ and ‘those who, from any point of view, went out every morning to destroy life and to destroy NI’. Within this example, this polarisation of terrorists and the army allows a discourse to be constructed where the victims of Bloody Sunday were ‘posing a threat’ and justifies the actions of the British army. The influence of the veterans being described as ‘brave’ protectors and deserving of peace alongside the commemoration of Bloody Sunday promotes the false narrative that the Parachute Regiment were attempting to ‘protect’ civilians from terrorists (the protesters). This was reasserted by Lewis who declared that ‘a generation [of veterans]…deserve to live their final years in peace’ as they ‘served…to protect life’.

Throughout this discussion in which the British Army and police are described as ‘moral’, there is a continual contrast with ‘the terrorists in NI’. The use of words such as ‘our’ when talking about the army and the police, even though NI and those living there are citizens of Britain, creates a division between Britain and the army, and those living in NI. This constructs an ‘us’ and ‘them’; the British Army, ‘us’, are morally correct, whereas the victims, ‘them’ are terrorists. Donaldson and Lewis link those who were against the British government to being morally wrong with an intent ‘to destroy NI’. As they do not make it clear who in NI were intent ‘to destroy’ and discuss this in the commemoration of Bloody Sunday it allows a link to be made between all the people in NI, who were not army or police, and terrorists. The discourse used allows the line to be blurred between the victims of Bloody Sunday and the IRA. This is a link previously made by the Widgery Report and it is a narrative that is still being promoted in the HoC.

During the commemoration, it is repeated that there is a need to ‘move on’; Lewis explains that ‘we have apologised’ and now need ‘to find a way forward’. Boris Johnson commemorates Bloody Sunday by reinstating the Secretary of State’s call ‘to learn from the past, to reconcile’ and look to the ‘future’. This narrative in the British government has been present from the release of the Saville Inquiry. In the debate on this inquiry, the Secretary of State for NI stated that it ‘closes a painful chapter’ and Laurence Robertson explained how ‘[w]e have to move to the future; we have to put the past behind us’. The use of language distinguishes the past from the future and suggests that they are separate entities.

Historically, national reconciliation efforts, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in Sierra Leone and South Africa, have been shown to believe that acknowledging events is ‘akin’ to reconciliation and ‘closure’ for the victims. However, this is contested; Wave and the Bloody Sunday families have continually come together to express their belief that words do not constitute justice. This has been disregarded by the government. Gavin Williamson recounted that ‘an Irish friend once said to [him] “the problem in NI is that the Irish never forget and the British never remember”’. He states that it is ‘important to look forward, not constantly backwards’. This allocates blame to those in NI seeking justice and suggests they are impeding the reconciliation process as they are ‘constantly’ looking ‘backwards’. This is a common trope in denying victims justice and undermines the victims’ demands for justice and abstains the government from delivering what the victims want.


Further Reading:

  • Dermot P.J. Walsh, Bloody Sunday and the Rule of Law in Northern Ireland (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000).

  • Graham Dawson, 'Trauma, Place and the Politics of Memory: Bloody Sunday, Derry, 1972-2004', History Workshop Journal, 59 (Spring 2005).

Kirsty O'Rourke is an MA student in Public History at the University of York. Her research interests are in memorialisation and reconciliation. Kirsty’s current research is exploring how Irish history is represented in English public history, specifically how the Troubles are exhibited in English war and military museums.

Twitter: @KirstyMORourke


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