Confrontations and violence between protestors, police and soldiers were a regular occurrence during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. But no single act of violence ignited more controversy than Bloody Sunday, the fatal shooting of 14 civilians in Derry. On January 30th 1972 around 30,000 people gathered in the city to march against the policy of internment. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), supported by British paratroopers, contained the march to the Bogside area where, for reasons that remain in dispute, a contingent of soldiers opened fire on civilian protestors. These shots struck 25 people, 13 of whom were killed instantly with another dying from his injuries weeks later. All of the dead were Catholics and seven were teenagers. Their deaths rocked Northern Ireland and incited horror, outrage and protest around the world. Both Westminster and the British Army sought to justify the shootings by alleging that several of the victims were carrying weapons. It was also claimed the paratroopers had come under fire from snipers in the crowd or nearby buildings. A British investigation, overseen by Lord Widgery and rushed through in just ten weeks, backed the Army, finding that some of the victims were carrying pipe bombs. Nationalists, however, refuted these claims.
The context for Bloody Sunday was rising anger among Northern Ireland’s Catholic population about the use of internment. In mid-1971 Northern Ireland’s Unionist government, led by prime minister Brian Faulkner, suggested curtailing Republican paramilitary violence by arresting suspected Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteers and interning them without trial. Stormont secured the reluctant approval of Westminster and in August 1971 the British Army launched Operation Demetrius, arresting and interrogating 342 suspected Republican paramilitary volunteers. These individuals were held without charge or trial and detained in makeshift camps, under the auspices of Northern Ireland’s Special Powers Act. Many later claimed to have received brutal, even torturous treatment during interrogation sessions. Northern Ireland’s Catholics viewed internment as an act of sectarian persecution. No Loyalist groups or individuals were interned in 1971, while many of those detained were vocal civil rights campaigners rather than paramilitary volunteers.
The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) and its constituent groups responded to internment with a series of protests. In September 1971 civil rights groups in Belfast encouraged Catholic families to protest against internment by refusing to pay rent or rates to government agencies. By the end of the month an estimated 90 per cent of Belfast’s Catholic households were participating in the ‘rent strike’, costing local authorities more than £100,000. On January 2nd 1972 NICRA organised an anti-internment rally in Belfast, defying the Northern Ireland government’s ban on marches and parades. Several thousand people gathered in the city centre and marched along the Falls Road; they were not hindered by police and the protest was completed peacefully. Of more concern to police was another NICRA march, scheduled to be held in Derry in late January. With its large working class Catholic population, Derry was a crucible of Republican radicalism and a march there had the potential for anti-government violence and property damage. Stormont and British security chiefs allowed the Derry march to proceed, however barricades were erected to contain the protest to Catholic areas of the city, away from central Derry. A British Army contingent, the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, was dispatched to Derry on the orders of Major General Ford, Commander of Forces in Northern Ireland. The paratroopers were ordered to assist the RUC with containing the march and arresting troublemakers.
The anti-internment march began in the early afternoon of January 30th, with protestors setting off from Creggan Estate, some carrying the banner of the Derry Civil Rights Association. Estimates of the number of marchers vary considerably. According to NICRA and other civil rights groups, between 20,000 and 25,000 people participated in the January 30th protests; government sources and the Widgery report claimed the number was much lower, perhaps as few as 3,000. NICRA organisers had planned to march through Nationalist areas before stopping at Guildhall, the historic building that housed Derry’s city council, where they were to hear several anti-internment speeches. But at around 3.45pm the marchers approached Rossville Street in the Bogside and encountered British Army-manned barricades, blocking their way to Guildhall Square. Most of the marchers, following the instructions of NICRA organisers, proceeded up Rossville Street and Lecky Road to rally at Free Derry Corner. However a contingent of radical protestors, mostly young males, advanced on a road block on William Street, throwing stones and other small projectiles. Soldiers behind this barricade retaliated with tear gas and water cannon, while two nearby observers were wounded with plastic bullets.
Many of the events from this point on remain in dispute. The first shootings came at around 3.55pm, when a platoon of soldiers opened fire on several men in a disused building. Their shots struck two people: Damien Donaghy, 15, and John Johnston, 59; both were taken to hospital for treatment. Approximately ten minutes after this incident a larger contingent of soldiers moved into the Bogside, proceeding along William Street and then into Rossville Street, toward Free Derry Corner. According to testimony given at the subsequent Widgery tribunal, British Army Command had received a report that an IRA sniper was active in the area. As a result, 1st Parachute Regiment was given permission to enter the area. From here the situation deteriorated rapidly. The soldiers opened fire at around 4.10pm. The first fatality was John ‘Jackie’ Duddy, 17, who was shot in the chest near a block of flats on Rossville Street. According to witnesses, Duddy was unarmed and running away from the advancing soldiers. A local priest, Father Edward Daly, was near Duddy when he was shot and remained by his side. Photographs and footage of Daly giving Duddy the last rites, then leading a group of men carrying his body, have become powerful visual relics of Bloody Sunday.
According to British Army evidence, the shooting continued for almost 30 minutes, during which time 21 soldiers fired 108 rounds. Most of it occurred in four areas: around the Rossville Street flats, on Rossville Street itself and near two residential areas, Glenfada Park and Abbey Park. When the shooting ended at around 4.40pm, another 23 people had been struck by gunfire, 13 of them fatally. At least seven of the dead were shot from behind. One victim, 22-year-old James Wray, was shot dead at close range after being disabled by an earlier shot to his legs; witnesses claimed Wray was pleading for assistance when the fatal shot came. Gerald McKinney, 35, was killed going to the aid of the fatally injured Gerald Donaghey, 17. Witnesses later testified that McKinney was holding his arms aloft and crying “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” when he was shot through the torso. Another man, William McKinney, 26, was shot dead when he went to assist Gerald McKinney. Two other men – William Nash, 19, and Bernard McGuigan, 41 – were also killed while going to the aid of injured people; McGuigan was shot through the head from behind while waving a white handkerchief. The death toll from Bloody Sunday rose to 14 in June 1972 when John Johnson, the first to be shot, died from complications from his injuries. Among the wounded were four more teenagers, including 18-year-old Alana Burke, whose pelvis was crushed when she was run over by a British military vehicle.
News of the shootings in Derry were quickly flashed around Northern Ireland, Britain and the rest of the world. The Guardian’s Simon Winchester described the shootings as the culmination of a “tragic and inevitable Doomsday situation which has been universally forecast for Northern Ireland.” An editorial in The Times suggested that “the dreadful day’s work” would carry Northern Ireland to “a finally ungovernable condition”. The Republican and left-wing press declared Bloody Sunday an act of state-sanctioned terror. “This was murder”, screamed the front page of the Militant, a British socialist newspaper. The Republic of Ireland government recalled its ambassador to Britain, demanding an end to internment and the “harassment” of Catholics in Northern Ireland. The apportionment of blame also quickly followed. In London, British Home Secretary Reginald Maudling addressed parliament on January 31st and claimed that soldiers had “returned the fire directed at them with aimed shots… on those who were attacking them with firearms and with bombs”. Shortly after the Nationalist MP Bernadette Devlin – who had been present in Derry and witnessed the events of Bloody Sunday – called Maudling a “murdering hypocrite”, crossed the House of Commons floor and punched him in the face. On February 2nd a crowd of thousands advanced on the British embassy in Dublin and burned it to the ground.
Brian Conway, historian
Despite its immediate assertions that the Derry shootings were a justifiable response to sniper fire and nail bombs, the British government promised to investigate the events of January 30th. Days later the government handed this task to John Widgery, a career jurist who had overseen several inquiries. But as an Englishman with no special knowledge of Ulster, a former army officer, a life peer and a political conservative, Widgery’s impartiality was immediately questioned. His investigation and its subsequent report are now considered by most commentators and legal experts to be a failure, if not a whitewash. Widgery conducted just three weeks of hearings in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, and submitted his final report after just 11 weeks. Though framed in guarded terms, the 45-page Widgery report exonerated the soldiers of any criminal wrongdoing. The firing of the paratroopers had “bordered on the reckless”, Widgery found, but “there was no general breakdown in discipline”. The soldiers had acted in line with their understanding of orders given and the rules of the engagement. Widgery cast much of the blame on NICRA and unidentified parties who had fired on or threatened the soldiers. Despite a lack of conclusive evidence it was implied that some of the victims had been using or carrying weapons or improvised explosives. The Widgery report remained the British government’s official position until a second investigation, the Saville inquiry, was commissioned in 1998 and concluded in 2010.
If the killings of January 30th had driven a stake into the heart of Anglo-Northern Irish relations, the rushed and one-sided Widgery report provided the final hammer blow. Whatever trust the British government enjoyed among the Nationalist community was now irretrievably shattered. British diplomat John Peck later wrote that Bloody Sunday “unleashed a wave of fury and exasperation… hatred of the British was intense”. It transformed moderate Nationalists into Republicans, pacifists into militants, the ambivalent into the outraged. According to Father Edward Daly, “people who were there on that day and who saw what happened were absolutely enraged by it and just wanted to seek some kind of revenge… many young people I [later] visited in prison told me quite explicitly that they would never have become involved in the IRA but for what they had witnessed, or heard of happening, on Bloody Sunday”. Perhaps the best evidence of this can be found in the level of violence that followed Bloody Sunday, with 1972 the deadliest year of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
1. Bloody Sunday was an incident on January 30th 1972 when British soldiers opened fire on marchers in Derry.
2. Fourteen people were fatally shot, half of them teenagers, in the Rossville Street area of Bogside.
3. The shootings occurred during an anti-internment march organised by NICRA, attended by several thousand.
4. Soldiers claimed to be responding to sniper fire, though several were shot from behind or while helping others.
5. The British government responded to Bloody Sunday by defending the soldiers, a position reinforced by a hastily organised and concluded inquiry, headed by Baron Widgery. The killings on January 30th and the lack of a thorough and impartial inquiry fuelled anti-British and pro-Republican sentiment.
This page was written by Rebekah Poole and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
R. Poole and J. Llewellyn, “Bloody Sunday 1972”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/northernireland/bloody-sunday-1972/.