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Sunday, Bloody Sunday

June 16, 2010

Happy Wednesday loyal readers!  I hope you all had a great weekend wherever you were.  I spent it in humidity, the kind where you walk outside at 8am and feel the entire day settle on you and you can’t tell if the shower you just took is helping or hurting.   The kind of humidity that makes one realize why the word was invented in the first place.   I’ve been following the World Cup and the quest of the Atlanta Braves to find their way back to the postseason.  The news these days, both here and abroad, has been a bit grim, although there have been moments of levity (if one is willing to see the ironic humor in all of it).  Yes, I missed the Oval Office address last night, I was drinking whiskey and reading a little Stephen Jay Gould on baseball.  But all is not lost.

An amazing thing happened the other day in England.  After 12 long years of inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday, senior judge Lord Saville released his report on the January 30, 1972 Derry massacre, calling the actions of the British Army on that day “unjustified and unjustifiable.”   Large books and entire college courses have been devoted to the “Irish Question,” so I will not attempt to summarize all the myriad issues here, only the thirty-second overview (ok, maybe 5 minutes). 

As a preface, Derry is the name the city generally goes by to Irish Nationalists whereas Unionists refer to it as Londonderry.   As intelligent readers (you are, after all, reading this), you can see why groups have come out on the side they have.  There is a full recount of the origin of the naming dispute here.  I have gone the Derry route for no partisan reason.

The report (5,000 pages and ten volumes) describes Derry in January 1972 as “a trouble city with a divided society, in a troubled and divided country.  Throughout much of Northern Ireland there were deep and seemingly irreconcilable divisions between nationalists (predominantly Roman Catholic and a majority in the city) and unionists (generally Protestant and a majority in Northern Ireland as a whole). In general terms the former wanted Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and unite with the rest of Ireland, while the latter wanted it to remain part of the United Kingdom.”  The larger political context of Northern Ireland is well worth reading about, and the report does a thorough job at giving the background and lead-in to “The Troubles.”

In August 1971, the unionist Northern Ireland Government instituted a (stop me if this sounds familiar) policy of internment without trial of suspected terrorists.  At the same time, the government also placed a ban on marches and processions.  The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, however, decided in January 1972 to have a march to protest the internment policy.  The authorities knew it was going to happen, and as it was expected to be too large for the Derry police to handle on their own, the British Army (already in Derry since 1969 due to the violent, and alarmingly regular, violent clashes between the two sides and the police) were in charge of the main crowd control. 

While the march organizers planned to finish at Guildhall Square, the army and police ultimately decided to let the march proceed through the nationalist areas but block the roads leading into the Guildhall Square.   On the day of, several thousands gathered for the march.  The organizers knew of the blockades, so decided to detour the march to Free Derry Corner instead.  When, however, several thousand people turn up to an event that is a politically charged as this one was, all does not always go according to plan.  Many marchers, instead of turning towards Free Derry Corner, headed towards the blockades to Guildhall Square.

The resulting shootings, panic, and all around mass chaos led to the deaths of 13 marchers and the wounding of 15 others (one of whom later died).  The inquiry placed the responsibility of the Bloody Sunday deaths and injuries at the feet of the British Army, and in particular Support Company, the parachute regiment that carried out the fatal shootings.  The original 1972 report, exonerating the soldiers, recognized the soldiers’ almost reckless actions but believed their claims that those that were killed had been firing weapons or carrying bombs.  The Saville report completely undid this conclusion.  Although the youngest victim, 17 year-old Gerald Donaghey, was a junior IRA member and had homemade grenades (nail bombs) in his pockets, the report concluded he was shot as he ran away from the soldiers and posed no threat.

“None of the casualties shot by soldiers of Support Company was armed with a firearm or (with the probable exception of Gerald Donaghey) a bomb of any description. None was posing any threat of causing death or serious injury. In no case was any warning given before soldiers opened fire.”

David Cameron, the newly minted prime minister, apologized on behalf of the British state saying that he was “deeply sorry” for the events of that day and that the Saville Report was “absolutely clear” and left “no ambiguities” as to its conclusions.  I will not pontificate on the broader ramifications or potential criminal prosecutions (best left to the newspapers), instead I only offer my observation that this “day of reckoning” says a great deal about England and the United Kingdom’s capacity to take off its rose-colored glasses.

U2’s iconic song “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” – found on their 1983 album War and their 1983 live album Under a Blood Red Sky – is the Irish quartet’s homage to the incidents of that cold January day.  Under a Blood Red Sky was the first album I ever bought, and I was blown away by “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and “40.”  But while I was in love with its driving drumbeats and the classic intro by Bono that “there’s been a lot of talk about this next song.  Maybe, maybe too much talk.  This song is not a rebel song, this song is Sunday, Bloody Sunday” – I failed to appreciate its broader meaning for several years.

But a government charged by its leaders with investigating and accepting its history has vindicated the victims of Bloody Sunday, both those killed and those still living.  May our own government one day find its courage to do the same for the torture and atrocities committed in our own name.  England started this path 26 years after the fact; surely it’s not too late for us.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Betterpoint5 permalink
    June 24, 2010 3:58 pm

    I believe that you – like Einstein – may have abnormally high numbers of astrocytes in your brain. One of your charms http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126229305

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