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The Story Behind Bloody Sunday

The Story Behind Bloody Sunday

It’s impossible to talk about The Troubles in Northern Ireland without discussing Bloody Sunday.

An incident that would leave a mark for decades to come, it represented the violent chasm between Northern Ireland’s two communities (and the state) more than ever.

But how and why did British soldiers end up shooting 26 unarmed civilians? Here’s a look at the story behind Bloody Sunday.

Some quick need-to-knows behind Bloody Sunday

Bloody Sunday crosses

Photo by SeanMack (CC BY 3.0)

It’s worth taking 20 seconds to read the points below as they’ll get you up-to-speed on what happened on Bloody Sunday nice and quickly:

1. It’s arguably the most infamous incident of The Troubles

While Bloody Sunday didn’t start The Troubles, it was an early powder keg moment that fuelled Catholic and Irish republican animosity towards the British Army and significantly worsened the conflict.

2. It took place in Derry

People generally associate The Troubles with Belfast and the violence that took place between Falls Road and the Shankhill Road communities, but Bloody Sunday happened in Derry. In fact, the Bogside area of the city where it happened was only three years removed from the famous Battle of the Bogside – one of the first major events of The Troubles.

3. 14 Catholics died

Not only did 14 Catholics die that day, but It was the highest number of people killed in a shooting incident during the entire 30-year conflict and is considered the worst mass shooting in Northern Irish history.

4. There were multiple investigations

The controversy about Bloody Sunday didn’t simply end with the actions of the soldiers. The British government held two investigations over the course of 40 years into the events of that day. The first inquiry largely cleared the soldiers and British authorities of any wrongdoing, leading to a second one years later due to the former’s obvious errors.

The Start of The Troubles and the build-up to Bloody Sunday

The Bogside

Westland Street in the Bogside by Wilson44691 (Photo in the Public Domain)

In the years leading up to Bloody Sunday, Derry had been a source of severe agitation for the city’s Catholic and nationalist communities. The city’s boundaries had been gerrymandered to consistently return Unionist councillors despite Unionists and Protestants being a minority within Derry. 

And with the poor state of housing alongside inadequate transport links, there was also a feeling of Derry getting left behind, leading to further animosity. 

Following the events of the Battle of the Bogside in 1969 and the Free Derry barricades, the British Army took on a far greater presence in Derry (a development that was actually welcomed initially by the nationalist communities, as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was generally regarded as a sectarian police force).

However, skirmishes between the Provisional Irish Republican Army (Provisional IRA) and the British Army had begun to become a frequent and bloody occurrence throughout this time period in Derry and across Northern Ireland, largely thanks to Britain’s policy of ‘internment without trial’ for anyone suspected of being involved with the IRA. 

At least 1,332 rounds were fired at the British Army, who fired 364 rounds in return. The British Army also faced 211 explosions and 180 nail bombs.

Despite all of these conditions, on the 18th of January 1972, Northern Irish Prime Minister Brian Faulkner banned all parades and marches in the region until the end of the year.

But regardless of the ban, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) still intended to hold an anti-internment march in Derry on the 30th of January.

Related read: differences between Ireland and Northern IrelandSee our guide to the in 2023

Bloody Sunday 1972

Surprisingly, the authorities decided to allow the demonstration to happen and proceed through the Catholic areas of the city but to stop it from reaching Guildhall Square (as planned by the organisers) in order to avoid rioting.

The protesters planned on marching from Bishop’s Field, in the Creggan housing estate, to the Guildhall in the city centre, where they would hold a rally.

Despite a reputation for using excessive physical violence, the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment (1 PARA) was sent to Derry to arrest any possible rioters.

The march set-off at 14:25

With around 10,000–15,000 people on the march, it set off at about 2:45 pm with many joining along the way.

The march made its way along William Street, but as it neared the city centre, its path was blocked by British Army barriers.

The organisers decided to redirect the march down Rossville Street instead, intending to hold the rally at Free Derry Corner. 

Stone-throwing and rubber bullets

However, some broke off from the march and threw stones at soldiers manning the barriers. The soldiers apparently fired rubber bullets, CS gas and water cannons.

Clashes like this between soldiers and youths were common, and observers reported that the rioting was not intense. 

The things took a turn

But when some of the crowd threw stones at paratroopers occupying a derelict building overlooking William Street, the soldiers opened fire. These were the first shots fired, and they wounded two civilians.

Not long after this, paratroopers (on foot and in armoured vehicles) were ordered to go through the barriers and arrest rioters, and there were numerous claims of paratroopers beating people, clubbing them with rifle butts, firing rubber bullets at them from close range, making threats to kill and hurling abuse.

At a barricade that stretched across Rossville Street, a group were throwing stones at soldiers when the soldiers suddenly opened fire, killing six and injuring a seventh. Further skirmishes took place at Rossville Flats and in the car park of Glenfada Park, with more unarmed civilians losing their lives.

About ten minutes had elapsed between the time soldiers drove into the Bogside and the time the last civilian was shot, with the first ambulances arriving at around 4:28 pm. More than 100 rounds had been fired by the British soldiers that afternoon.

The aftermath of Bloody Sunday

Free Derry

Left and bottom right photo: The Irish Road Trip. Top Right: Shutterstock

By the time the ambulances arrived, 26 people had been shot by the paratroopers. Thirteen died on the day, with another dying of his injuries four months later. 

Despite the official British Army position that paratroopers had reacted to gun and nail bomb attacks from suspected IRA members, all eyewitnesses—including marchers, local residents and British and Irish journalists present—maintain that soldiers fired into an unarmed crowd. 

Not a single British soldier was wounded by gunfire or reported any injuries. Nor were any bullets or nail bombs recovered to back up their claims. 

Relations between Britain and the Republic of Ireland immediately began to deteriorate in the aftermath of the atrocity.

A General Strike was held across the Republic on the 2nd of February 1972 and, on that same day, furious crowds burned down the British embassy on Merrion Square in Dublin.

Anglo-Irish relations were particularly strained when the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Patrick Hillery, went to the United Nations Security Council to demand the involvement of a UN peacekeeping force in the Northern Ireland conflict. 

Inevitably, after an event like this, an inquiry would be needed to work out exactly how things transpired the way they did. 

The Inquiries into the events of Bloody Sunday

Bloody Sunday memorial

Bloody Sunday Memorial by AlanMc (Photo in the Public Domain)

The first inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday appeared surprisingly quickly. Completed only 10 weeks after Bloody Sunday and published within 11 weeks, the Widgery Inquiry was overseen by the Lord Chief Justice Lord Widgery and commissioned by Prime Minister Edward Heath.

The report supported the British Army’s account of events and its evidence included paraffin tests used to identify lead residues from firing weapons, as well as claims that nail bombs had been found on one of the dead.

No nail bombs were ever found and tests for traces of explosives on the clothes of eleven of the dead proved negative, while those of the remaining men could not be tested as they had already been washed.

A cover-up was suspected

Not only were the conclusions of the report disputed, many felt that it was a total cover-up and only went on to further antagonise the Catholic community.

Although there indeed were many IRA men at the protest that day, it’s claimed they were all unarmed, largely because it was expected that the paratroopers would attempt to ‘draw them out’. 

In 1992, Northern Irish nationalist politician John Hume requested a new public inquiry, but it was denied by Prime Minister John Major. 

A new £195 million inquiry

Five years later, however, Britain had a new Prime Minister in Tony Blair, who clearly felt there had been failings with the Widgery Inquiry.

In 1998 (the same year that the Good Friday Agreement was signed), he decided to launch a new public inquiry into Bloody Sunday and the second commission was decided to be chaired by Lord Saville. 

Interviewing a wide range of witnesses, including local residents, soldiers, journalists and politicians, the Saville Inquiry was a far more comprehensive study of what happened on Bloody Sunday and took over 12 years to produce, with the findings finally published in June 2010. 

In fact, the inquiry was so comprehensive that it cost around £195 million to complete and interviewed over 900 witnesses across seven years. In the end, it was the biggest investigation in British legal history.

But what did it find?

The conclusion was damning. In its conclusion, the report said that “The firing by soldiers of 1 PARA on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury.”

According to the report, not only had the British ‘lost control’ of the situation, but they also then concocted lies about their conduct after the fact in an attempt to hide the facts.

The Saville Inquiry also stated that the civilians had not been warned by British soldiers that they intended to fire their guns.

The arrest of one former soldier

With such strong conclusions, it’s no surprise that a murder investigation was then launched. But with the passing of over 40 years since Bloody Sunday, only one former soldier was arrested.

On 10 November 2015, a 66-year-old former member of the Parachute Regiment was arrested for questioning over the deaths of William Nash, Michael McDaid and John Young. 

Four years later in 2019, ‘Soldier F’ was charged with two murders and four attempted murders, yet he would be the only one ever prosecuted, much to the chagrin of the relatives of the victims. 

But in July 2021, the Public Prosecution Service decided it would no longer prosecute “Soldier F” because statements from 1972 were deemed inadmissible as evidence. 

The legacy of Bloody Sunday

U2 Bono

From the impassioned lyrics of U2’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ to Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Casualty’, Bloody Sunday has left an indelible mark on Ireland and was a moment of enormous controversy during The Troubles. 

But at the time, the immediate legacy of the killings was a boost to IRA recruitment and the outrage that then fuelled paramilitary violence through subsequent decades as The Troubles progressed. 

The loss of life

Through the three previous years (from the Battle of the Bogside onwards), The Troubles had claimed around 200 lives. In 1972, the year in which Bloody Sunday took place, a total of 479 people died.

It ended up being Northern Ireland’s worst year of slaughter. The annual death rate wouldn’t fall below 200 again until 1977. 

The IRA’s response

Six months after Bloody Sunday, the Provisional IRA responded. They detonated some 20 bombs across Belfast, killing nine people and leaving 130 more wounded.

So it could be argued that without Bloody Sunday, Northern Ireland’s history could have been very different.

“What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the Army and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed,” said Lord Saville in the report.

“Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland.”

50 years on

50 years after the event, it’s unlikely that any more soldiers will ever be prosecuted for what happened on that January afternoon in 1972, but at least the Saville Report laid bare what really happened and banished the uneasy memory of Lord Widgery’s erroneous inquiry.

These days, modern Derry is unrecognisable from the Derry of 1972 but the legacy of Bloody Sunday still lives on in memory.

FAQs about Bloody Sunday

We’ve had a lot of questions over the years asking about everything from ‘Why did it happen?’ to ‘What took place in its aftermath?’.

In the section below, we’ve popped in the most FAQs that we’ve received. If you have a question that we haven’t tackled, ask away in the comments section below.

What was Bloody Sunday and why did it happen?

During a demonstration by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) on the 30th of January, British soldiers opened fire and killed 14 unarmed civilians.

How many died on Bloody Sunday?

Not only did 14 Catholics die that day, but It was the highest number of people killed in a shooting incident during the entire 30-year conflict and is considered the worst mass shooting in Northern Irish history.

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