By Robert P. Connolly
Special to the BIR
It is perhaps more than appropriate that the echoes of the gun shots fired in Derry on Jan. 30, 1972, have reverberated down through the decades.
On a literal level, the shots fired by British soldiers that day took the lives of 14 innocent civilians. In the immediate aftermath, the outrage that became known as Bloody Sunday spawned a paroxysm of violence – 1972 was the deadliest year of the Troubles with 496 people losing their lives – and gave the Irish Republican Army more legitimacy in its efforts to fashion itself as the defender of the Catholic community.
And in a larger sense, the echoes of Bloody Sunday have lingered on, with the Catholics or nationalists who live in Northern Ireland believing that the shootings were among the clearest examples of officials of the British state treating people with violence and contempt simply because they were Catholics seeking equal treatment in the North.
The shootings remained a blight on relations between nationalists and the British, with the tensions exacerbated by British and unionist insinuations that the members of the British Army’s Parachute Regiment opened up only after Catholics either fired first or in some way instigated the violence.
But the icy feelings thawed considerably last month when the British government’s official inquiry, led by Lord Saville, concluded that the shootings were unprovoked and asserted that the soldiers were entirely at fault. And as stirring as the findings were, the drama quotient soared when Britain’s new prime minister, David Cameron, took to the floor of the House of Commons and delivered an unambiguous apology to the victims and their families.
With his remarks being aired on a large screen in Derry’s Guildhall Square, Cameron, in his first real moment in the post-election spotlight, told a spellbound House of Commons: “The conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt. There is nothing equivocal. There are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.”
And then offering an unequivocal apology, Cameron said: “What happened should never, ever have happened. And for that, on behalf of the government, and indeed of our country, I am deeply sorry.”
Cameron’s words were praised by friend and foe alike. In Derry, relatives of the Bloody Sunday victims said the Saville Report and David Cameron’s apology made a real difference. Brigid Harkin, whose uncle died from wounds suffered on Bloody Sunday, said: “We never thought we’d see the day that they’d admit they [the victims] were innocent . . . it’s such a relief.”
Closer to home, Congressman Richard Neal, who traces his lifelong involvement in Irish issues to the shock and outrage that Bloody Sunday instilled in him, said there had been a catharsis. “In many ways, Bloody Sunday was the great stain on British-Irish history,” said Neal, a Springfield Democrat who serves as the chairman of the Friends of Ireland in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Neal says he remembers learning of the Bloody Sunday shootings when he was a student at American International College in Springfield. For a young man whose grandparents hailed from both sides of the Irish border, the news was profound and galvanizing. “It was transformative largely because I had a grandmother who was from Banbridge in County Down and this just reinforced everything she had always said: That there was a two-tiered justice system and that you couldn’t get a job and that the policing and the military were used to keep one section of the community in the control of the other,” the veteran congressman recalled.
Neal has kept a strong focus on Northern Ireland issues over the years: as a Springfield City Councilor speaking out about the Hunger Strike and Bobby Sands’s death, helping to write the Irish unification plank that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy brought to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, and pushing for peace and championing various human rights cases during his years in Congress.
Neal has also maintained close relationships with the families of Bloody Sunday victims and chatted with several in the days following the release of the 5,000-page Saville Report.
Neal said he gave a great deal of credit to Cameron, whose Conservative Party had forged an election alliance with the Ulster Unionist Party and thus came into office with many wondering whether he would tend to take an Orange view of the North. “It’s encouraging to note that David Cameron intends not to go backwards. I think we should congratulate Cameron for doing what he did, and I think we need to congratulate Tony Blair for insisting that as part of the Good Friday accord, that this review take place.”
Neal added: “I think this is quite transformative.”
By Robert P. Connolly