“Bloody Sunday” in Northern Ireland Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Northern Ireland’s “Bloody Sunday” erupted when a peaceful demonstration led to a violent confrontation with British troops. Thirteen people, six of whom were minors, were killed.

Summary of Event

On January 30, 1972, a protest rally organized by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, to demand an end to the internment without trial of suspected terrorists resulted in a clash with British troops. Thirteen of the protesters, all Catholics, died, and more were wounded. The event, which quickly became known as “Bloody Sunday,” led to claims that the British had fired without provocation, a charge rejected by the official British investigation called the Widgery Report, although it was confirmed by various eyewitnesses. Northern Ireland;Bloody Sunday Bloody Sunday (Northern Ireland) [kw]"Bloody Sunday" in Northern Ireland (Jan. 30, 1972) [kw]Sunday" in Northern Ireland, “Bloody (Jan. 30, 1972) [kw]Northern Ireland, ”Bloody Sunday" in (Jan. 30, 1972) [kw]Ireland, “Bloody Sunday” in Northern (Jan. 30, 1972) Northern Ireland;Bloody Sunday Bloody Sunday (Northern Ireland) [g]Europe;Jan. 30, 1972: “Bloody Sunday” in Northern Ireland[00570] [g]United Kingdom;Jan. 30, 1972: “Bloody Sunday” in Northern Ireland[00570] [g]Ireland, Northern;Jan. 30, 1972: “Bloody Sunday” in Northern Ireland[00570] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan. 30, 1972: “Bloody Sunday” in Northern Ireland[00570] [c]Government and politics;Jan. 30, 1972: “Bloody Sunday” in Northern Ireland[00570] Craig, William Devlin, Bernadette Faulkner, Brian Heath, Edward Maulding, Reginald Paisley, Ian Whitelaw, William

Shocking as the deaths were to the Irish and British people, they were only part of a long, complex, and continuing struggle in Northern Ireland. This struggle may be said to have begun anew with the civil rights movement of 1967-1968, but it lay deep in the history of the “damnable question” of Anglo-Irish relations over many generations.

Northern Ireland came into existence on December 6, 1921, as a result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921)[Angloirish Treaty (1921)] a pragmatic compromise negotiated by Prime Minister David Lloyd George in the wake of the Easter Rising of 1916, the electoral victory of the Sinn Féin over the Parliamentary Party in the elections of 1918, and the establishment by the Sinn Féin Sinn Féin of an independent Irish parliament in 1919. The political division of Ireland corresponded neither to historical reality (the old Province of Ulster) nor to religious differences, but rather represented the maximum area over which those elements favorable to Britain held political control. The six northern counties of Ireland were granted limited local autonomy under the Northern Ireland parliament meeting in Stormont.

By the middle of the twentieth century, the area contained within the borders of Northern Ireland held a Protestant population of about one million and a Catholic population of about half a million. The religious division was accentuated by an economic division, for while two distinct “classes” could not be said to exist in the society, there was a clear tendency for Protestants to be wealthier and more politically powerful, and for Catholics to be poorer and politically weak. Most Protestants wished to continue the union with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and were thus known as Unionists while many Catholics, who hoped to incorporate Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland, were referred to as Nationalists.

A member of the British Parachute Regiment pursues a rioter in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, on Bloody Sunday.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The chain of events leading to the confrontation of 1972 began with the emergence of a civil rights movement. Irish activists took as their model the civil rights marches in the American South and endorsed the nonviolent tactics of Mahatma Gandhi and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. During the late 1960’s, Bernadette Devlin, a leader of the student group People’s Democracy, People’s Democracy[Peoples Democracy] became one of the most vocal critics of British rule in Northern Ireland. In 1968, the NICRA, espousing a nonsectarian unity of disadvantaged Protestants and Catholics, organized a series of marches, the first of which took place at Dungannon without incident. Then, in October of 1969, the first violent clash between marchers, police, and militant Protestant groups occurred in Londonderry. Confrontations became increasingly frequent in late 1968 and into 1969. In August, 1969, British troops assumed riot duty for the first time.

The Irish Republican Army Irish Republican Army (IRA), the traditional though illegal armed force favoring union of all Ireland, split into Official and Provisional factions over the question of tactics in January, 1970. The Official IRA supported the nonviolent methods of NICRA and provided marshals and other assistance during the marches. The Provisional IRA Provisional Irish Republican Army advocated more violent means. They ultimately took the initiative from all other groups with an argument that appealed to the Catholics, who formed the bulk of the ostensibly nonsectarian civil rights movement. The Provisional IRA argued that only violent resistance could protect the Catholic minority from the Protestant-leaning “B-Specials” police militia, and, as they later began to take form, from the various Protestant paramilitary groups.

Faced with escalating violence, the Northern Ireland parliament introduced the internment without trial of suspected terrorists in August, 1971. This measure, permitted under the Special Powers Act of 1922, was declared necessary by Brian Faulkner, the prime minister of Northern Ireland, to bring the increasingly militant IRA under control. The internments elicited negative responses from both foreign and domestic critics, and soon observers alleged that the internees were being kept under brutal conditions. Those charges provided the immediate occasion for the demonstration of January 30, 1972.

Although all demonstrations had been banned by the government of Northern Ireland, at mid-afternoon on January 30, six thousand demonstrators marched from Bishop’s Fields, their point of assembly, toward the Bogside district of Londonderry (commonly known as Derry to most Catholics and Nationalists). To avoid an impending confrontation, the march was diverted from its original course toward the Guildhall and redirected toward an alternate rally site at Free Derry Corner. One of the highlights of the rally was to have been a speech by Bernadette Devlin, who had held a seat in Parliament since 1969. At about 3:30 p.m., however, a group of Derry youths broke away from the main column and confronted the army barricades that had been erected to contain the march. British paratroopers were pelted with stones and bottles, and they responded with tear gas and fire hoses. The paratroopers then crossed the barricades, intending to arrest demonstrators. Encountering resistance and fearing attack, the paratroopers began firing their weapons into the crowd. In the next twenty minutes, thirteen young and unarmed men were dead and perhaps as many as eighteen other people were injured. The paratroopers later justified their actions by claiming that they had been fired on, but evidence in support of their claim was controversial.

Significance

The thirteen deaths on Bloody Sunday brought shock and rage to the Nationalist Irish community, many of whom saw the British cast in a role that they had played so often in Irish history—a repressive force against the Irish people. The Irish ambassador was withdrawn from London, and the British embassy in Dublin was firebombed. The continuing conflict and the differing interpretations between the two sides was dramatized on the following day, Monday, January 31, when Reginald Maulding, the British home secretary, announced in the House of Commons that an investigation would take place, but his remarks also seemed to defend the paratroopers’ actions. In response, Bernadette Devlin physically assaulted Maulding, accusing him of being a “murdering hypocrite.”

On March 24, 1972, Prime Minister Edward Heath of Great Britain announced plans for a solution to the problems of Northern Ireland, including the resignation of Prime Minister Faulkner and the effective dissolution of the Stormont government. William Whitelaw was appointed secretary of state for Northern Ireland. Fifty years after the partition of Ireland and the establishment of Northern Ireland with its own home rule parliament, the British had again assumed direct rule over a part of the island. The dissolution was approved by the Catholic community, which had little love for the Protestant-dominated Stormont, but it was ill received by such Protestant leaders as William Craig of the Vanguard Unionist Party, who desired independence for Northern Ireland.

Led by their spokesman, the Reverend Ian Paisley, another group of Protestants received the news of direct rule by England with moderate satisfaction, seeing it as a step toward full union with Britain and protection against “popery.” Direct British rule, however, proved not to be the panacea for a peaceful resolution of “the troubles” of Northern Ireland, as that fractured society continued on its path of increasing violence in the coming decades. However, a major development in Northern Ireland’s peace process occurred in 1998, when parties signed the Good Friday Agreement, Good Friday Agreement (1998) and in 2005, when the Provisional IRA announced an end to its armed resistance. Northern Ireland;Bloody Sunday Bloody Sunday (Northern Ireland)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bardon, Jonathan. A History of Ulster. 2d ed. Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2005. Well-written one-volume history of Ulster includes a sensitive discussion of the events in Northern Ireland during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bell, J. Bowyer. The Irish Troubles. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Analysis of Northern Ireland from 1967 to 1992 includes a brilliant account of Bloody Sunday.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Devlin, Bernadette. The Price of My Soul. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969. Although published before the events of Bloody Sunday, this work remains a valuable source regarding the Nationalist and Catholic position in Northern Ireland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamill, Desmond. Pig in the Middle: The Army in Northern Ireland, 1969-1984. London: Methuen, 1985. Discussion of the difficult position of the British army in Northern Ireland includes a commentary on Bloody Sunday.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hayes, Patrick Joseph, and Jim Campbell. Bloody Sunday: Trauma, Pain, and Politics. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Pluto Press, 2005. Covers the political and psychological aspects of the incident. Based on interviews with families of those killed by British soldiers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McClean, Raymond. The Road to Bloody Sunday. 2d ed. Derry, Ireland: Guildhall Press, 1997. An eyewitness account by a medical doctor who tried to treat the wounded and dying during the firing on Bloody Sunday.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCluskey, Conn. Up Off Their Knees: A Commentary on the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland. Galway: Conn McCluskey, 1989. Excellent work by an early and active participant in the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mullan, Don, and John Scally, eds. Eyewitness Bloody Sunday. Rev. ed. Dublin: Merlin, 2002. Contains testimonies by both soldiers and marchers of the incident. Paul Greengrass, whose 2002 film Bloody Sunday is based on this work, wrote the foreword.

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