The Saville report, almost 40 years since the events, has declared that those killed by British paratroopers were indeed innocent, something the people of Derry had known all along. Now there is an attempt to distance the British authorities from those tragic events and put the blame solely on this or that officer or soldier. Gerry Ruddy comments on why those events took place, the results that flowed from them and the lessons that need to be learnt.
The Saville report has been delivered and all those killed were innocent victims. That is the decision of a second British inquiry nearly forty years after the event. The day after the actual killings the vast majority of people in Ireland knew that the dead were innocent victims of brutal Paratrooper murders. The first British inquiry by Lord Chief Justice Widgery was a complete British whitewash slandering the dead and praising the actions of the British paratroopers. However the Saville report cleared the dead, denied there was complicity between the Government and the Army to killed innocent protesters and blamed the deaths directly on the loss of control by the paratroopers and the wrong actions of their immediate commander on the ground on that Sunday. The good old “a few bad apples” argument!
Why the difference between the two reports? Forty years ago the British state’s main allies in Ireland were the then monolithic Unionist Party, who controlled Stormont in the interests of the Protestant ascendancy with close links to the British ruling class. The Tories were then known as the Conservative and Unionist Party. In the south of Ireland Britain’s allies were then mainly in the Fine Gael Party while the main ruling party, Fianna Fail still paid lip service to its republican traditions while selling off Ireland’s assets to the highest bidders.
It could not be seen to be too close to the British and some of its members had helped get arms to northern nationalists after loyalist mobs, at the behest of the ruling unionist ruling class, had unleashed a sectarian pogrom on northern nationalists to crush the civil rights movement in August 1969. But those guns were not to go to the leftist IRA that posed a threat to the Southern ruling class. These events split the IRA and started a long running competition between the two IRA’s for support within nationalist areas eventually won by the Provisional IRA.
So in the interests of the Union the British state decided to back their Unionist allies and clamp down on the increasingly militant civil rights movement. Already they had introduced internment of nationalists only in August 1971 alienating the whole nationalist population, forcing the moderate nationalists to boycott Stormont and spawning a rent and rates strikes within nationalist working class estates.
British agents had also infiltrated the IRA engaging in bank robberies in the South of Ireland to force the Government there to clamp down on the IRA and discredit the growing mass movement.
As events spiralled out of control the British government unleashed the paratroopers knowing full well what the consequences would be. The week before Bloody Sunday they had British troops beat moderate civil rights leaders from Magilligan Strand where they were protesting against the internment of nationalists. They also warned “influential nationalist leaders” what they would do in an effort to get mass protests called off. When that failed they murdered people on the streets of Derry. It should not be forgotten that the then unionist leaderships applauded the massacres in Derry, indeed some calling for even more “Bloody Sundays”.
Fast forward to 2010. With the political and economic changes since the seventies, including the closer integration of the European Union, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the establishment of the power sharing administration at Stormont and the establishment of cross border bodies, relationships between Britain and Ireland’s ruling classes are now closer than ever. Unionism is fragmented and even the previously hard-line DUP has agreed to work jointly with nationalist and republicans (of the PSF variety).
Hence the remarkable statement in the British House of Commons by Prime Minister Cameron accepting the Saville report in full and hanging the paratroopers out to dry. Better them than the British establishment!!
For the vast majority of the people of Derry the result was welcome vindication of what they knew all along and particularly for the relatives of the dead and wounded of Bloody Sunday. Their remarkable persistence in exposing the truth of the events of those days eventually has paid off. Britain stands before the world guilty of mass murder against innocent unarmed civilians and not for the first time in its history.
But Bloody Sunday not only saw the death of the 14 civilians it also saw the death of the mass civil rights movement. No longer were people prepared to argue that non-violent protest for civil rights was justified. Nor were organizers of marches prepared to bring people onto the streets after the initial shock of Bloody Sunday. Instead many activists came to the conclusion that the only thing that would make the British listen was violence.
Literally hundreds of young men and girls rushed to join the IRAs. The more militant Provo (IRA) attracted the most recruits and the influence of the Officials (IRA) declined, especially after it called a ceasefire just months after Bloody Sunday and then the IRSP/INLA was formed from a split two years later. Few of the initial recruits joined for ideological reasons for a united Ireland, a republic or socialism. Most wanted revenge and only during the subsequent years, through the experience of guerrilla warfare, did some begin to take clear ideological positions. Hence the struggles within the IRSP for Marxist ideas and later on the formation of the League of Communist Republicans inside the prison camps. (www.fourthwrite.ie/lcr.pdf)
The adoption of a long war strategy by the Northern Provos did not, as it was believed it would, sap the will of the British to maintain its control of the North. The North was not Britain’s Vietnam.
Political activists who had grown up in the sixties were influenced by the Cuban revolution, the Vietnam War and the student unrest in the Universities. The repression of the Stalinist regimes held no attraction for political activists. Instead many saw armed struggle as generally applicable to overthrow regimes. Hence the popularity of the writings of Che Guevara despite the failure of his Bolivian adventure and the popularity of books such as “War of the Flea” Even many influenced by Marxism followed the guerrilla tendencies. They used quotations from the Marxist classics to justify and tail end armed struggle forgetting the central tenet of Marxism provided by Marx himself in the Communist Manifesto itself:
“In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement. The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only:
“1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.
“2. In the various stages of development, which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.
“The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch02.htm)
Various Marxist tendencies in Ireland seduced by the possibility of short cuts to revolution using armed struggle forgot these ideas of Marx. They either joined republican organisations to try to win them over to Marxist ideas or gave critical support whilst criticizing their tactics. Other Marxists decided to concentrate on ritual appeals to abstract class unity whist ignoring issues that heavily impacted on working class nationalists.
It is easy to be wise after the event, criticize too harshly the failure of the left over the past forty years. But after Bloody Sunday the influence of the left, which had been growing amongst sections of the nationalist working class, was severely curtailed. Maybe that was the intention, for as events turned out the British found it relatively easy to curb, curtail and limit the long war until eventually the Provos recognised the reality of failure, sued for peace and adopted a new strategy called the peace process.
What caused the Brits most problems were mass protests and the active involvement of thousands of people in political activity. It also certainly inconvenienced the elitists within the Provos who could not tolerate independent political activity by ordinary working class nationalists. Hence they set out cynically to take over every manifestation of class or community activity within the nationalist working class and rather than reach out to disaffected sections of the protestant working class, whipped up sectarian feeling and hatreds.
The left failed to win that struggle with the Provos for hegemony among the nationalist working class. But the left must learn from the mistakes made, especially after the events of Bloody Sunday. There is no short cut to winning over the working class to socialist ideas.
[Originally published in The Red Plough, Vol. 1-No 10, 28th June 2010 http://theredplough.blogspot.com/]