To control the increasing power of the IRA, the British government sent the army into Northern Ireland and began a policy of internment. This meant that police or soldiers could seize a suspected terrorist without formal charges and hold him or her indefinitely. By 1972, hundreds of Irish Catholics were being detained on these terms.
NICRA protested internment by holding a march through Derry's Bogside neighborhood on January 30, 1972. The local RUC chief recommended that the march be allowed to proceed as planned. An unnamed authority, however, decided instead to use the event to send in British paratroopers to arrest IRA members.
To get a feel for the emotions that the Troubles inflicted in the Republic of Ireland, listen to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” by the Irish band U2 (
Shots Are Fired
The march went on as planned and was relatively uneventful until around 4 P.M., when the soldiers arrived. They moved past the barricades and opened fire on the crowd. The march immediately dispersed in panic, and the troops followed to pursue the “arrest operation.” The precise order of events that followed has been disputed for the last three decades, but the indisputable fact is that the soldiers shot thirteen civilians dead on the spot and injured another man who later died of his wounds.
After the troops had moved out, British authorities immediately issued statements that the men killed were IRA members who had fired on the soldiers. But in the days that followed, these claims were retracted. Subsequent investigations determined that none of the men killed were carrying weapons. Investigations also failed to establish that there was any concentrated IRA presence at the scene or that the soldiers had been fired on first. What is clear is that not a single soldier was injured during the operation.
The Widgery Report
Bloody Sunday was the first time in the Troubles that British soldiers had opened fire at unarmed civilians. People throughout Ireland were outraged by the atrocity; on February 2 a mob attacked and burned the British embassy in Dublin, and in Australia, dockers refused to unload British cargo ships. The British government appointed Lord Widgery, lord chief justice of England, to investigate. Widgery determined that none of the victims could be proved to have had weapons, and that while some of the soldiers might have acted irresponsibly, they did not act illegally. In compiling this report, Widgery reviewed the reports of soldiers and RUC officers but ignored the statements collected from more than 500 civilians at the scene. No soldiers were punished. The Widgery report was met with outrage — some even refer to it as the Widgery Whitewash.
Bloody Sunday ignited Catholic fears of government bias. The British government decided that the situation in Northern Ireland had gone beyond the local government's ability to control. It suspended the Northern Ireland Parliament in Stormont and imposed direct rule from London. The fifty-year experiment in home rule was over.
By the late 1990s, new information on Bloody Sunday suggested that the soldiers had fired intentionally on unarmed civilians. It also appears that investigators intentionally whitewashed events from the beginning, even to the point of revising soldiers' statements.