The first thing you notice about Derry, a city of 110,000 or so in the north of Ireland close to the much-contested border of partition, is that it’s beautiful. It’s hilly and green and the River Foyle winds through it and the ancient walls that enclose the old city are gorgeous—if you forget for a moment that they were built to keep the Irish out of the colonial settlement. Like so many other places that have become household names because of the violence inflicted on their people, the loveliness of this particular part of Ireland often gets forgotten.
Derry was beautiful on Sunday, January 30, as a cold drizzle fell on the thousands of marchers winding their way from the neighborhood of Creggan down the hill to the Bogside to commemorate the 1972 killings of fourteen unarmed people by British soldiers. The families of the dead and their neighbors, friends, and allies march every year; this, the fiftieth anniversary, was even more painfully significant, more of an aching reminder that, as the famous Free Derry wall was repainted this winter to say, “There is no British justice.”
What is known as Bloody Sunday was an inflection point in the conflict euphemistically known as the Troubles, itself a point on the centuries-long curve of the Irish freedom struggle. Between the building of the stone walls and the peace walls, between colonization and partition and the Good Friday agreement, the Irish fought by various means to reclaim their land. In the 1960s, a civil rights movement inspired by the Black freedom movement in the United States grew in the North to demand representation and rights for the Catholic Irish, who were still closed out of politics and decent jobs by various means legal and extralegal. The British military’s crackdown only made the various factions of the Irish rebellion more determined, and the violence left them with so much grief—grief aggravated by the continued attempts to blame them for their own brutalization.
That Sunday in 1972, nearly 15,000 people defied a ban on marches to call for the release of hundreds of activists and militants who were being held without trial. Anger over their internment in military camps (complete with violent interrogations and what we’d now very clearly call torture) had swelled the ranks of the protesters as well as the armed militants of the Irish Republican Army—the two organizations with that name, which had recently split into the Provisional IRA and the Official IRA. It also kicked off a massive civil resistance campaign that included rent and bill strikes, allowing people who might not come out to the streets and certainly would not pick up guns to withdraw their consent from the partitioned government. In response, the Parachute Regiment of the British Army was sent in with an armored vehicle and opened fire.
And so this year too marchers made their way down the hill, accompanied by Republican marching bands and bearing flags from local and national organizations, including dissident nationalist groups, the socialists of People Before Profit, pro-choice marchers (abortion is still not readily available in the North), and the Palestine solidarity campaign. When they reached the Free Derry corner, the marching bands halted, and “We Shall Overcome,” borrowed, like other tactics, from Black American activists, poured through the loudspeaker. The conversations and even laughter occasionally heard on the march quieted, and Bernadette McAliskey, known at the time of Bloody Sunday as Bernadette Devlin MP (elected to the British Parliament aged just twenty-one), took the microphone.
McAliskey spoke softly, intimately even, to the thousands huddled in the rain. She remembered calling the hospital to find out what had happened to the people who’d been shot, and recalled her realization that as a member of parliament she could make demands that would otherwise be ignored and the chilling feeling that set in as the list of the dead grew. The British state’s narrative of the day would, if it accepted blame at all, have placed it on the soldiers who held the guns, but McAliskey pointed out that responsibility lay with those who ordered them in and put the guns in their hands. It was a deliberate decision, she said: “This was the day when the change of British government policy . . . came to fruition on these streets.”
Bloody Sunday, in other words, was not an aberration. “I get angry with myself,” she said to the hushed crowd. “I should have seen it.” But of course the blame does not lie with her, even if the argument since the April 1972 Widgery Report—the result of the British government’s first inquiry into the day—is that the people of Derry brought death upon themselves.
Eamonn McCann, who was, like McAliskey, one of those who had led the struggle in the 1970s and up until very recently a local elected official in Derry with People Before Profit, recalled how on that day in 1972, McAliskey’s “soprano Tyrone accent” was interrupted by gunshots from the Parachute Regiment. He told the crowd that what happened that day “defined Derry over the subsequent years” but was also much bigger, a continuation of the unrest of the 1960s and part of the trajectory of Irish struggle and of the overwhelming force unleashed to quell the tides of change. He spoke about the American students shot down by American soldiers at Kent State and Jackson State, and called attention to the way the Jackson students, who were Black, have not been remembered the same way the white Kent State students were.
The grief of those in Derry, then, is deeply personal and also broadly political, local and global, and that is why I and so many others from outside of Derry and outside of Ireland came to the march this year. Many in the families and the community still want to see trials of the soldiers involved—prosecutions of a couple of the soldiers involved in the Derry killings began but were halted in 2021—but the justice they seek is also bigger than that.
“I’m not really concerned about . . . the rank-and-file paratroopers being brought to court. I would support giving the paratroopers a complete amnesty if I could get General Sir Michael Jackson into the courts,” McCann said, naming one of the commanding officers who “drew up the plan for Bloody Sunday and came to Derry to implement it.” Ultimately, he stressed, the British state decided to send in soldiers, making the deaths of unarmed people in some way inevitable.
Bloody Sunday, McCann said, was “a very British atrocity,” reflecting, akin to the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, the way the British ruling class has always treated its troublemakers. “Bloody Sunday is a microcosm of the way ruling classes everywhere value their citizens’ lives as nothing when their privileges and their rules comes under pressure.” And indeed, the marchers included other victims of British state violence, in Ireland and elsewhere, in their day of mourning and resolve, welcoming comrades from Tottenham and Hillsborough and other places besides. The slogan “There is no British justice” was a reminder of the ways the state has failed so many people and continues to do so, whether through the fast violence of the bullet or through a thousand other slow cruelties.
The official Bloody Sunday anniversary committee Twitter feed even called attention to the recent crisis at the heart of today’s British state: in yet another gesture of contempt for the people over whom they rule, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other high-ranking officials held booze-soaked parties during a COVID-19 lockdown. “Fifty years ago 14 unarmed citizens were murdered in broad daylight by the British Army,” the tweet read. “It was planned, then covered up at the highest levels of the UK government. That cover up persists. Why is anyone surprised that the police are covering up for Johnson today?”
In both cases, the grief of the people was—at best—ignored while officials did what they wanted. The armed wing of the state will both do the covering up and be covered for in return. In Derry, the people marched in the rain and took care of one another as they went, sharing umbrellas and passing out free hot food and drinks at local pubs at the day’s end.
Derry reminds us that struggles over the names of things have material consequences. It matters what you call the city—the now mostly unused name Londonderry is, like the walls, a reminder of the way the British came in and claimed one of the oldest continuously inhabited parts of Ireland—and it matters who gets to write the history of Bloody Sunday. The battle for justice, we should always remember, is a battle over whose version of history will dominate, and for the working-class people of the Bogside, the march and the posters and the painting of the wall are all ways of reclaiming their history and their present.
In a reminder of that struggle, much of the reporting on the events of the day seemed to have missed that there were two different commemorations. In the morning, Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, and the Social Democratic and Labour Party leader Colum Eastwood laid wreaths at the city’s Bloody Sunday memorial, separate from and in some ways in tension with the later march.
The differences between the two events reflect the reality that not all of the family members or survivors agree with one another about the best way to seek justice—a truth that McCann acknowledged from the stage. Grief is complex and contradictory even in the mind and heart of one person, let alone when it has rippled out from the original killing in concentric circles: the loved ones of the dead, those who witnessed the death, those who joined the march or the protest, residents of the city, the states implicated in the killing, and people across the rest of the world that either reached out in solidarity or shrank back in horror, deeming it all too complicated to understand.
There was an official apology in 2010, when then British Prime Minister David Cameron said the killings were “unjustified and unjustifiable.” Citing the Saville Report, a twelve-year, £200 million inquiry into the day’s attacks, Cameron noted that the soldiers fired the first shots, that no warnings had been given, that some of those killed or injured were clearly running for their lives, and that none of them were posing a threat to the soldiers when they were shot.
After the release of the Saville Report, some of the family members, activist groups, and political parties called for an end to the marches or announced their decision to stop taking part, saying that the official apology was, in a way, enough—hence the ceremony with the leadership of Sinn Féin and the Irish state, separate from the protest march. But the lack of prosecutions or any other form of reparative justice beyond the apology continues to sting, and so the afternoon march stretched through the streets. For many people in Derry and elsewhere, the Saville inquiry, while admitting that the British state had been responsible for killing innocent people, did not really take responsibility. Instead, it put the blame on rogue soldiers, allowing the decision-makers, as McCann pointed out, to continue being publicly lauded.
Both commemorations, in a way, acknowledge that there is a limit to what can be accomplished with apologies and prosecutions; that no amount of formalized sorrow from the state can bring back the people who were killed.
The somber, early morning wreath-laying could give the impression that the conflict is buried, and all that remains is a dispersed sadness over the senseless loss of life; by contrast, the afternoon march was a reminder that all of the issues at the heart of the struggle remain very much alive.
I should not have to tell American readers that we should care about the presence of armored vehicles and military weapons on our streets, about soldiers and police pointing and sometimes firing guns at protesters, about the hangovers of colonialism that are still present in the shape of our state. That it matters what we call torture, and that we not obscure one-sided atrocities or overwhelming force with flimsy euphemisms. That the right to vote can be gerrymandered away while formally still existing, and that a people denied representation have every right to withdraw their consent from the government that rules over them. That accountability for the perpetrators of state violence will continually be evaded, because real accountability would mean dismantling the systems of violence that enable power.
That we should say the names of the dead—Patrick Doherty, Gerald Donaghy, John Duddy, Hugh Gilmour, Michael Kelly, Michael McDaid, Kevin McElhinney, Bernard McGuigan, Gerard McKinney, William McKinney, William Nash, James Wray, John Young, John Johnston—and that grief should push us toward a politics that, in ways large and small, create safety and ease and comfort for the living who bear the scars.
Because British occupation and partition were not and are not simple issues of “identity,” religious or otherwise, perhaps the biggest reminder of all is that identity is always materially constructed. In 1972, Irishness, to borrow and adapt a concept from W.E.B. Du Bois, meant that you could be shot by a British soldier for being on your street and the state would say it was your own fault, and would continue, fifty years later, to refuse to hold anyone responsible.
Sarah Jaffe is the author of Work Won’t Love You Back and a co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast.