When British soldiers opened fire in Derry in January 1972 during a protest march against internment, they killed 13 unarmed people. Some of them were shot in the back as they fled; others were shot dead or fatally wounded as they came to the aid of friends and family members who had been shot. The 30th of January 1972 came to be known as Derry's Bloody Sunday and the events of that day prompted a huge response in the Republic, according to UCD Professor of Modern History Dr Diarmaid Ferriter. Philip Boucher-Hayes asked his guest on Today on Radio One about the southern reaction to Bloody Sunday; tentatively formulating the question as "Did we stand idly by?" The historian's reaction was clear and swift:
"No. There was an extraordinary mobilization. It hadn’t happened before. It hasn’t happened since."
Dr Ferriter drew on the work of the late Thomas Kinsella to describe the reaction in the Republic during the days and weeks that followed the events in Derry:
"His response to Bloody Sunday was the poem Butcher’s Dozen. And it opens with the line 'I went with anger at my heel’. Thousands of people in the Republic mobilized with anger at their heel. There were impromptu walk-outs from work. There were strikes. There was a national day of mourning; there was a memorial service in the Pro Cathedral. Schools were closed on the day of the funerals for most of the victims of Bloody Sunday."
With the burning of the British Embassy in Merrion Square in the days following Bloody Sunday, solidarity with the broader nationalist community in Northern Ireland became infused with a concern that the hostilities might spread. Dr Ferriter says that while the initial response was defined by empathy, the second wave of response was bound up in fear:
"There was of course famously the burning of the British Embassy, but that also generated fear of The Troubles spilling over the border: Could that spiral out of control? There was a reaction to that reaction, which involved again trying to take the heat out of the situation. You could argue again in the long run, that this again served this idea of ‘up there’ and ‘down here’."
The reference to ‘up there’ and ‘down here’ is part of a wider historical conversation that Professor Ferriter raised a number of times in his interview with Philip. He says the argument has been made by some, including journalist and activist Eamonn McCann that Bloody Sunday "copper-fastened" the 1922 partition in the minds of people in the Republic of Ireland. The realisation of what was at stake, the empathy and anger at what had happened was, to some degree, replaced by fear:
"The intensity of the feeling – and it was ferocious in January and early February 1972 – it didn’t endure. There was always a fear of that trouble spilling over the border. The phrase that used to be used ‘coming down here’, you know. There’s a very strong mental partition, you could argue, that of course goes even further back right to the 1920s."
What comes across from the conversation is that the Bloody Sunday’s legacy is determined by the response to it: from activists and politicians in Northern Ireland, the British legal and political establishments, successive governments in the Republic and the citizens of the Republic. Dr Ferriter says he thinks that even now, people are not on the same page, when it comes to Bloody Sunday:
"We’re not close to an agreed narrative."
Professor Ferriter also observed that the question of accountability is unresolved. Following the Saville Inquiry and an apology by the British government, there remains a mis-match between the declared innocence of those shot dead, and the absence of consequences for those involved in the killings:
"If it’s accepted that they were entirely innocent, that they were unarmed; many of them shot in the back fleeing. If that was accepted, well then, who is going to be accountable for that?"
The official recognition of historical facts is of particular importance to bereaved families and survivors, says Professor Ferriter and this process has only really started in the context of the Saville Inquiry in 2010. The experience of South Africa also may have been an inspiration, Diarmaid says:
"There was a very interesting reference during the 1990s in Northern Ireland to the lessons to be learned from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The deputy chairman of that commission made the point that if you don’t have official verification of the reality of what happened, victims and their families are left in a historical no man’s land. I think they were taken out of that by the Saville Inquiry and they got a direct and clear apology from a British government. It was ‘unjustifiable and unjustified’ what happened."
Professor Ferriter covers many aspects of the fallout from Derry’s Bloody Sunday including the now-discredited Widgery Report, the Saville Tribunal, the apology by the British government and the tense conversation between Taoiseach Jack Lynch and British Prime Minister Edward Heath directly after Bloody Sunday. All this and more is in the full interview, which you can listen back to here.
New content (including articles, photographs, podcasts and archive footage) is being posted on an almost daily basis on the RTÉ history pages www.rte.ie/history covering the Anglo Irish Treaty which came into force 100 years ago this year.
David McCullagh and Sinéad O’Carroll present a special programme covering the passage of the Treaty in 1922, as if it were a currently breaking news story; Treaty Live is on Friday 7th of January 2022 at 7 pm on RTÉ One and on RTÉ Player.