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30/01/1972 Microcosm of the Troubles in Londonderry

  • Category(s): Modern Historical Essays
  • Created on : 30 July 2013
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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


A terrible Sunday in January 1972 on the Bogside.

1. Introduction

May I say at the outset I do not desire to take sides over this Sunday but I merely wish to cast light on a difficult to understand and emotive subject. No one on the Army side nor even on the Irish side was entirely without blame. I disagree with David Cameron that the British Army’s actions were indefensible. The problem with that Sunday is no one is permitted to be bi-partisan. Everyone is sucked into the swamp of polarity. The army did shoot defenceless and unarmed civilians, it cannot be denied but there is more to the matter than that over simplification.

2. I reflect and explore on these aspects

Was it wise to demonstrate for civil rights in such numbers in Londonderry, a known trouble spot? When the Police had been unable to exert proper restraint very recently (Sharpeville is another example of a show of strength).
30 British Soldiers had been killed by Republicans in late 1971. Nearly 2000 rounds had been fired at British Soldiers at that time and the Army faced 211 explosions and 180 nail bombs were set off against British Army. The Army fired 364 rounds in return at this period. This was all post July 1971 and the introduction in August 1971 of Internment aimed at Republican Paramilitaries and their supporters. All this violence was directed at our Army and was orchestrated and carried out by Republicans and those paramilitaries of that persuasion.
The demonstration organized on Sunday 30 January 1972 by Civil Rights leaders was all Catholic based and was likely to be used by Republican Paramilitaries and orators for their own purposes, propaganda and unrest, provocation and direct violence. The whole emotive and hysterically irresponsible and partisan reaction to “Bloody Sunday” as it was termed and the Saville Enquiry demonstrates this approach. Indeed the words “Bloody Sunday” indicate an irrational and emotional description of this tragedy. I question the motives of the Civil Rights organisers and the trail of outspoken nationalist commentary since 30 January 1972 including Republicans regarding that Sunday. We should not make political capital out of the dead.
Soldiers only act under orders and in accordance with training. There can be no doubt the paratroopers were told to fire live rounds by their immediate superiors and properly they obeyed those superior orders as any soldier should. These Paratroops knew all of this backdrop regarding nationalist unrest and violence.
There were “rioters” and there were “marchers” on the streets of Londonderry on 30 January 1972. The Soldiers had been brought in to restore order which the RUC (Royal Ultster Constabulary) could not accomplish. The Soldiers knew about the situation on the ground on 30 January 1972 and the propensity of Republican Paramilitaries to operate within and “behind” rioters and marchers. They knew it depended on them doing their duty.

3. Footage and Tension

The footage I have seen shows the civilians uncomfortably close to the paratroopers. Stones or objects may have been thrown or Army officers feared would be thrown very soon. The very presence of Nationalist minded marchers close to British Soldiers does not generate confidence in the security of those foot Soldiers and their arms for their officers. The possibility of hand to hand fighting and guns being seized by nationalist civilians could not be ruled out. As a result of Internment (introduced in August 1971) and its adverse impact on Catholics (imprisonment but not by proper and due Judicial process) there was a fierce resentment amongst Catholics in Londonderry to the British Crown and her armed forces and in particular her line Regiments who kept order on the streets. You do not need a lot of imagination to realize with one injured civilian, there could be a direct attack on the ranks of 1 Para. Why did this not happen? On account of the prompt and firm actions of those 1 Para Junior and middle ranking officers to order firing by live rounds to disperse a highly volatile and dangerous situation. They held the line until the unrest ceased and order was restored. Without doubt those 1 Para Lieutenants and Captains and NCO’s were confronted with an uncertain and antagonistic group of civilians in one shape or another particularly after firing began. Who are we to stand in Judgement over those Junior officers themselves acting under orders? The British Army in the 1970’s did not constitute a brutal and inhuman military unit. There were strict rules to follow before opening fire with live rounds – I doubt they were breached on 30 January 1972 (Rules of Engagement) always difficult to interpret with the panicky running, shouting and extreme disquiet before the eyes and ears of 1 Para designed to disconcert those British Soldiers and their commanders.

4. 1 Para

I am afraid once you deploy Soldiers of the British Army you are not within the atmosphere of the unarmed Metropolitan Police in London ie Riot Shields and truncheons. The decision to deploy 1 Para had been made high up within our army with the approval of the Commander Land Forces Northern Ireland. The parachute Regiment are the spearhead unit of the British Army to this day. Quite rightly 1 Para stamped its authority on the Bogside of Londonderry on Sunday 30 January 1972 as they were expected to do.

5. The Lessons of 30 January 1972

Firstly always be impartial and above all restrained after the loss of life such as on this Sunday which is capable of an inflammatory interpretation. One of the reasons the Saville Enquiry did not get to the root of the matter was that it looked at the incident primarily in terms of the Anti-Army side and the Enquiry dragged on far too long at exorbitant cost. It did make helpful points but missed out on the true meaning of the dreadful noisy tension and fear on all sides on 30 January 1972 in the Bogside. The Saville Enquiry lacked firmness and decisiveness as a result (civilians were shot running away admittedly but the exact reasoning for that civilian provocation is unclear). Even someone running from the scene is impliedly saying these soldiers will fire or may fire or have fired which the soldiers had done or were about to. The civilians were not orderly and thus more difficult to restrain and control as you would expect with what constituted a rabble. They could return to the scene to cause more trouble and unrest particularly as some civilians had been shot. They could enlist assistance easily. No one should underestimate the difficulties of maintaining Law and Order in the Bogside on that Sunday 30 January 1972 for 1 Para with this very serious civil unrest taking place. The business of interpreting those events has centred on the condemnation of the military without proper foundation. Why has no one properly defended the conduct that day of our military in recent years? Why have no military personnel been prosecuted? Indeed prosecutions were rightly ruled out by the Law Officers. The real lesson is to permit freedom of expression but encourage responsibility through proper understanding and interpretation and leadership – let us win hearts and minds first and foremost. Toleration will not suffice and that is the fault and weakness of the Good Friday Agreement. We should not cave into the clamour of the loudest voice. Ireland is still divided in heart which reflects its political and territorial divide. The territorial gulf will not end. Fatigue and apathy will win no one over. The debate has become exhausted. This terrible Sunday’s aftermath is the mirror in which we see the ugly face of Republican Nationalism in Northern Ireland. There is work to be done – let us hasten along the road to Emmaus – each one of us. We are united in spirit and may our hearts burn within us in memory of those who suffered and died too soon on the Bogside on Sunday 30 January 1972.