Anniversaries are an opportunity to dwell upon and learn from past events and struggles, to identify past successes and failures. Fifty years ago the British state carried out an organised and sanctioned attack on the anti-internment civil rights march in Derry organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, in which the CPI played a central role, helping to establish and build that mass movement of working people.
Bloody Sunday was imperialism’s response to peaceful demands for minimum democratic reforms—inevitable given its undemocratic origins. This British assault on a peaceful demonstration resulted in the murder of thirteen people on the day of the march, and another one dying some weeks later from injuries received. This was a deliberate act of state-directed killings in order to break working-class people’s resistance.
The march had been called to demand basic civil rights and to oppose internment, which had been imposed in August 1971 by the Unionist regime, in collaboration with the British state. Hundreds of innocent people were arrested without any evidence and detained without charge in prisons as well as on the prison ship Maidstone and in number of British military camps around the Six Counties.
Internment was the repressive response by unionism and the British state to the growing challenge flowing from popular resistance to defend nationalist areas from assault by sectarian forces of the Orange state and from the rising civil rights movement demanding their rights against decades of repression, discrimination, and gerrymandering. The British and Orange state saw the resistance of the people and continued demands for civil rights as a direct challenge to the very existence of the British-imposed political settlement of 1922, which partitioned Ireland.
Repression has always been the default position of unionism since the British established the sectarian entity they call “Northern Ireland,” by means of which they have maintained their control through the widespread use of sectarianism, discrimination in employment and housing, the gerrymandering of elections, and the use of the most draconian legislation and one of the worst regimes of repression anywhere in the world.
Unionists and their street gangs regularly encouraged and carried out pogroms against nationalist working-class communities. The Protestant working class had largely been co-opted by imperialism through the use of political unionism and material advantages in work, housing, and other social, cultural and political aspects of Northern society.
The activities of the Parachute Regiment in Derry on 30 January 1972 followed the state-organised killing of at least nine people in Ballymurphy in Belfast between 9 and 11 August 1971, all part of Britain’s military strategy of “low-intensity conflict,” a strategy for quelling and subduing local working-class resistance to its political, economic and military strategies of control.
The British state and military applied their “low-intensity conflict” strategy from experience gained in fighting against anti-colonial forces in Kenya, Malaya, Oman, Cyprus and other countries where British colonial occupation had been challenged. Bloody Sunday proved to the world that the state founded on imperialist-inspired sectarian division cannot be reformed—just as imperialism itself cannot be reformed.
Under intense political pressure, both here in Ireland and globally, the British state carried out two inquiries into what happened on Bloody Sunday, 1972. Firstly they set up the Widgery Tribunal, which was a complete whitewash of the role of the British army on the day. Following public pressure, the Saville Inquiry was established.
Anti-imperialists should not be deceived or misled by these inquiries: British law and British justice have nothing to offer by way of solution to the social and political ills of imperialism.
The British-imposed political settlement of 1922 was designed to uphold the interests of imperialism in Ireland, north and south. It divided the democratic forces and the working class; it entrenched unionist hegemony in the North; it provided a state in the South in which nationalist capitalists and big business could advance their class interests; and it secured both parts of a divided Ireland for imperialism. It offered nothing to the working class, anti-imperialists, or democrats.
The present political structures, operating in the form of the Belfast Assembly and Executive, are only further entrenching sectarianism and have little to offer.
We need to move beyond the failed institutions that bolster partition, division, and sectarianism, which allow the pretence that Britain is a neutral observer, a non-partisan participant in finding a lasting solution, when in fact the continued British involvement in Ireland lies at the heart of the problem. It prevents the achievement of the national democratic demand for the establishment of an independent, sovereign all-Ireland state.
Unfortunately Bloody Sunday was but one of a long list of acts of violence and repression carried out by British imperialism against the people of Ireland, which will continue to take place so long as it remains an active political and military occupation force.
It was also the moment when the Southern ruling class and its political servants took fright at the mobilisation of Southern anti-imperialists, democrats and workers in solidarity with nationalists in the North. Thereafter the full weight of the propaganda and ideological apparatus of the Southern state was employed to discredit anyone who challenged or questioned events and struggles unfolding in the North, instead promoting and encouraging “voices of moderation,” such as the SDLP and the anti-republican “peace groups.” Instead of pursuing the formal national objective of ending partition, the Southern establishment increasingly bolstered British rule in the North, thereby protecting their own class interests in the South.
It is up to the people of Ireland to decide their future, not imperialism, whether British, US, or EU.
The best way to remember the victims of imperialism is to struggle to end imperialist control and domination, to take up the challenge and struggle bequeathed to us by James Connolly, to struggle for and build a Workers’ Republic, from Derry to Kerry.