The adjective ‘historic’ gets used far too often in Northern Ireland, but yesterday’s Bloody Sunday March in Derry just might be worthy of the word. In the wake of the Saville Report, the committee of the Bloody Sunday Weekend decided that this would be the last year that the march went ahead.
The rationale is that the Saville Report has confirmed the innocence of the victims. It has vindicated not only those who died but also the families and supporters who have campaigned so long to have their innocence recognised.
But the question of how Northern Ireland should remember its past is one that will just not go away. This year’s events around Bloody Sunday weekend can contribute to that debate. I was in Derry with master’s students on my school’s Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation programme, trying to understand the mood of the commemorations. I have come away with several observations.
First, there was a sense that the Saville Report is a decisive turning point that has changed the way people in Derry think about the past.
For instance, on Saturday we visited the Museum of Free Derry in the Bogside, which had implemented some changes since I was there last year. There are now posters adorning the building with an image of people celebrating when the Saville Report was released on 15 June, with the word ‘Vindicated’ written across them. Inside the museum, there is now an exhibit where the Saville Report sits alongside the much-scorned Widgery Report. The Saville Report is presented as a victory that supersedes Widgery.
As the March left Creggan on Sunday afternoon, those holding the crosses representing the victims were accompanied by people bearing a large banner with that word: ‘Vindicated.’ In various speeches and discussions over the weekend, people kept repeating the words that Prime Minister David Cameron used to describe Bloody Sunday: ‘unjustified and unjustifiable.’
Sunday morning we took a guided tour of the city and the guide shared some of his own thoughts on 15 June, describing the sense of celebration that gripped the city on that day. He told us that when Bloody Sunday took place 39 years ago, dark clouds hung over the city for three days, likening it a ‘Good Friday’ experience for the city. The implication was that 15 June was, at least for him, Derry’s re-birth. On the platform at the conclusion of the March on Sunday, the SDLP’s Mark Durkan also used Good Friday-Easter imagery, saying that the ‘stone had been rolled away.’
So Saville hasn’t changed the way people think about the past very much in terms of the historical account of what happened: who did what, where, when, etc., on Bloody Sunday. But it has changed the way they think about the past in that before Saville, Bloody Sunday was an event whose meaning had to be contested in the public sphere. That narrative is no longer the dominant one: now the narrative is that the contest is over, and Saville will allow a healing process to begin.
Second, not everyone accepts the narrative that says that the Saville Report vindicates the victims and can therefore facilitate healing. This was clear in a panel discussion on Saturday evening called ‘Re-assessing Saville,’ and at the March itself, where some family members and other groups refused to go all the way to the Guildhall for the speeches and ‘final’ celebrations.
Focusing on the observation that Saville is ‘heavy on innocence and light on guilt’ (another oft-repeated phrase over the weekend), they believe that those with the highest authority in the British State and the British Army have gotten off too easily. Some want prosecutions. They see Saville as an impartial truth, and a truth without justice at that.
Third, the vindication of the Bloody Sunday victims will encourage other families and survivors to keep agitating for their own truth processes.
For example, the weekend saw a clear passing of the baton from the Bloody Sunday families to the families of the victims of the Ballymurphy Massacre. People advocating an investigation of Ballymurphy followed close after the Bloody Sunday families at the March itself. They stood – with their Ballymurphy Massacre banner – on the platform at the Guildhall at the conclusion of the March.
From the platform, a spokesperson for the Ballymurphy families refuted the claim that public inquiries ‘cost’ too much money. She said that a public truth process was rather a ‘debt’ that was owed, by the state, to those who had been killed by state violence.
Several speakers on the platform, including Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, repeated the call for an independent international truth commission to deal with Northern Ireland’s past. Adams said, as he has before, that the victims of republican violence also deserve to know the truth.
But it is rather easy for a politician like Adams to call for an independent international truth commission (in which republicans would presumably participate) when he knows the likelihood for one is slim.
I think that it is a promising sign for Northern Ireland that most of the Bloody Sunday families and their supporters chose to embrace the Saville Report and accept Prime Minister Cameron’s apology. This year they chose to remember their past in a new way: they made the last Bloody Sunday March one of celebration. It says a lot about how public truth processes, when combined with appropriate responses by people in power, can have cathartic and healing effects.
But a promise made this weekend, that victims, survivors and their advocates will now shift their attention to Ballymurphy and other individual events, also demonstrates that many people in Northern Ireland continue to believe that we need mechanisms so that ‘truths’ about the past can enter the public domain.
It seems like this last, historic march may prompt and fuel a plethora of various campaigns. This will happen regardless of whether our politicians choose to provide leadership on ‘dealing with the past’ or whether the British Government ever attempts to implement any of the Eames-Bradley recommendations.