The Last Bloody Sunday March: Changing How We Remember the Past?

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.

 

imageFor 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.

imageSeveral 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.

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  • Carrickmoreman

    Any updates on the PSNI raid on the train returning from the March?

  • Scáth Shéamais

    I think it’s already clear that this year was not the last Bloody Sunday march. Three families have already said they are committed to continuing the march whether they get a crowd of 10 or 10,000.

  • Dixie Elliott

    ‘Adams said, as he has before, that the victims of republican violence also deserve to know the truth.’

    They’ll not get it from Adams nor McGuinness….

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    “Adams said, as he has before, that the victims of republican violence also deserve to know the truth.”

    McGuinness had an opportunity to speak freely at the Saville Inquiry but chose the PIRA Code of Honour route instead.

    “At the time, Mr McGuinness clashed with the tribunal of inquiry by refusing to give details of IRA arms dumps and a safe house in Derry because he was bound by a republican code of honour.

    Lord Saville said the inquiry considered at some length allegations that Mr McGuinness, who was second in command of the Provisional IRA on Bloody Sunday, “engaged in paramilitary activity during the day”. But he appeared minded to believe Mr McGuinness was armed on January 30th, 1972.

    “Before the soldiers of support company went into the Bogside he was probably armed with a Thompson sub-machinegun, and though it is possible that he fired this weapon, there is insufficient evidence to make any finding on this, save that we are sure that he did not engage in any activity that provided any of the soldiers with any justification for opening fire.”” … Irish Times

    Have of the legal eagles who participated in the Saville Inquiry called for inquiries into the actions of the loyalist and republican paramilitaries?

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    The headline refers to “How We Remember the Past” but the “we” has many meanings.
    In the context of Bloody Sunday the “we” is the family of the victims..or the nationalists of Derry…..or the people of Derry……or the people in the North……or Ireland……or academia.
    The “we” is variable and therefore the memory is variable, Whether in the historic event itself or the Saville Report, nothing changes the fact that there is no single way (a “right” way) to remember anything. Efforts to produce a single memory should be resisted.
    The Tower Museum in Derry also references Bloody Sunday. As does the Peoples Museum. The great danger is that the Saville Report makes it more likely that there will be an “official” Museum…….and our record is that our museums sanitise history. An official museum will tell us that there are two sides to Bloody Sunday. The resulting compromise will be a contradiction of History.
    Much better to let the Bogside Museum stay as it is and let the Paras have a museum in Derry also….let visitors see both and make up their own minds. In other words the responsible study of History is better than well intentioned compromise where we are all invited to feel each others pain.
    The Ballymurphy Massacre is an event I witnessed first hand ……on the street on occasion but frankly mostly peering thru the curtains of my bedroom. I knew some of the dead.
    It was another act of injustice.
    Yes victims were innocent and they were lied about.
    But frankly that happened all over the North to Catholic and Protestant alike.
    Of course the scale of the event was important.
    But all or most of it happened during a gun battle…a very ferocious one. It is not the same as Bloody Sunday. Two sides (actually three) were shooting. It is somewhere between Bloody Sunday and the Battle of St Matthews in its nature.

  • Mike the First

    FJH

    You mention the so-called “Battle of St Matthews” at the end there – interesting because it’s one incident in which republicans really do need to finally admit the truth and abandon the long-perpetuated Provo myth (a foundation myth, effectively).

    It comes as a shock to even many who don’t have any truck with the Provos to discover that what actually happened that night in terms of casualties was that the PIRA murdered two innocent Protestants, and that an innocent Catholic man was also killed, also by the PIRA.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    “Mike”
    I made no judgement about St Matthews except to say that it was a gun battle. Certainly Peter Taylor refers to shots being fired by both sides.
    There is not of course one myth. There are two myths.
    IRA defending small ghetto from massive loyalist attack.
    Innocent Protestants murdered by IRA, firing from the spire at St Matthews.
    As always you pays your money and makes your choice.
    Certainly the innocent Catholic to whom you referred was claimed by the IRA. And if he was a member or Auxillary he is the only “republican” honoured with a marker inside a Catholic Church. Its actually a small cross in the ground. Youve probably been there yourself and seen it.
    The myth take it or leave it…is that he was killed in friendly fire by a diminutive IRA man who had difficulty controlling an automatic weapon.
    Many websites and other publications have “named” the individual.now deceased. Another myth perhaps. Maybe true. Or an attempt to discredit him.
    Either way your post confirms that it is reality to have two views on every incident. What would be the point in a sanitised version that neither side can believe?

  • Mike the First

    FJH – I wasn’t suggesting you personally were making any judgement, just that it’s exactly the sort of incident in which the truth badly needs to be heard.

    You may not be aware of this but there IS an objective truth out there which has been identified by the HET: as their families have always insisted, James McCurrie and Robert Neill were innocent murder victims. And as his family has always insisted, Henry McIlhone too was an innocent man, not a republican gunman but in fact killed by a republican gunman. The innocence of these victims is no “myth”.

    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/how-ira-spin-helped-cause-another-historical-injustice-14852266.html

    You say “Either way your post confirms that it is reality to have two views on every incident. What would be the point in a sanitised version that neither side can believe?”. In which case do you think calls for truth, including over Bloody Sunday, should have been abandoned long ago?

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    I am on record as saying there is no point in the Truth Reconciliation “Industry” There have been many attrocities..Bloody Friday, La Mon, Darkley, Kingsmill, Teebane were all attrocities carried out by the republicans.
    There are no two sides to those stories. Each on is crystal clear.
    Bloody Sunday is crystal clear. Or should have been. Justice was served last year.
    Ballymurphy I described as somewhere between an attrocity and a gun battle. Three sides were clearly active. I saw them. There is an element of doubt and it would be nice if not vital that it was cleared up. Mainly because I dont thin it can be cleared up.
    St Matthews…..whether you believe the Church was attacked by loyalists avenging Ardoyne or an attack on Christian Orangemen by republicans…..there is no way a single truth can be agreed.
    While Im glad ….very glad the victims of Bloody Sunday got a form of justice…their killers will never be punished just like in many of the republican attrocities I mentioned and in a lot more individual republican/loyalist attrocities. The key is the governmentlies. Not the sectionalised myths.

  • Lionel Hutz

    I can never understand how people suggest we should have an inquiry into the violence of illegal paramilitaries. What would be the point. Public inquiry are there to hold the state to account. They decide whether a state killing is lawful or unlawful. By definition any paramilatary killing is unlawful. What would public inquiry add to that?

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    “Saville will allow a healing process to begin”

    Gladys, it would appear that Saville will provide healing for some of the victims of Bloody Sunday but not all.

    I think your inclusion of the Adams and McGuinness photo is insensitive to the victims of their directed atrocities in Derry and elsewhere. The city is home to folks with a diverse range of religious and political beliefs and a downside of Saville is that some victims and their families have been left to suffer alone.

  • http://www.gladysganiel.com/ Gladys Ganiel

    I am sorry if some people find the photo insensitive. That was not my intention. I merely wished to provide a flavour of who was at the march. Adams and McGuinness have participated every year that I have observed it, and as my post indicates, Adams was a speaker from the platform.

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    “a decisive turning point that has changed the way people in Derry think about the past.”

    Gladys, in light of the other thread, have you discussed this with Gregory Campbell? Perhaps I’m wrong but I think ‘people’ needs to be qualified.

  • Reader

    Lionel Hutz: What would public inquiry add to that?
    Judging by the actual cases being bounced around here, it could add whether the victims were innocent of any wrongdoing, or were active participants. I also don’t think that your suggestion that an inquiry only investigates the state is remotely like the actual definition.