The strains of the protest song ‘We shall overcome’ shall ring out over Derry on Sunday 29th of January at the conclusion of a march to mark the 40th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. The march has been organised in the face of a disputed decision last year by the Bloody Sunday Committee and a majority of the campaigning families to declare that the 2011 march would be the last, given the ‘vindication’ of their campaign in the findings of the Saville Inquiry. More than a hundred relatives of those killed and wounded on Bloody Sunday had publicly backed the move to bring an end to the annual march.
The singing will be led by relatives of 19-year-old William Nash, one of the thirteen people killed on Bloody Sunday. His father was wounded when he went to his son’s aid. William’s sisters, Kate and Linda have organised the march, describing the decision to abandon the annual protest as ‘premature’. In 2011 they also rejected outright an offer of compensation from the MOD.
On the eve of the Bloody Sunday Committee’s decision last year, three members, Jim Keys, Stephen Gargan and Jim Collins stood down citing differences over how future commemorations will take place. At the centre of the dispute is what they see as the unfinished business after the publication of Lord Saville’s findings, notably the question of prosecutions and the holding to account of those with the real military and political authority who made the fateful decisions.
Writing in a personal capacity in the Derry Journal this week, Keys describes the thinking behind his decision to march. He cites the lack of prosecutions, and Saville’s ‘bamboozling’ conclusions about nail bombs found in the pockets of Bloody Sunday victim Gerald Donaghey and a high-level cover up of what took place on the fateful day.
Keys writes: ‘Take the cover-up issue as an example. The inquiry dealt in detail with the ‘shot list’ of British Army shootings on the day. The evidence exposed it to be fictitious. When the incidents it depicted were examined some soldiers would have had to be able to see and shoot through buildings and walls to be able to hit the targets they reported firing at. An objective reading of the evidence around it suggests it was concocted by Mike Jackson, Adjutant of 1Para on the day. He went on to become General Sir Mick Jackson, head of the British Army. And even though the inquiry knows that this piece of fiction formed the basis of the official story emanating from British embassies around the world, it concludes there was no evidence of a high-level cover-up? This was the high level cover-up!’
Commenting on aspirations for a more inclusive march that will be more open to other campaigns for justice, Keys recalls the 2006 Bloody Sunday Lecture delivered by Alan McBride whose wife and father-in-law were killed in the IRA bombing on the Shankill Road, and, in the same year, the lighting of candles to commemorate every victim of the conflict during the march.
‘What kind of justice would we be marching for if it were not justice for everyone? Isn’t it time we created inclusive spaces and marches where we can dialogue and begin to sort out what justice might be in this complex legacy context and find the courage demanded to learn its ways, rather than stay stuck in our truncated sectarian versions of it?’ Keys asks.
Keys goes on to reflect on his hopes that the Bloody Sunday march would proceed and be ‘decoupled’ from its association during end-of-rally platforms with attempts to legitimize armed struggle. ‘Were this to happen we would be picking up the blood stained banner that was dropped on Bloody Sunday and reinvigorating the ideals of non-violence and inclusive justice too many of us lost sight of as we dropped it.’
Keys does not seek to ‘sanctimoniously condemn armed struggle’ but to understand a world where the veneer of democracy is never far from the structures of violence that demand an understanding of the socio-political responses [including forms of protest] that empower them and those that liberate us from them.
For Keys and others the annual Bloody Sunday commemorations, which now include annual lectures, discussion panels, exhibitions and performances that often speak to Derry’s desire to offer international solidarity with other peoples in struggle, have taken on a meaning that both includes the vindication of the relatives’ long campaign and goes beyond it. ‘I’m marching because I believe this is, and always has been, a vital human rights issue for all the citizens of these islands and an important rallying point nationally and internationally for other justice issues,’ writes Keys for whom the inclusion of a dialogue on the armed struggle and non-violent alternatives remains a key concern in negotiating this act of commemoration.
The 40th anniversary commemorative events organised by the Bloody Sunday Committee will also feature the disputed Saville findings that Gerald Donaghey was ‘probably’ carrying nail bombs. Events, including a lecture by barrister Michael Mansfield, the launch of Julieann Campbell’s book on the story of the Bloody Sunday campaign (Setting The Truth Free – The Inside Story of the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign), a Mass and a Memorial Service, and a ‘Uniting Ireland Conference’, will be used to ‘reflect on the entirety of the journey’ that the families and the wider campaign have taken during the past forty years.
Some will look to the Creggan shops at 2.30 p.m. on the 29th of January and comment on the reduced numbers who will undoubtedly take to the streets. Others will judge the event by the nature of – and levels of support enjoyed by – the political groupings who choose to take part. Some will march to stake a claim to pursue the unfinished business of justice and accountability. Dissident republicans are expected to use their presence in a continued campaign to usurp the mantle of the physical force ‘tradition’. And the Socialist Workers Party will press their claim that Derry’s struggle is a universal one….and the long march must go on.
The debate around the commemoration of Bloody Sunday – what some now describe as the politics of memory – contains many fragments and possibilities. They speak to current, painful and deeply disputed positions on the nature of our own political struggle and to universal concerns about how best to secure open-ended democratic transformation. The test will not be about the numbers who turn up at the Creggan shops nor about who has the last word in any attempt to foreclose the horizons of meaning and history.