Victory or Defeat?: The Politics of the Last Bloody Sunday March

The recent announcement that this year’s Bloody Sunday March will indeed be the last seems to be the result of a difficult, painful process for those who have sustained it over the years. Three days prior to the announcement, three members of the Bloody Sunday Weekend Committee resigned, citing ‘political differences’ over how future commemorations will take place.

As discussed previously on Slugger, the debate about the continuation of the Bloody Sunday March illustrates how even when the families of victims achieve some closure or consolation, as the Bloody Sunday families did with the Saville Report and David Cameron’s apology, the way in which the past is remembered remains contested.

The three committee members who resigned, Jim Keys, Stephen Gargan and Jim Collins, wrote a letter to the Derry Journal explaining why they think the march should not be discontinued:

“Some members of the committee feel that the Saville Report was a great triumph and they wanted to characterise the forthcoming commemorations in those terms. While we acknowledge the remarkable nature of June 15, we couldn’t sign up for the fact that Saville’s Report is deemed a victory. Especially considering the British military have got off scot free.”

On the other hand, Tony Doherty, who is in favour of ending the march, said:

The march has always been used as a tool for our campaign for truth and justice. It was used to keep the memory of the dead alive and to keep the injustice and the denial of truth in the public eye. We don’t expect and we can’t expect the people of Derry to keep marching on our behalf when the vast majority of us believe the campaign has been successfully concluded.”

A list of this year’s Bloody Sunday Weekend events is available here.

The use of language in these statements is interesting – people talk of ‘triumph,’ ‘victory’ and of the campaign being ‘successfully concluded.’ I think it’s important to recognise that many people rightfully felt those emotions back in June, and that post-conflict transitions should be managed in such a way as to allow people to feel and publicly acknowledge such emotions.

But in broader discussions about how we remember Northern Ireland’s past, I think that the language of victory and defeat will only get us so far. The debate about the Bloody Sunday March demonstrates that even some of those who might be expected to claim a ‘victory’ from the Saville Report don’t necessarily see it that way.

Can Northern Ireland develop a vocabulary for dealing with the past that moves beyond the language of victory and defeat, towards acknowledgement of mutual wrongdoing and empathy? I know this gets tricky when the admission of mutual wrongdoing may seem to interfere with justice, in particular cases. But are there other alternatives?

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com

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