Derry and Belfast are very different cities and it seems a shame that people who visit the North might only go for one or the other, but not both. perhaps because of its size, or because Stormont is located there, or because the unionist and republican communities abut one another so closely, or because economic conditions are still perilous for many as people continue to migrate to Belfast from the country, but things in Belfast felt more contentious than in Derry. maybe it’s just my perception, but maybe, because Derry’s a much smaller city it’s had to confront tensions more head-on, maybe there’s a vocal enough republican contingent, and a strong enough tradition of resistance that the horrors of the Troubles had to be more fully addressed. or maybe I developed that impression because I stayed on the western side of the River Foyle and took a tour of Free Derry, but not of the Walled City (blasted head cold!)
in any case, unlike Belfast which suffered all manner of bombings and terrorist attacks with some regularity, there’s one event that epitomizes the horror of the Troubles in Derry: Bloody Sunday. in order to understand Bloody Sunday, one has to also appreciate the history of Derry: plantation, siege, settlement of Bogside, discrimination against Catholics, and ultimate involvement of British troops. basically, it is a hot mess, and i think i’ll save a greater explanation of the history for a later post and stick to Bloody Sunday for the moment.
on 30 January 1972, residents of the Bogside planned a march to the Guildhall to protest internment, but because of blockades diverted the route towards the Free Derry corner. as the marchers wanted to avoid violence, they elicited an agreement from the IRA that the organization would stay away. some believe that it was because of the absence of the IRA that the British troops felt secure in using excessive force. according to our guide, who grew up in Bogside during the period, it was routine for people to attack the British forces stationed at the entrance to the Bogside. riots were a common, if not daily, occurrence, and their length and ferocity depended a lot on the weather. if it was cold and pissing down rain, protests might last ten minutes. if some event invigorated people and the weather was conducive, they could last for hours. essentially, it seems there were standard rules of engagement between rioters and the troops. for whatever reason, those rules vanished on Bloody Sunday. the troops responded. with vigor. whether it was because they knew the IRA was not present to respond (as our guide suggested), or for some other unknown reason (firmly established in reality or concocted by those higher up the chain of command) has yet to be established.
in the end, fourteen people died (thirteen killed that day, and one who died later as a result of injuries). some of them were fleeing, one had his hands up in surrender, and none of them posed a real threat to the troops bearing down on the area. despite official claims, none of the victims carried weapons of any kind (though one had bombs planted on him. this lie was particularly egregious as the bullet that killed him passed through a pocket in which a bomb was later planted; it would have been a much different mess to clean up had the bullet actually passed through the pocket-with-bomb.) the British assault was not a chaotic sweep of gunfire that caught civilians in the crossfire: it was a drawn-out episode in which people were gunned down methodically.
Bloody Sunday served to bolster the ranks of the IRA and further enraged the public in opposition to the occupation by British troops. seven months later, however, the British launched Operation Motorman, a massive strike designed to retake republican strongholds in Belfast and Derry. in the end, the no-go area of Free Derry was swept away by British troops and both arms of the IRA, acknowledging that they were wholly unmatched to oppose the thousands of troops, tanks, and armored cars involved in the sweep offered no resistance.