Saville Inquiry

today the Saville Inquiry, which was established in 1998 by Tony Blair to investigate the Bloody Sunday shootings, published its report. in short: the shootings were “unjustified.” the soldiers fired without provocation or warning on unarmed civilians and killed fourteen people who were participating in a banned protest march.

not unlike how I felt when Barack Obama was elected President, there seems a real historical weight behind this announcement. the 1972 inquiry completely whitewashed the atrocity and absolved the military from any culpability in the deaths of the fourteen victims. the report by Lord Widgery accused the victims of firing weapons or throwing petrol bombs and while the Saville Report concludes that members of the Official IRA were present and armed in defensive positions, it was the soldiers who opened fire first. moreover, the new report leaves room for prosecution of the soldiers involved — those who fired weapons and those who lied before the current or previous Inquiry.

it’s astonishing to think of how conditions have changed in the north of Ireland in the time since the Saville Inquiry was convened in 1998. it is impossible to imagine that an inquiry of this nature would have come to this conclusion in 1998. the bombing in Canary Wharf occurred in February 1996, and the Good Friday Accords weren’t even signed until late in 1998. but now … now, 38 years after Bloody Sunday the Prime Minister of the UK has stood on the floor of the House of Commons and apologized to the victims. the conclusions of the report “are absolutely clear,” Cameron said. “There is no doubt, there is nothing equivocal, there are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.” obviously it is not the same man vocalizing policy today as in 1972 (Edward Heath), but I find that, in perhaps more ways than in the U.S., the individual becomes the Institution and on some emotional level it feels a little like the men responsible for the backward, horrifying, infuriating English policies towards Northern Ireland have, themselves, acknowledged the error and apologized. and I suppose that, as part of the pieces that make up Institution, they have apologized for their actions, whether they want to or not, whether they still stand by their decisions and actions or have amended their views in light of events of the last 38 years.

tonight, as I pulled into the lot after a nice long workout at the gym, I had a very rare “driveway moment” about Bloody Sunday. that unmistakable drumbeat started up on Triple M with that quality that tells you that the song’s been recorded live. Bono came on to introduce the song and with a raw, emotional edge to his voice said “This is not a rebel song. This is ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday.'” it is amazing — amazing to think of how much has changed in the world — and in the north of Ireland — since they sat down to write that song. and if the last couple years are any indication, it looks like things are still headed up.

coverage on the Report from the Guardiancoverage from BBC Newswikipedia on the Saville Report, and most worth reading, reaction to the Saville Report and the Prime Minister’s speech from the Guardian reporter who was covering the protests in Derry on Bloody Sunday.


after reading Tim Pat Coogan’s history of the Troubles, I figured I had a pretty comprehensive grasp of the scope and nature of tensions in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s. of course, reading about something is nothing to visiting places that endured such turmoil or hearing people who lived through the experiences share their stories. perhaps the most suprirising thing that I learned about the Troubles, however, was that in the tumult of 1969, the Taoiseach at the time, Jack Lynch, had plans for the Republic to invade the North. there’d been massive rioting in Belfast in addition to the Battle of the Bogside. other nationalist towns, such Armagh and Newry, saw violence as well.

while I was in Drogheda, RTE One aired a special that postulated the outcome, had Jack Lynch given the call for Ireland to invade. (The Guardian comments here) I had absolutely no idea that Ireland had it’s own 60’s “Bay of Pigs” moment. the general consensus of the Irish people with whom I discussed this? it would have been a complete and total disaster for the Republic. taking on the Britsh Empire, even in its twilight? insane. and, as some critics have argued, at the time the IRA was in no position to provide tactical military support. in 1969 it was still a relatively small, guerrilla force that simply could not provide the assistance that the army of the Republic would need to succeed, should they invade the North.

obviously, Ireland chose not to invade, and history took a different turn, but the documentary was an interesting look at a possible outcome.

Siege of Derry

as promised, a bit on the Siege of Derry.

ultimately, the Glorious Revolution in England ousted Catholic James II from power in favor of Protestant William of Orange and his wife Mary (James’ daughter), but in the meantime there was a bit of a “revolution” to determine who would gain power. when William & Mary took power, James fled but eventually returned by way of Ireland, hoping to reclaim his title through garnering support of Catholic Ireland. as he approached Derry, the city “fathers” dithered about what course of action to take … until a group of apprentice boys took it upon themselves to shut the gates of the city, closing the city off from advancing Jacobite forces attempting to take the city. the city was under siege for 105 days, during which time as much as half the population living within the walls died.

eventually, the forces of William of Orange were able to breach the blockade on the River Foyle and get supplies to the defenders of the Walled City of Derry, essentially defeating the Jacobite forces to the west. the conflict wasn’t over, but the remainder of the engagements between Jacobite and Orange troops did not go well for James, whose death knell came at the Battle of the Boyne, on the River Boyne north of Dublin and whose valley is home to many more monuments spanning millennium.

every year, the Protestants of Derry celebrate the efforts of the Apprentice Boys, who closed the gates of Derry to the adavancing Jacobite forces, with marches similar to those of the Orange Order elsewhere in the north of Ireland. these marches do not sit well with the Catholic community (and led to more than one confrontation during the Troubles); they go along the city walls and are highly visible from the Bogside and other Catholic areas to the west of the city walls. these marches were a threatening reminder of repression and centuries of abuse and disenfranchisement. as previously mentioned, the Apprentice Boys march in 1969 led directly to the Battle of the Bogside and establishment of Free Derry. the marches continue, though the scale of violence seen in 1969 went unrepeated (at least during the marching season). doesn’t mean the marches aren’t crass or designed to be threatening.

resistance and Free Derry

following the Battle of the Bogside, residents took it upon themselves to maintain and defend their community; the official government certainly wasn’t doing anything to their benefit. the name “Free Derry” comes from a tag written on a gable wall by a resident walking past in January 1969, when organized resistance to incursions by the police force first developed in earnest. the phrase was seized upon and came to symbolize resistance to external policing forces (both local and British). it was formalized on that gable wall, painted and repainted in letters large enough to see from a distance. when the row houses extending from this gable were torn down, the community requested that this wall remain as a memorial to Free Derry and events that occurred in Derry during the Troubles.

during a three year period, residents organized police patrols, issued permits to trade in the community (for those making deliveries from outside Free Derry), and provided services that the local government had failed to sufficiently extend to the Catholic community; it was a no-go area protected by both the Official and Provisional IRA. despite best efforts, however, Free Derry came to an end with Operation Motorman in July 1972, when British troops stormed the Bogside (as well as no-go areas in Belfast) (more on that to come, I think).

(an aside: the relationship between the Official and Provisional IRA in Derry was not nearly as contentious as elsewhere in the North. neither group had control over barricades, and the Provisionals had few weapons. also, unlike in Belfast where Provisional bombing campaigns killed civilians in addition to causing structural and economic damage, that in Derry is noted for avoiding death or injury to innocent civilians. as Eamonn McCann wrote, “the Derry Provos, under Martin McGuinness [now Deputy First Minister for Northern Ireland under the power-sharing government], had managed to bomb the city centre until it looked as if it had been hit from the air without causing any civilian casualties.”)

Operation Motorman

the end of Free Derry came with Operation Motorman on 31 July 1972. after three years of keeping external police forces out of Free Derry (as well as areas of Belfast), at 4am the British Army launched a sweep of no-go areas. some 20,000 troops swept through the area, dismantling barricades with bulldozers and hauling people out of their houses. because of the superiority of firepower of the British, neither wing of the IRA offered resistance and Free Derry came to an end.

Battle of the Bogside

the other major, catalyzing event to occur in Derry was the Battle of the Bogside. i know i haven’t explained the nature of Bogside yet, but soon. tomorrow, maybe. for now, we’ll stick to this mural.

in August 1969, tensions were even higher than normal when the Apprentice Boys held their annual march, to commemorate the Protestant victory in the Siege of Derry (again, more on that in a later post). the Catholic community protested the march, confronting the Protestant gathering and ultimately throwing stones and what have you at one another. the police chased the Catholics into the Bogside, where they set up defenses and barricades.

in the mural, over the Rioter’s right shoulder you can see the Rossville Flats, which stood on Rossville Street. in a nutshell, they were shit flats, built to keep Catholics segregated in the Bogside and, because of insane property-owning-electoral laws, served to disenfranchise the Catholic population on a massive scale. during conflict with police, however, it became apparent that it was a pretty good location for launching attacks on police and troops down in the road. too high for their weaponry to reach and affording a good vantage point for lobbing stones and petrol bombs.

the rioting lasted for three days. in the end, British troops were called in to calm the situation; longstanding tensions between the Protestant-dominated Royal Ulster Constabulary meant that those defending Bogside would not let up if it meant letting up on the RUC. the B-Specials were called up to enter the fray, which would certainly only serve to escalate the situation. in comparison to facing down the RUC bolstered by the B-Specials, in late 1969 the British troops were seen as a neutral force, one that didnt’ necessarily have baggage or history with the Bogside community, and who might be reasonable in their policing, at least. as history attests, that attitude didn’t last. by this point, the Bogside was thoroughly mobilized; returning to the status quo, impossible. in fact, the previous month, the community set up the Derry Citizens’ Defence Association, to protect against oppression and aggression from the local police force. following the Battle of the Bogside, the DCDA took over control of the Bogside and, until Operation Motorman three years later, neither local police nor British troops were able to penetrate beyond the Free Derry wall.

Bloody Sunday

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.

murals of Bogside

the location that I perhaps enjoyed the most in all of my travels in Ireland was Derry. which, legally, isn’t a part of the Republic at the moment, though most of the people I spoke to south of the border don’t think in those terms. in one place, we went through a brochure produced by the Northern Ireland tourism board and crossed the “London” that preceeded Derry wherever we could find it.

the city of Derry is known for its walls. i’ll talk about the old walls in a later post, but first, some on the “other” walls — those of the Bogside. as in Belfast, Derry has murals commemorating events of the Troubles. but whereas the murals of Belfast often change to reflect current political realities, the murals of Bogside were commissioned and created by a group of artists. there are twelve in all, taking up the ends of row houses throughout the Bogside. i didn’t take pictures of all of them, but i’ll share the ones that i have, beginning with my favorite:

this one, Bernadette, depicts the Battle of the Bogside and features Bernadette Devlin (more on the Battle later). Bernadette was a student at the university in 1968, when tensions in the North were growing exponentially. she became a prominent voice in the student movement and was elected to Parliament at the age of 21, the youngest woman ever elected MP. rather than follow the tradition of abstentionism in protest of the treatment of Catholics in the North, Bernadette chose to take her seat at Westminster and raised hell. as seen in the mural, she supported residents during the Battle of the Bogside and, following Bloody Sunday, was temporarily suspended from Parliament (she punched the Home Office Secretary for claiming the British Army fired in self-defense).

in the mural, there are a couple of things of note. first, the residents at this point were not heavily armed. they used stones and basic petrol bombs to attack the incoming forces. it seems that neither side was ever very well prepared for the confrontations; sometimes that meant a deficiency in weaponry, inadequate defensive material, or an abject lack of information about conditions. resistance was gritty and sprung from frustration and survival instincts. second, during confrontations, women would keep watch and bang trash can lids on the pavement to alert others of police or other troops. third (of which more later), the Free Derry Corner was the locus for much of the resistance to British incursion in Derry. though the row of houses that originally stood on the site has been demolished, residents requested that the end wall remain as a reminder of what has transpired.

now for some pictures …

i may be back from Ireland, but never fear, dear readers, anecdotes are yet to come. and this time, with pictures! first up, Belfast.

murals became an opportunity to express political opinions, to vent frustration, and to honor those who died during The Troubles. they’re painted on the ends of buildings all along Falls Road (Republican), Shankill Road (Loyalist), and Sandy Row (Loyalist)

this first one, painted on the end of a row of houses that also hosts a Sinn Fein bookstore in Falls Road, honors the memory of Bobby Sands, an IRA activist and MP who died while on hunger strike in 1981. the protest arose from the end of Special Category Status–a policy wherein political prisoners were treated similar to those of war and not required to do certain chores or required to wear prison garb. ultimately, 10 people died while on hunger strike in 1981 and Thatcher was not moved.

this second photo, also along Falls Road, illustrates more contemporary political themes. whereas the murals in Derry are more artistic in nature (illustrating specific events and completed by artists), those in Belfast are more subject to change to address political issues, particularly those of disenfranchised or repressed peoples. the ones along this wall included one on Cuba, one on the Basque region in Spain, and a protest of racist treatment.

this final picture is as you enter Sandy Row, a unionist stronghold nearer the center of Belfast. (Shankill Road radiates west, Falls Road roughly southwest). it echos the mural in the Bogside proclaiming Free Derry (more on that to come).

finally, a mural from Shankill Road honoring members of the Ulster Volunteer Force. the hand in the middle (seen here in both red and gold) is the symbol of Ulster. you’ll often see flags depicting the red hand of Ulster on a white background with red cross as a symbol of unionist sentiments. all along Shankill Road this day, in addition to flags with the red hand of Ulster, there were Union Jack banners running between street lights.

there may be peace, but, as i mentioned in a previous post, that doesn’t mean that problems are solved or wounds are healed. there is still occassion to have the “peace wall”, which runs through the middle of neighborhoods along Falls Road and Shankill Road.