Bloody Sunday 1972 – a summary

On 30 January 1972 British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civil rights protesters in an incident known as Bloody Sunday. Kaye Jones looks at what happened on that Sunday afternoon in Derry and why Bloody Sunday remains such a controversial topic.

A Civil Rights Protest

Bloody Sunday 1972 began with a civil rights march organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) as a protest against Interment, a British government policy that detained without trial anyone believed to be a member of an illegal, paramilitary organisation.

Although Stormont officials had implemented a ban on marching in Northern Ireland, the proposed NICRA march went ahead and was scheduled for 30 January 1972. Fearing the potential for violence, Major General Robert Ford, Commander of the British Land Forces, deployed members of 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment (1 PARA) to Derry to contain the march.

The March Begins

Shortly before 3 pm the march set off from the Creggan housing estate in Derry and headed towards William Street. Estimates on the number of marchers vary from 3,000 to 30,000 but the crowd was said to be largely peaceful and in good spirits.  At around 3:45 pm the march turned right into Rossville Street to hold a meeting at ‘Free Derry Corner’, a square in the Bogside area of the city. A small number of protesters, however, broke away from the main body and moved instead towards a British army barricade.  A riot broke out with protesters throwing stones at soldiers who then responded with CS gas, rubber bullets and a water cannon. Reports suggest that the skirmish quickly petered out as stewards diverted protesters to the meeting at Free Derry Corner.

The First Casualties

At 3.55pm, away from the march, a small group of British soldiers, thought to be a machine-gun platoon, occupied a derelict building on Williams Street and opened fire on two passers-by.  Damien Donaghy, aged 15, and John Johnston, aged 59, were injured and treated in hospital. Johnston later died from his injuries.

Arrest Operation

Back at the blockade, soldiers of the support company of 1 PARA, were ordered to conduct an arrest operation and detain as many marchers as possible. Accompanied by eight armoured vehicles, the soldiers toppled the barricade and advanced down Rossville Street to the Bogside. The protesters fled, with many heading to the nearby Rossville Flats, Glenfada Park and Abbey Park. At 4:10 pm the soldiers opened fire on the crowds. The shooting lasted approximately thirty minutes and ended with the deaths of thirteen people, of whom seven were teenagers. A fourteenth died four months later. A further thirteen were injured, including five who had been shot in the back. All the victims were Catholic civilians.

The British Army later challenged the belief that they had fired the first bullet, claiming that 1 PARA had been the victims of nail bombs and sustained gunfire on entering the Bogside. Rumours abounded of an IRA sniper, lurking within the Rossville Flats. But no enemy weapons, bullets or explosives were ever recovered and no sniper sighting ever confirmed. Furthermore, there were no reported injuries from the soldiers. In contrast, an official report found that 21 members of 1 PARA had fired their weapons that day, shooting a total of 108 rounds.

Official Inquiries into Bloody Sunday 1972

There have been two official investigations into the events of that tragic day:

Lord Widgery Tribunal (1972): Commissioned by the then Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, the report largely absolved the British Army of any wrongdoing. Lord Widgery argued that “there is no reason to suppose that soldiers would have opened fire if they had not been [fired] upon first.” He also claimed that the deaths would not have taken place had the illegal march not gone ahead. The report, which took only eleven weeks to compile and publish, was condemned by many, especially the victims’ families, as a whitewash.

The Saville Inquiry (1998, published June 2010): Set up as a response to the ongoing campaign for a new investigation, the Saville Inquiry launched in April 1998 and included a number of previously-unheard statements and accounts. Published in 2010, the report found that “none of the casualties shot by Support Company was armed with a firearm or a bomb of any description. None was posing any threat of causing death or serious injury.” It holds the record as the longest inquiry in British legal history.

Kaye Jones

Kaye is author of three History In An Hour titles: 1066Dickens and The Medieval Anarchy, all published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and 1066 In An Hour as downloadable audio.

See also article on the Re-Introduction of Direct Rule in Ireland, 24 March 1972.