Bloody Sunday helped reconcile Southern nationalists to partition

Sat, Jan 28, 2012, 00:00

OPINION:BLOODY SUNDAY, whose 40th anniversary occurs on Monday, unleashed a wave of nationalism that engulfed the Republic, and the IRA found greater acceptance among the general population.

In dealing with the North, governments had to take heed of higher levels of anti-British feeling. There is some truth in this but, particularly as far as the political elite is concerned, not a lot.

The three days after the Derry massacre were marked by work stoppages and demonstrations in villages, towns and cities across the State. Walk-outs and marches were called by trades councils in Dublin, Cork, Dundalk, Waterford, Galway, Sligo and Letterkenny. The protests drew in large numbers of non-trade unionists and were the biggest union-led demonstrations for many years – perhaps ever.

The nature of the protests was clear in reports of marches arriving at the British embassy in Merrion Square in Dublin two days after the atrocity to hand in letters of protest or parade with placards. The most common demand was for British withdrawal from the North.

The Irish Times described 500 workers arriving from the Hammond Lane Group in the Bluebell Industrial Estate; the entire workforce, it was claimed, from Beamish and Crawford in the Liberties; “hundreds” from Murphy’s Structural Engineers in Santry behind the banner of the Electrical and Engineering Union; 120 from the Agricultural Institute; “several hundred” from Aspro Nicholas in Walkinstown; a contingent from Booth Poole and Co, Islandbridge; 500 students from the UCD department of agriculture. And so on and on.

On the third day, as 12 of the 13 dead were being buried in Derry, the embassy was burned to the ground. Dick Walsh described the crowd in Merrion Square as “the biggest demonstration the Republic has seen in a generation”. It took an hour for marchers en route to the embassy – many again in workplace contingents – to cross O’Connell Bridge in driving rain and bitter winds. Elsewhere, too, the numbers exceeded the previous day’s turnout.

Very few shops, offices, schools or factories opened. Buses and trains stood still. No Aer Lingus aircraft took off. The leader of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union, Matt Merrigan, later suggested that, relative to population, this had been the biggest general strike in Europe since the second World War.

This is not the way the event is remembered, partly at least because the government, on the previous day, noting the mood across the country, had declared a “national day of mourning”, a recharacterisation that suited a wide range of interests and that has stuck.

For a moment, though, sentiment on the streets was reflected, or so it seemed, at government level. Ten limousines crossed the Border at Bridgend, Donegal, in convoy, bringing ministers to the funerals at St Mary’s in the Creggan estate. The Derry Journal listed among the attendance President de Valera’s aide-de-camp; 14 members of the government; 32 other TDs, including Garret FitzGerald, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Ray MacSharry and Charlie Haughey; the mayors of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Kilkenny, Galway, Waterford, Drogheda, Wexford, Clonmel and Sligo; the general secretary of the Ictu; the president of the GAA; an archbishop; six bishops; and an estimated 200 priests.

Hundreds of local people, including members of the families of the victims, were unable to gain entry to the church.

Never before or since has there been such a sense in the South of oneness with the North.

Almost unnoticed at the time was a single-column story in this newspaper on the day before the funerals: “The Army Chief-of-Staff, Major General TL O’Carroll, said yesterday that the force was well-equipped to deal with internal security and likened the morale in the country to that of the 1940 period when 40,000 men were recruited very quickly.”

The report didn’t spell out the nature of the perceived security threat nor expand on the reference to morale in the country, but clearly indicated nervousness about the course the feelings aroused by Bloody Sunday might take.

Opening the Dáil debate on the massacre on the day after the cavalcade to Derry, taoiseach Jack Lynch declared that: “Groups proclaiming themselves to be members of illegal organisations have gone about intimidating people, seeking to give the impression that these organisations are now to have a free hand . . .

“The institutions of this State will be upheld without fear or favour. The laws will continue to be enforced. Those who seek to usurp the functions of government will meet with no toleration.”

Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Richie Ryan suggested that the government had only lately woken up to the extent of the threat to the State. “The anarchists know that if they could get sufficient numbers behind them they could do untold damage.”

The following week, justice minister Des O’Malley introduced a Bill authorising recruitment of 600 extra gardaí. Fine Gael spokesman Tom Fitzpatrick responded that “at least 2,000” more officers were needed. As well, “any outstanding pay claims” by gardaí should be conceded.

Government backbencher Seán Moore went further: “Any legitimate grievance under which the force laboured should also be removed.”

At the Fianna Fáil ardfheis in the RDS a fortnight later, O’Malley announced “to prolonged applause” that he had given instructions that a number of Northerners recently acquitted by a district court on arms charges should be rearrested and tried on the same charges before judge and jury.

“If the new measures were not sufficient,” he declared, the government “would not rule out special courts”.

Irish Times political correspondent Michael McInerney described Lynch’s presidential address as “remarkable for its absence of attacks on Britain or the unionists and for its appeal for an end to emotional reaction”.

In his ardfheis sketch, John Healy referred to “the absolute absence of any feeling that the men of the North belong in the moral community of Fianna Fáil . . . Sitting there listening to the speeches, you get the feeling that the North is nothing more than a functional historical claim: a thing so long reduced to standard cliches like our fourth green field that it isn’t real any more.”

The North had seemed as never before to have become a visceral reality in the South. But literally within days, alarmed at the appalling vista suddenly revealed in the mood and scale and class composition of the demonstrations, in the burning of the embassy and the strut in the step of republican paramilitaries, the main parties of nationalism emotionally and intellectually disengaged from the North and resolved to come down hard on any elements that in the name of the North dared challenge the integrity of the Southern State.

The main effect of Bloody Sunday on nationalism in the South was to reconcile it to partition.

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