Bloody Sunday handkerchief, 1972

 

A History of Ireland in 100 ObjectsThe plain white handkerchief is distinguished only by the small letters spelling out “Fr E Daly”, sewn into it by the mother of its owner, a Catholic priest in Derry. On Sunday, January 30th, 1972, Edward Daly waved the hanky as a plea for troops to stop shooting while a group of men tried to carry a 17-year-old boy to safety.

Jackie Duddy had been shot from behind as he fled from British army paratroopers who fired on a demonstration organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.

He was one of 13 unarmed men shot dead that day; 17 others were wounded, one of whom subsequently died. Photographs and television images of the harrowing scene made Fr Daly’s white handkerchief perhaps the most emblematic object of a 30-year conflict.

On the face of it, Northern Ireland, the semi-autonomous entity within the United Kingdom created in six northeastern counties in 1920, was surprisingly successful. It survived bitter nationalist opposition to partition and the vicious sectarian conflict that raged at its birth.

Utterly dominated by the Unionist Party, it was, as Northern Ireland’s first prime minister, James Craig, declared in 1934, “a Protestant Parliament and Protestant State”.

When, in 1965, Taoiseach Seán Lemass travelled to Belfast to meet his northern counterpart, Terence O’Neill, it seemed as if Northern Ireland’s legitimacy was in effect secure.

Beneath this veneer of stability, however, was a profound problem: a third of the population was Catholic and suffered discrimination in public employment, in the allocation of public housing, in the operation of the electoral system and through the activities of the wholly Protestant Ulster Special Constabulary.

O’Neill sought to bring about reforms after 1963 but was thwarted by a backlash led by the militant Free Presbyterian preacher Ian Paisley. Catholic expectations had been raised and then dashed;the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was formed in 1967.

Unionist leaders, in response, insisted that the civil-rights association was merely a front for the (in reality moribund) Irish Republican Army, which they said was determined to destroy Northern Ireland.

Conflict escalated through a number of phases: police and loyalist attacks on civil-rights marches; sustained riots, especially in Derry; intercommunity violence along sectarian fault lines; the British government’s decision in August 1969 to send in troops to keep order; the emergence of a militant new “provisional” IRA and of loyalist paramilitaries; and the disastrous introduction of internment without trial in August 1971.

It scarcely mattered that the civil-rights association’s initial demands were conceded: after Bloody Sunday, Catholic alienation and Protestant reaction were reinforced by each new atrocity. Of these there was no shortage: the death toll rose from 26 in 1970 to 171 in 1971 and to 480 in 1972.

Attempts to end the violence, most notably the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, which led to a sharing of power between unionist and nationalist parties, failed. The conflict settled down into an apparently acceptable level of obscenity: 3,529 people had died by 2001. Most – about 1,800 – were civilians. Nationalist paramilitaries killed more than 2,000; loyalist paramilitaries more than 1,000; and state security forces more than 360.

It took a long time and a lot of blood before the plea for a truce contained in Fr Daly’s improvised white flag was heeded.

Thanks to Adrian Kerr

Where to see itMuseum of Free Derry, Bloody Sunday Centre, 55 Glenfada Park, Derry, 048-71360880, museumoffree derry.org

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