The Irish Times view on Bloody Sunday: an atrocity’s long shadow

However painful the truth may be, democracies must hold themselves to the standards of human rights they preach to others

Jean Hegarty (left to right), sister of Kevin McElhinney, John Kelly, brother of Michael Kelly, and Margaret Wray, sister of Jim Wray, hold images of their loved ones killed on Bloody Sunday. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Jean Hegarty (left to right), sister of Kevin McElhinney, John Kelly, brother of Michael Kelly, and Margaret Wray, sister of Jim Wray, hold images of their loved ones killed on Bloody Sunday. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

In 2010, the Saville Inquiry summed up the events in Derry on January 30th 1972: “Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland. ” This was, on both counts, grimly accurate. The killing by the first battalion of the British army’s Parachute Regiment of 13 innocent civilians, and the wounding of a similar number, was a local, intimate and deeply personal horror. But the massacre’s catastrophic consequences were felt much more widely. Those who died on the day were joined over the next two decades by many others whose lives were consumed in the fires of rage and violence it did so much to fuel.

It is not unreasonable to wonder why Bloody Sunday gets much more attention than other atrocities perpetrated in the Troubles – La Mon or Birmingham, Greysteel or Loughinisland. All victims deserve to be remembered with the same sorrow. There are, however, two good reasons for according Bloody Sunday a specific significance. One is that democratic states must be held to higher standards than paramilitaries. The other is that, unlike those other massacres, this one was the subject of a judicial inquiry, the Widgery report of April 1972, that gave a largely fictional account of what had happened and blackened the names of the victims. This exercise in gross official dishonesty amplified the harm of Bloody Sunday itself. It created a toxic miasma of mistrust that hung over Northern Ireland for 28 years, until it was banished by the Saville inquiry.

Thus, as well as remembering the victims – some of them still children – whose lives were so cruelly cut off 50 years ago, we must also bear in mind the wider consequences of misgovernment. We must reflect on how democracies can fatally undermine themselves through the practice of impunity and the closing of official ranks.

Bloody Sunday was itself a consequence of impunity. The Paras had already killed innocent civilians in the Ballymurphy estate in Belfast the previous August. Those killings, too, were covered up. These soldiers and their commanders knew that they could get away with murder. After Bloody Sunday, the British authorities – military, political and judicial – seemed determined to avoid responsibility and to blame the victims.

Democratic states are always tempted to behave like this, to look away from awkward facts and to dodge responsibility for the consequences. When they do so, they make everything worse – for themselves and for those they govern. Instead of really covering up Bloody Sunday, the British government succeeded only in turning it into an open wound that infected the body politic for decades. The lesson is as stark and relevant today as it was in 1972. It is that, however painful the truth may be, democracies must hold themselves to the standards of human rights they preach to others.

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