The Irish journalist and author Finian Cunningham examines the conflict in the north-east of Ireland during the late 1960s and early ‘70s and draws some lessons in relation to France’s present military intervention in Mali. His description of the origins and early years of the Northern War are particularly noteworthy:
“This week sees the anniversary of one of the worst massacres in modern Irish history, when British paratroopers murdered 14 unarmed civilians in cold blood.
On 30 January 1972, the British troops opened fire on a civil rights march in Derry City, Northern Ireland’s second city after Belfast, in full glare of the international news media.
Half of the victims that day were teenagers, shot in the head or in the back by British snipers. Some of the fatally wounded were shot multiple times as they tried to crawl to safety. Others were cut down in a hail of bullets as they tended to those lying wounded, bleeding on the ground.
One iconic image from that horrific day shows a Catholic priest, Fr Edward Daly, holding up a bloodstained white cloth, pleading with the British soldiers to cease-fire as he helped carry a dying youth.
Bloody Sunday, as it became known, was a watershed event. From then on, the conflict in Northern Ireland exploded. Some 3,000 people would lose their lives in the ensuing decades of violence – a huge death toll for the tiny population, equivalent to 240,000 in Iran or 900,000 in the United States.
Many Irish citizens, outraged by the British army slaughter, went on to join the ranks of the newly formed Provisional Irish Republican Army, the armed guerrilla movement that would kill hundreds of British troops and police and take the war to the very streets of London, with massive bombing campaigns in the British capital and other major cities.
Prior to the arrival of the British troops, the British-controlled Northern Ireland saw an outbreak of violence in the summer of 1968 when Nationalists began agitating for equal civil rights under the corrupt pro-British Unionist administration. Peaceful demonstrations by Nationalists were subsequently attacked by Unionist gangs and paramilitaries, aided and abetted by the sectarian state police force. Many civilians were killed as Nationalist communities were shot at and burned out of their homes and workplaces in reprisals over their political demands.
The Unionist-dominated province of Northern Ireland brought international disgrace to the United Kingdom, and the London government was obliged to post thousands of British soldiers “to restore order”. At first, Nationalist communities welcomed the British troops when they were deployed in August 1969, believing the army to be affording protection from marauding Unionist paramilitaries and police.
When the British army went into Northern Ireland in 1969, it soon became apparent that the intervention had nothing to do with protecting Nationalist civilians, under the boot of the Unionist statelet, and everything to do with suppressing the political challenge being posed by Irish separatism, which wanted to dismantle the British partition of Ireland and to create a united, independent country, free from London’s political control.
The pretext used by London for despatching troops to Northern Ireland concealed its real purpose. That agenda was to target the Nationalist population with state terrorism for political ends. Whereas in previous years, the Unionist paramilitaries could rely on the collusion of the local police force to terrorise, from 1969 onwards these forces had the full might of the British army to ramp up the violence against Nationalist civilians and thereby intimidate them from supporting political opposition to the British government’s presence in Ireland.
The year before Bloody Sunday, in August 1971, British paratroopers shot dead 11 unarmed civilians in the Ballymurphy area of West Belfast. Among the dead was a 50-year-old woman, Joan Connolly, who had been standing peacefully on the street. Another victim was a priest, Fr. Hugh Mullan, who was shot dead while trying to assist a man wounded on the ground. [ASF: Click on the link for more on the Ballymurphy Massacre]
On 9 July 1972 – six months after Bloody Sunday – British troops again shot dead five unarmed Nationalist civilians in another area of West Belfast, Springhill. Three of the victims were children, including 13-year-old Margaret Gargan, who was shot in the head by a British sniper as she was walking to her home. The two adults who died that day, Patrick Butler and Fr. Noel Fitzpatrick, were killed with the same bullet, it ripping through one man’s head into the other. One of the survivors of the Springhill massacre later told how, as he lay wounded, bullets were ricocheting off the ground near his head, fired by British soldiers who had taken up position in a nearby timber yard that overlooked the residential neighbourhood.
On another occasion during that year, a friend of this author told how when he was only a young boy he witnessed his father and a neighbour being shot at by British troops, while they were painting the family home in West Belfast. The neighbour was blown off the ladder when a high-velocity round slammed into his upper leg. It was fired by British soldiers dug in a couple of kilometres away on the Black Mountain looking down on the housing estate. Just one of countless acts of gratuitous violence committed against the civilian population by British troops.
During these gun attacks on Nationalist communities, the British army would often work hand-in-glove with Unionist paramilitaries, or death squads, as they fired into family homes, indiscriminately killing the occupants. That secret policy of collusion between British forces and Unionist death squads would later be refined with even more deadly impact.
It should be noted that this wanton state terrorism by British forces was taking place in a part of the United Kingdom, where there was supposedly the rule of law, human rights and due process.”