Today, January 30, marks the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” massacre in Derry, Northern Ireland. British soldiers shot and killed 14 unarmed civil rights demonstrators and injured another 12. Left Voice spoke with veteran socialist activist and author John McAnulty about the massacre, its consequences and the ongoing quest for justice. Though McAnulty was not in Derry at the time of the killings, he was a leader in the socialist movement during the period, and was a co-founder of the group People’s Democracy (which eventually became a Trotskyist group). As he notes, while the British and Irish establishments have agreed on a “resolution” of the Bloody Sunday events, no British soldiers have been convicted for their crimes and there has never been any justice for the victims and their families.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your activism, both in the period of the 1960s and 1970s and since.
Well, my first political experience was in 1966. I was in school and [Sinn Féin] decided to stand for elections for the first time in a very long time, and the police arrived to seize the Irish flag from the office. That was followed by severe rioting that ended only when the local militias were placed on the corner of every street in my district. So that was a big eye-opener for me. Up till then, I had thought the state was fairly well meaning, and I found that was not the case.
A bit later, in 1968, I was at university and the People’s Democracy movement was formed. Essentially, it rode on the wave of the European New Left. I edited the People’s Democracy paper and I was the general secretary for a long time. I eventually got elected to the local council, only to be immediately ejected when I described the British flag as the “butcher’s apron.”
Our organization was extremely influential up until the hunger strike of the 1980s. And at the end of that hunger strike, there was sort of a collapse of the broad political movement, with the vast majority of people flowing into Sinn Féin. And so that left us with only a rump. We’ve survived, but the vast majority of the left today is in some way aligned with Sinn Féin, which, you know, is not a socialist organization. It’s not even liberal. It’s actually quite a right-wing organization.
What I’ve been doing recently is writing some books. I wrote a short booklet about my experiences in the formation of a civil rights movement in Ireland, and more recently I’ve written a small booklet on partition. I’ve written on the Irish housing crisis, which is maybe one of the critical things that’s been going on in the recent past.
What led up to Bloody Sunday? Can you explain the background of the events — the civil rights movement and initial insertion of the British Army in 1969?
The most important thing to understand is that the basic mechanism, the basic structure of the Irish question, is partition. Ireland was sort of a test bed for decolonization, and the British were very anxious to limit it. Some of them wanted to prevent it. But as time went on, they discovered they wouldn’t be able to prevent it. They had to limit it by setting up a Protestant militia and dividing the country [in 1921]. Northern Ireland became a sectarian state after that. Before partition, it was a bit like Birmingham, Glasgow, or Manchester, where sectarianism was used quite extensively by the bosses, but it was not built into the laws or structures. But after partition, it was built in very savagely.
The Republican response was Operation Harvest, which was in the 1950s, and it was essentially an attempt to run an armed campaign on the border and displace police stations and barracks and so on. And it was an absolute failure; it failed on every conceivable level, and eventually it was called a halt. That led to quite a deep discussion, a shift towards politics and also a shift towards reformism. And so the political and reformist turn led to the civil rights movement. The Republicans didn’t set it up, but they decided to join it. And that was actually very successful; a lot of people started to mobilize, demanding that the massive discrimination and repression be eased off. If we were British, well, then we should be treated the same as the British — that was the argument.
But there were ongoing discussions in the Republican movement, with some people saying that this is going to end in violence and we need to have weapons. And they were also saying, as Republicans, we should also advance a united Ireland as the solution, not just a reform of the North. So that came to a head. In 1968, there was the Battle of the Bogside, in the same area of Derry that the Bloody Sunday massacre would later take place. Essentially the police and local loyalist forces [Irish supporters of the United Kingdom] were defeated by the local Catholic-nationalist population. The loyalists were unable to fight on and just didn’t have the resources to occupy the area with every member of the population in arms against them. And their response was to unleash a pogrom in Belfast. It was a mixture of police, local militia, and loyalist paramilitaries — and they attacked. The Republican leadership was criticized very heavily for not being prepared for this. And that led to the split into Provisionals and Officials [in the Irish Republican Army (IRA)]. The issues were the lack of arms preparedness and the need to assert a united Ireland as the solution. The more reformist currents became the Officials, and the nationalist revolutionaries became the Provisionals [or Provos].
I want to stress that the Provisionals did not start off by launching a major guerrilla campaign. The main impulse was to arm in self-defense. At that point, Operation Banner began — the title of the British Army insertion. The British Army insertion in Northern Ireland is the longest military campaign in British Army history; it went on for over 30 years. The aim was to try and save partition and the loyalist administration. The British imposed a curfew in nationalist areas, which was defeated by a mass mobilization. They launched a unit called the Military Reaction Force, which was drawn from people who’d been active in Kenya, and were used to carry out assassinations and random shootings. Then they began to build up their alliances with the loyalist gangs, and so on. None of these really worked. And so what happened was they decided that the only way to deal with this was to ban all demonstrations by political activists.
On January 30, 1972, the civil rights movement held a demonstration in Derry, and the British used the Parachute Regiment to suppress it — this came to be known as Bloody Sunday. The actual results are slightly more complex than people would have thought. On the one hand, people were queuing up — they actually formed physical queues — to join the IRA after the attack. So the Provisional IRA grew enormously in influence and essentially became the leadership of the resistance. But on the other hand, the reformist wing of the civil rights movement held a demonstration the following week and then essentially disbanded.
There was a mass movement in existence which had cohered around the demand for the British to leave. But the Republicans didn’t have a program that could realize it. They didn’t raise any real class issues in the North, and they essentially kept links open to the Irish capitalist class in the South. And there’s a sharp difference between military activity and mass mobilization — and in their minds, the military activity came first. So they would ask people to cancel demonstrations. Early on they adopted a cell structure, which may have made military sense, but it certainly didn’t make any political sense because it immediately cut them off from the people they were working among.
There was a unity around demanding inquiries. And what we got right away, in April 1972, was the Widgery inquiry, which was the purest-of-white whitewashes. It said the British had done nothing wrong. It said all the people in the streets were armed to the teeth and had been attacking the British forces. And that’s essentially the way that one went — and it caused even more outrage. So the issue of Bloody Sunday lived on and on.
An attempt was made to put it to bed with the Saville Report in 2010. Essentially, the Widgery report said the British Army did nothing wrong. The Saville Report essentially says the British Army really didn’t do much wrong, but some soldiers may have been better disciplined. This report was organized to allow the Provisional leadership to accept it. There’s been a sort of division ever since then because a minority of the families didn’t accept the Saville report and continued with demonstrations on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. So there is a level of discontent, but it doesn’t really have a political expression.
I’ll just finish with one more point. The reality of Bloody Sunday is that the same Parachute Regiment carried out an earlier massacre in Ballymurphy, which took place between August 9-11, 1971, in Belfast. The British forces killed 10 unarmed people. It was presented as though they’d come under attack from gunmen there. At first the press didn’t report it, and then when they did report it, they reported individual gun battles. But essentially, it was a street incursion into the area and a massacre of civilians — very similar to the Bloody Sunday killings, but without the framework of a civil rights demonstration to expose it.
It’s now 50 years later and there still hasn’t been any justice for the families of the victims. Why does the British government continue to block any justice for the victims?
I think two things are going on. One is the effect of the Saville Report. The Republicans gathered their supporters in Derry’s Guildhall Square and set up a big television screen. David Cameron [British prime minister at the time] appeared for the British and said, “I’m very sorry for your trouble” — and the Republican leaders led everybody in cheers and applause. It’s all been resolved, you know?
But of course, even though the British had shifted the blame down to the very bottom of the operation, to the individual soldiers, there’s a big gap between that and actually surrendering individual soldiers, because the British state depends on the impunity of the military.
And the other issue was that in the period from Cameron on, we’ve been involved in a long and steady slide of Britain to the right. The mood among the British political class is that they’re not going to charge any soldiers; not only that, but they actively want to pass a law that you can’t charge any soldiers. And they don’t want it to extend just to Ireland. They want to extend it to the globe. They are fed up with these questions about what happened in Iraq, and so all the inquiries are going to end.
The massacres of 1972 were carried out under a Conservative administration. How, historically, has the Labour Party responded to the demands of Republicans?
When Labour was in power, the people they sent to administer the North were just as vicious as the Conservative ones. Inside the Labour Party itself, there was also always a Left. And the Left in the Labour Party was actually quite influential in blowing open the Irish question at the time the civil rights movement started.
They called for support of civil rights in Ireland, but that declined as violence got more acute. And in any case, the Left itself was in retreat in Britain. You can see where we are now, where Jeremy Corbyn has been expelled from the Parliamentary Labour Party while at the same time they’ve just welcomed with open arms a Conservative defector who wears a Union Jack mask. It’s in a rush to the right; the party never appears on TV now unless it has at least two Union Jacks behind it.
Can you tell us about the Protestant working class in the North and whether there are grounds for winning its support for a united Ireland?
I think I would start to answer that with the 1920 Shipyard pogrom, which was organized directly by leading Unionist politician Sir Edward Carson. He held a meeting and said, “I don’t think there should be any of these [Republicans] in the shipyards anymore.” And the next day, this extremely loyalist firm organized its workers and they went out and started to turn to the shipyards. They drove out thousands of workers, about a quarter of whom were actually Protestant. So there were the Catholics who had to leave the shipyard, but there were also “Rotten Prods” [protestants]. They were socialists, essentially. They organized the strike committees and such, alongside the Catholics, and so they were forced out.
I was one of the founders of People’s Democracy. Actually a big input, as our first formation, was Protestant youth, who just felt strangled. People forget just how oppressive the old Unionist society was; it was incredibly oppressive for both Protestant and Catholic. So we had a very large group of Protestant youth who actually embraced socialism.
What is absolutely absent today is a working-class movement of any description in the North of Ireland. The trade unions are so poor that when the Stormont House Agreement [the 2014 agreement between the British and Irish governments and the majority of parties that comprise the Northern Ireland Executive] collapsed and had to be revived again with this thing called the Fresh Start Agreement in 2015, the trade unions agreed that they’d accept austerity cuts and not call any more demonstrations.
What we can say is that Britain itself is in a weaker position today. Brexit has caused chaos and fragmented the different regions of Great Britain, and also fragmented the ruling class to a certain extent. But it has been very effective in smashing the working class. I don’t see Brexit abandoning the claim on Ireland. The Brexiteers were willing to double-cross unionists [loyalists] to get Brexit. But the Brexiteers are also the League of Empire Loyalists who would never consider for a moment withdrawing from Ireland. So we’re back to working-class mobilization and class movements and workplace politics.