The events themselves took a matter of minutes to unfold in a paroxysm of one-sided gunfire that snuffed out more than a dozen lives, each one of them a new martyr in Northern Ireland’s somber annals of loss. But the effort to unravel what happened in those brief moments — to parse the antecedents and the outcomes, to trace the lines of command on the grisly day that became known as Bloody Sunday — devoured years of costly inquiry.
And when the questioning was done, the conclusion was drawn by some that the killings by British soldiers on Jan. 30, 1972, had earned a place alongside the Sharpeville shootings in South Africa in 1960 and the Tiananmen Square killings in Beijing in 1989 as exemplars of lethal violence in the name of a state, directed against those who sought to defy its writ.
The failings were legion, committed by a unit of the British military once known for its gallantry and prowess in theaters of conflict as far-flung as Arnhem in the Netherlands during World War II and the Falklands in 1982. Much soul-searching and much obfuscation swirled around the central question of whether, as some of the soldiers initially insisted, they had opened fire in response to an armed and potentially lethal attack by the outlawed, underground Irish Republican Army.
determined in June 2010. None of the fallen — 13 were killed that day, and one died of injuries later — posed “a threat of causing death or serious injury, or indeed was doing anything else that could on any view justify” the firing of over 100 rounds of military-grade ammunition from automatic rifles.
The consequences were enormous, reverberating far beyond the hardscrabble Northern Ireland city of Derry, known to British officials and many members of its Protestant minority as Londonderry, where the bloodletting exploded. Four years earlier, in 1968, in the same mean streets of the city’s Bogside district — a crucible of anti-British sentiment — a civil rights march had dissolved into violent confrontation among mainly Roman Catholic protesters and the mainly Protestant police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The clashes signaled the start of what became known as the Troubles, three decades of tangled sectarian strife that drew Britain’s army into the territory.
From then until the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998, more than 3,500 people died, caught up in the mutually exclusive visions of those, mainly Catholic, who were seeking a unified Ireland, and largely Protestant unionists who were committed to ever deeper ties with mainland Britain.
Father Daly died in 2016.
Jan. 30, 1972, began in familiar ways. Civil rights activists had signaled their plans to demonstrate against the recently introduced British practice of interning people without trial. The authorities outlawed the demonstration, but it went ahead anyhow.
Protesters, who were overwhelmingly Catholic, lobbed rocks at the army. The army responded with rubber bullets, tear gas and a water cannon. Back from the fray, a top commander of the paratroopers issued orders for his troops to arrest suspected rioters without pursuing peaceful protesters too closely.