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Dermot Sullivan gives a personal perspective on the Irish 'Troubles'.
'Genocide tends to cause bad feeling in the long term. This is really where the problem began'.

The 30th January sees thirty years since Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972. Thirteen innocent people were shot dead by the Parachute Regiment in the street, with one person subsequently dying in hospital. The killing of these fourteen people is really the pivotal moment of recent Anglo-Irish relations. The consequences were disastrous. Attitudes hardened, the killing intensified and what should have resolved itself in the mid-1970s is only just unwinding now. The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 but it will take a century or two for all to be forgotten. BBLOODY SUNDAY

Two dramas about Bloody Sunday have been shown on British television within the last fortnight. It is quite unusual for British television to try to tackle the subject of Northern Ireland (in an intelligent way). In the past tremendous political pressure has been brought down to bear on the makers of any such programme. Before we review the merits and demerits of the two dramas, it is helpful to take a look back to the root causes of what the British euphemistically called ‘the troubles’.

The Irish have long historical memories. The British do not on the whole. I asked my mother when I was small about ‘Northern Ireland’ and she told me about Henry II arriving in 1169. Well, that’s when the English first arrived, and that’s where the problem began. If he had known the consequences then it’s unlikely that he would have bothered.

Fast-forward wars, then fast-forward to religious wars. When Henry VIII broke with Rome and his son Edward VI introduced Protestantism to England, Ireland still remained Roman Catholic. Fast forward to the English Civil War and Cromwell, a Puritan fundamentalist zealot who, it is said, believed it was his destiny to wipe the Irish Catholic antichrist of the face of the Earth. Genocide tends to cause bad feeling in the long term. This is really where the problem began. Most of the Catholics were driven into the west of Ireland where the land was poor as their land in the east was robbed from them. Protestant Scots settled in the northeast of the country, in the province known as Ulster.

Fast-forward to the 19th Century and we have the misfortune of the Potato Famine. There was no ‘famine’ as such. The potato crop failed due to a fungal blight. The English landlords (who were basically presiding over stolen land) took all the crops as taxes. The Irish were left to eat potatoes. When there were none, they were left to starve. A country of eight million was reduced by a third, with three million people emigrating, mainly to America. The British government pondered what to do – and left it at that. They still collected their taxes though. The population was decimated while all sorts of homegrown Irish food was shipped out to England. Millions of Irish and their children would ask for years afterwards: ‘did they want us to die? '

Fast forward to 1916. There was a deeply unpopular republican rising at Easter in Dublin. However, the savagery in which the British army quelled it appalled the Irish public and gave birth to the republican movement proper (and the IRA – Irish Republican Army). After a brutal guerrilla war of independence the British government were ready to strike a deal wit the IRA. The problem was that there was a sizeable amount of Protestants in the north who wanted to remain part of Britain (and certainly wanted nothing to do with Catholic Dublin). The British answer was to partition the country. Six counties in Ulster would become a statelet known as ‘Northern Ireland’. It’s capital would be Belfast and it would be British.

Fast-forward to 1968. Things had not gone along to plan. When do things ever in Irish history?
Northern Ireland had rather an unusual political system, created so that those in power could cling onto it. If you owned property then you had a certain amount of votes. The same applied if you owned a business. There was no universal suffrage, as there was in the rest of Britain or in the Republic of Ireland to the south. The city of Derry in particular, where the population was, in the 1960's, 70% Catholic, was gerrymandered so that Protestants or (Unionists, as they wished to retain the union with Britain) controlled 80% of the city council.

Coupled with this were the worst living conditions in Western Europe for the working class of Derry, especially around the predominately Catholic area of the Bogside. The housing situation in the entire north was dreadful, and in the main cities it was not uncommon to find three generations of families living under the one roof. Jobs were scarce as well, and could be even harder to find if you were Catholic. If Protestants controlled the majority of businesses, the sad fact was that your name or where you went to school could prevent you finding employment. The nearest comparison that comes to mind is the situation of American blacks in the Deep South of the USA in the 1960s.

When Martin Luther King lead his non-violent civil rights movement there, he inspired people all over the world to do likewise. The young people in the north of Ireland took notice and followed.Throughout Europe and North America people marched for both rights that we take for granted now such as the right to vote. Aims that we see today as hopelessly idealistic (the end to capitalism( for example were cleary doomed. It is important to note that the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland combined both Protestant and Catholics of all ages.

On the 5th October 1968 a civil rights march of all ages was met by violence by the Northern Irish Protestant State Militia known as the B-Specials. This was done in full view of the television cameras, and one man later died as a result of the beating he received. From this moment it was a slippery slope to the British army being sent in to return ‘order’, the birth of the Provisional IRA and a situation that we are all too familiar with.
The events of Bloody Sunday took place on the 30th January 1972 and quite some water had passed under the bridge since 1968. The British army, which had been sent in to the north to protect Catholics from rampaging Protestants, had been unfortunately placed under the authority of the Protestant government of Stormont. They used the British army to break the Catholic insurrection, and thus turned the Catholics against the army. The army, not geared to police but to fight, often behaved without either compassion or understanding of the longterm issues. It responded with daily curfews and brutality. Catholics saw the IRA as their only line of defence. With almost constant rioting, Northern Ireland was in all but name a war zone, with hundreds of people killed each year (in 1967 Northern Ireland had the lowest recorded crime of anywhere within the UK).

Of the two dramas about Bloody Sunday, it was the writer Jimmy McGovern’s that actually detailed some of the history of the situation. Simply entitled ‘Sunday’, it explained the inequality and poverty. The drama focused on the families affected by the shootings. It showed the aftermath with all the funerals, it showed the Widgery Report that the Prime Minister Ted Heath had commissioned to discover the facts of what had happened. It showed the young debating whether they should join the IRA or not.
Jimmy McGovern’s view is that of the working class. Christopher Eccleston’s character of Major-General Ford was a caricature of an Upper Class ‘toff’. Where he excelled (mainly because nobody else has bothered to explore the territory before) was showing the situation of the Parachute Regiment. Young working class squaddies, trained to kill and sent into what I described earlier as a war zone. Edward Heath and the Brian Faulkner (the hardline unionist Prime Minister of Northern Ireland who had called publicly for the enemy to be ‘annihilated’) knew exactly what they were doing by sending the Paras into Ireland.
Whereas Jimmy McGovern’s ‘Sunday’ felt like a drama, Peter Greengrass’ ‘Bloody Sunday’ was all shot handheld, with colour desaturated and felt like a documentary. It starred the actor James Nesbitt (from ITV’s ‘Cold Feet’) as Ivan Cooper, who was at that time MP for Derry. He was a civil rights lawyer and a Protestant whose electorate was overwhelmingly Catholic. It was he, along with a group of others who organised the march.

Focusing on the day itself, it was the Peter Greengass film that showed the confusion of the situation. One watched with a sense of dread as the nightmare scenario unfolded. Both films showed how the Paras found themselves in the awful situation but also how they overstepped the mark.

The Greengrass film ended on the evening on the 30th January, with Ivan Cooper, near catatonic with grief, and with Derry youths queuing up to join the IRA. The McGovern film continued way past this and through to the end of the Widgery Report. It showed how there was a political cover-up to absolve the government of any blame. This film too showed how Bloody Sunday was one of the largest recruiting sergeants the IRA ever had.
One wonders what good these films will achieve. Both James Nesbitt and Jimmy McGovern have been interviewed repeatedly by the media, talking of their moral obligation to make their respective films. It seemed that the James Nesbitt film came across as the most unbiased, with its main protagonist stretching out over the sectarian division. The Jimmy McGovern film focused on the victims (and for McGovern that word includes the Paras too) and those in Derry left behind.

The Saville Inquiry that is taking place now is supposed to get to the bottom of what happened on the 30th January 1972. Personally I can why the inquiry is happening after the Widgery whitewash, but I cannot see what it can hope to achieve. Tony Blair, after apologising for the Potato Famine, set up the inquiry as a sop to Sinn Féin who had used it as a political football for years. Sinn Féin is after all the voice of the people of Derry.
This is all well and good. What happened on the 30th January was wrong. There is no justification for the deaths of 14 innocent people. What we need to do now is move away from the culture of victimisation. By I mean self-victimisation, where both sides feel the other has abused them and this legitimises whatever they ‘reaction’ they commit. Protestants in the north of Ireland have this feeling that papists surround them and at any moment they will rise up and kill them all. Ian Paisley has made a career out manipulating Protestants fear for his own ends. Catholics feel that they have been oppressed since 1169 and this legitimises any victimhood they feel by the British government or their Protestant neighbours. We see it quite clearly in Palestine where the Israelis are the descendents of the Shoah and this gives them the right to treat the Palestinians appallingly.

Saville will achieve nothing in the long term. Sinn Féin will use it as another example of British interference in the island of Ireland while the Daily Mail newspaper will no doubt take the side of the Parachute regiment. The entire killing and arguing will all be for nothing in a few years anyway: the Catholic birthrate had ensured that Ireland will be reunited once again. Then the Protestants can leave their 1690 mental timewarp and the Catholics can do likewise with their 1916 one and everyone can join the real one. (We hope)

As for the television dramas, I think the Peter Greengrass one was the better. One just felt that was what actually happened on the day. Do we need television now to tell us what is real or not? One plus though: that drama pulled viewing figures of five million in the UK. Obviously not everyone in Britain wishes to stick their head in the sand.

© Dermot Sullivan 2002

(This is Dermot's personal viewpoint of the two programmes and the events that led up to it.
History is subjective and often people use history to oppress the present. Ireland's curse is not just injustice but long memories. The Truth Commission in South Africa has led the way to try and put the past behind them.
Perhaps the Saville Inquiry should be used in the same way and finally allow Ireland and the Irish on both 'sides' to move forward in peace. Let's hope so). Ed.

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