Bloody Sunday's Lessons

For 14 people in my homeland, northern Ireland — a place whose divisions are so fully on the surface that we still can’t agree what to call it (the reason I spell it with a small ‘n’) — the clocks stopped on January 30, 1972. For their families, this week it may feel like they have finally started again. These 14 people were participating in a civil rights march that was fired upon by British soldiers. This event, known as Bloody Sunday, marked a turning point in the history of conflict among Catholic/Irish and Protestant/British.  The killings galvanized support for the IRA, the paramilitary organization dedicated to ending British governance in the six northeastern counties of the island of Ireland, and scarred the two communities — one with the grief at their loss, the other with the dehumanizing coldness that complicit parties often feel toward those whose suffering they are seeking to legitimize.

The wounds were entrenched when a U.K. judicial tribunal, meeting for only three weeks not long after the shootings, blamed the victims for their own deaths, saying that they had been violently provoking the soldiers, something that their families knew not to be true. Over the next 25 years, each side, Catholic and Protestant, tended to justify or at least ignore the suffering caused to the other, all while facing their own terrible wounds.

Yesterday, after 38 years, a new tribunal, set up as part of the peace process that has led to extraordinary change in Ireland, conveyed words that will consign the earlier biased tribunal to history. The tribunal, known as the Saville Enquiry, delivered a set of findings that were stunning, not so much for being based on new information (many people have always believed, rightly, that the victims were not behaving violently when they were killed and that the soldiers were, at best, badly instructed; or at worst, out of control) but because they led to something people imagined they would never see: the state taking responsibility for its own wrongdoing.

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced the findings of the Enquiry from the floor of Parliament and made no effort to conceal the stark reality; he did not say he would merely study the report, which usually means it will be ignored; he did not say primarily that it raises some hard truths but has to be balanced against the context, which usually means the hard truths will be diluted; he did not say that because the events of Bloody Sunday happened when he was himself only five years old, he could not be blamed for it, which usually means that the crux of the matter will only keep re-asserting itself, forever, until someone finally says they’re sorry. Which is what Mr. Cameron did.

On the floor of the House of Commons, a British prime minister said that patriotism does not require us to ignore the sins of our nation; that defending those who risk their lives to protect civilians does not require us to justify everything that soldiers may do; that respecting the sacrifice of one community does not require us to deny the sorrow of another.  He said that what happened on Bloody Sunday “was both unjustified and unjustifiable,” and that he was deeply sorry on behalf of the government and the country.  Despite the fact that some may think the apology didn't go far enough, it was an astonishing statement by any measure.

It was possible only in the context of the ongoing peace process, which over the past 16 years has seen first ceasefires by the various paramilitary organizations, then all-party negotiations, then a power-sharing government established, along with reform of the police, and some of the most radical equality and human rights legislation anywhere in the world.  And, of course, the passing of nearly four decades makes apologies easier than they would have been on the day.

Having said that, there are problems with the Bloody Sunday Enquiry.  It took far too long, and cost far too much (the equivalent of around $300 million).  There is more to be said by both the British and Irish governments, and paramilitary organisations from both sides; but tragically, the time and financial costs may become the most-cited reasons not to establish a more comprehensive truth recovery and acknowledgment process, covering the period since 1965 to the present day in which more than 3,500 people were killed, over half of them by Irish Republican groups (primarily the IRA).  Bloody Sunday was worthy of sustained attention perhaps particularly because the killings were carried out by the state; of course illegal paramilitary groups, by their nature, do not consider themselves bound by legal responsibility, and so it makes sense in political terms to hold the state to a different standard.

But perhaps not morally.  The grief of the loved ones of the thousands of others killed in the conflict in and about northern Ireland is not diminished if they were shoppers blown up by the IRA or mail delivery men killed by Loyalist (Protestant) paramilitaries, rather than civil rights marchers shot by the British Army.  Or any number of other permutations of needless death.  The grief may actually be increased by the effects of a peace process that has, along with its other remarkable conclusions, also led to the early release from prison of many of the people responsible for the more than 3,500 other murders and the election to political office of people who had sought to mitigate, condone, or even ordered them.

Truth may indeed help heal, and the lesson of Bloody Sunday is that truth delayed makes wounds fester.  The families of those killed on Bloody Sunday have always believed they knew what really happened that bleak day in 1972; what happened yesterday was that the state finally admitted they now know it too.  The families of the nearly 4,000 other victims of the conflict may know some of the truth behind the murder of their loved ones.  What they need to know now is that the organizations responsible, whether state or paramilitary, are sorry for the suffering they caused and that they will not kill anyone again.

So to those tempted to turn the Bloody Sunday Enquiry into a justification for anti-British sentiment or to see my home through the single lens of anti-colonialism, please remember, for instance, that more people were killed by the IRA than by any other organization during the Troubles; and that Protestants were in Ireland before the Pilgrim Fathers landed on Plymouth Rock.  So the conflict won’t be solved by the “British” leaving: of the 1.7 million people living in northern Ireland, nearly a million Protestants who consider themselves British were born there.  More important, the various political parties in northern Ireland have agreed to work together for the common good, and the constitutional status of northern Ireland can change in the future, if it is the democratically expressed will of the people.

In this context, rather than more attempts at equalizing blame (although accountability is of course necessary where it’s due), we might be better served to reflect on three realities whose value to the process of creating a more humane society cannot be underestimated, whether in northern Ireland or anywhere else: empathy for those who suffer, the state taking responsibility for its own wrongdoing, and telling the truth in public.

It is not unpatriotic to tell the truth when your country is engaged in shameful behavior. It does not disrespect your own suffering to offer empathy to those in pain because of the actions of people associated with your own community. Hiding from the truth may only hurt more people for longer.