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Wednesday, 30 January, 2002, 08:18 GMT
Political impact of Bloody Sunday
British soldiers opened fire on Bloody Sunday
British soldiers opened fire on Bloody Sunday
BBC NI political editor Mark Devenport reports on how the events of Bloody Sunday 30 years ago still have the potential to divide Northern Ireland's politicians.

The 30th January 1972 may not have been the bloodiest day in the history of Northern Ireland's Troubles, but Bloody Sunday's significance in shaping the course of the conflict cannot be overstated.

Prior to Bloody Sunday some young Catholics, like Northern Ireland's Education Minister Martin McGuinness, had already joined the IRA to fight against what they saw as an occupying British Army.

However, the actions of the Parachute Regiment in shooting dead 13 unarmed civil rights protestors immeasurably strengthened Irish republicans' arguments within their own community and provided the Provisional IRA with a flood of fresh recruits for its "long war".

In London, some government ministers may have approved the notion of "getting tough with the terrorists" who flouted their authority within so-called no-go areas like Derry's Bogside.

Lord Saville: Heading inquiry
Lord Saville: Heading inquiry

Yet the sheer number of lives lost on Bloody Sunday and the harsh international reaction to the killings convinced ministers and senior civil servants to re-examine their security policies and the kind of political advice they were getting from the unionist run government at Stormont.

Westminster decided that it must have full control over law and order. Stormont resisted.

So Bloody Sunday set in train the suspension of the Northern Ireland government in March 1972, which led to the decades of direct rule from London.

Despite several experiments at devolution, that era only now appears to be drawing to a close.

If the Conservative government of Ted Heath believed that direct rule was the answer to their political dilemma, then they must have hoped that the judicial inquiry set up under the chairmanship of Lord Widgery would resolve the legal and ethical questions raised by the killings.

This proved a vain hope. When the tribunal submitted its report in April 1972 it was condemned by many in Derry as the "Widgery whitewash", an impression which only grew stronger over time.


The creation of the Saville Tribunal was meant to help heal the wounds left by Bloody Sunday

Mark Devenport

John Major's admission that the victims were unarmed and should be regarded as innocent did not quell demands for a new independent inquiry.

When Lord Saville held his first hearing at Derry's Guildhall in April 1998, it was seen by many as an essential building block in any process of peace and reconciliation.

However, Bloody Sunday still has the potential to divide Northern Ireland's fractious politicians.

Few defend what the Parachute Regiment soldiers did that day. But many unionists question the concentration on one incident at the start of what turned out to be the Troubles' bloodiest year.

Grumbles about the escalating costs of the inquiry mask deeper doubts.

Nationalists argue that state violence, apparently covered up at the highest levels, raises different and more searching questions than the paramilitary killings on either side.

Unionists say that if Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness is now prepared to admit being the IRA's second-in-command in Derry on the day of Bloody Sunday, he should also come clean about the many IRA murders carried out in the same area that year.

'Painful emotions'

On this level, the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, set alongside moves like the early release of paramilitary prisoners and proposals to allow IRA members "on the run" to return home, feeds the growing sense of alienation felt by unionists regarding the peace process.

Some argue that a South African-style Truth Commission might be the only way to address those concerns, although that in turn could lead to new difficulties.

The creation of the Saville Tribunal was meant to help heal the wounds left by Bloody Sunday.

But such are the dynamics of Northern Ireland that tending to one group of victims only serves to stir painful emotions amongst others.

Links to more Northern Ireland stories are at the foot of the page.


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Links to more Northern Ireland stories