Bloody Sunday—Another Perspective

Bloody Sunday

Tragic and unfortunate as Bloody Sunday was, as Holmes observed with ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night-time’,[1] what didn’t happen can be as instructive as what did.

Approximately 1,800 soldiers were deployed in Londonderry’s Bogside for the containment operation, from at least four different units, the majority armed with SLRs with 20 rounds on the weapon and 30 spare. Even grossly underestimating that only half (but probably nearer 90–95%) carried the SLR, that equates to 18,000 rounds on rifles, ready to go; including their reserve ammunition makes 45,000 rounds available. Yet only 126[2] rounds were fired—0.71% of their loaded ammunition and 0.28% of their total supply. Even the 21 paras who fired barely expended a quarter (107, plus one ejected after a stoppage) of the 420 rounds loaded on their rifles; 1,050 rounds being carried altogether[3] means they handed back nine-tenths of their ammunition.

Soldiers returning nine-tenths of their ammunition cannot seriously be described as people that ‘ran amok’[4] or intent on committing ‘pre-meditated mass murder’[5].

Soldiers confronting rioters
Soldiers were short of neither firepower nor ‘targets’ that day had malice played any part in their thoughts.

To provide context: 129[6] people had been murdered by Irish republican terrorists before that January 30; two of the latter were police officers murdered in Londonderry’s Creggan on the Thursday prior (a third officer was wounded). Two of the nine soldiers murdered in Londonderry in the previous six months were killed by terrorists using rioting crowds as cover. Peter Taylor noted that ‘nearly 2,000 shots’[7] had been fired at the army in Londonderry in the three months prior to Bloody Sunday; here is a photo taken July 27, 1971, of ‘Corporal Peter Booth, Royal Green Jackets, get[ting] immediate medical attention after being shot in the knee in the Bogside, Londonderry, N Ireland. The incident was one of three shooting incidents when a total of 15 shots were fired at British soldiers following an earlier civil rights meeting’. The young soldiers were deployed into a confusing and (potentially fatally) dangerous situation. Things went wrong, and 13 people were mortally shot and another 13 wounded (at least a few being hardened rioters and one a member of the PIRA youth wing). But that so few soldiers fired, and even the ones that did returned nine-tenths of their available rounds, shows that the soldiers were genuinely trying to identify legitimate targets, and on not identifying a legitimate target, withheld their fire. They were mistaken in their identifications or missed their intended targets; it was an awful foul-up and no more.

By way of comparison, the civilised and democratic Swiss (famous for their 500 years of brotherly love, democracy and peace[8]) managed to shoot dead 13 demonstrators and wound 65 in Geneva in 1932—and they did not have the mitigating circumstance of being in the midst of an insurgency with multiple active terrorist groups. Apartheid-era South African Police notoriously killed 69 and wounded 180 at Sharpeville in 1960[9]—and in 2012 post-Apartheid SAP killed 34 striking miners and wounded 78. Casualties from the 1961 Paris massacre range from ‘two dead, several wounded and 7,500 arrests’ at the low end to 325 dead at the high. At My Lai in March 1968, American soldiers proceeded over four hours to massacre an estimated 347–504 Vietnamese civilians—mainly infants, children, women and the elderly.[10] In October of the same year, Mexican soldiers killed 200–300 protesters. At Tiananmen Square, 1989, Chinese troops fired on civilians and estimates of deaths ‘range from several hundred to thousands’—‘According to an internal Chinese document, more than 2,000 people died in various Chinese cities from June 3–4 and the days immediately following. Other estimates range from 188 to 800.’ In 2011: ‘… at least 14 protesters were shot and killed and another 64 wounded by Kazakhstan’s security services in the oil town of Zhanaozen. Other protesters, mainly striking oil workers, were rounded up and allegedly tortured.’ Frankly, our lads compare quite well to all that.

Perhaps the most apposite comparison is the IRA’s Kingsmill Massacre of 5th January 1976, where a van of civilian workmen were stopped by apparently 12 men, questioned as to their religion (the Catholic driver so identified being told to run off), and the remaining 11 defenceless textile workers were gunned down, at close range and in cold blood on a quiet country road. 11 weapons were identified as used in the attack and 136 rounds fired; only one man survived and even he was shot no less than 18 times. Unlike Bloody Sunday, there was no confusion—the terrorists knew themselves to be safe and that their victims were unarmed civilians.

Whenever armed people find themselves in a confusing and volatile situation with justified fear of their lives, there is a risk of tragic mistakes happening. But the above examples amply demonstrate that the British army exercises greater discipline than just about any other army or gendarmerie.

This one unfortunate event should not obscure who the real perpetrators of evil are within the Northern Ireland context:

NI conflict-related deaths by type of victim & perpetrators

And it is just one unfortunate event: 38 years of conflict (Operation Banner, 1969–2007) and all that republicans can lay at Britain’s door is one Bloody Sunday. For our side, we could go through the days of the week listing one ‘Bloody’ day after another, Monday through to Sunday; but such is the catalogue of depravity perpetrated by Irish republican terrorists that we would be obliged to find some way to distinguish, for example, one ‘Bloody Monday’ (Claudy bombing, 31/7/72) from another ‘Bloody Monday’ (M62 bombing, 4/2/74), and another one (Tullyvallen massacre, 1/9/75), and another (the aforementioned Kingsmill massacre, 5/1/76), and yet another (Droppin’ Well disco bombing, 6/12/82).

In 1988, John Hume addressed the SDLP’s 18th annual conference:

Up till last Saturday 2,705 people have died in the 20-year period of the current troubles. Who killed all these people?

The statistics are devastating: 44 per cent were killed by the Provisional IRA and 18 per cent by their fellow travelling republican paramilitaries. 27 per cent were killed by Loyalists. 10 per cent were killed by the British Army, 2 per cent were killed by the RUC and 0.28 per cent by the UDR. In short, people describing themselves as Irish republicans have killed six times as many human beings as the British Army, thirty times as many as the RUC, and 250 times as many as the UDR.

And wait. One of their main claims is that they are the defenders of the Catholic community. Of the 1,194 members of the Catholic community who died, 46 per cent were killed by Loyalist paramilitaries, 37 per cent by people describing themselves as republicans and 17 per cent by the security forces. And in the last 10 years since 1 January 1978, of the 306 members of the Catholic community who have lost their lives, 112 have been killed by people describing themselves as republicans. In the last 20 years Republicans have killed more than twice as many Catholics as the security forces and in the last 10 years have killed more than the Loyalists. Some defenders!

There is not a single injustice in Northern Ireland today that justifies the taking of a single human life. What is more, the vast majority of the major injustices suffered not only by the nationalist community but by the whole community are the direct consequences of the IRA campaign. If I were to lead a civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland today, the major target of that campaign would be the IRA.[11]

To update Mr Hume’s statistics: to date (2019) 58.73% of the 3,620 dead have been killed by Irish republicans, (47.68% by PIRA and 11.05% by other republican terrorists); 29.06% were killed by loyalist terrorists. 10% were killed by British security forces (8.18% by the British army, 1.52% by the RUC, and 0.22% by the UDR). In short, Irish republicans have killed seven times as many people as the British Army, almost 38 times as many as the RUC and nearly 260 times as many as the UDR. The last person killed by the British security forces was 23 years ago on 23 September 1996, when police shot dead a PIRA terrorist (two others being arrested). The last person—so far—killed by Irish republicans was this year, when Lyra McKee was killed in Londonderry, on 18 April. And this only notes the headline-grabbing activities of Irish republicans; for a glimpse of the lower levels of ongoing republican violence, see BBC article, ‘Timeline of dissident republican activity’, first published on 4 August 2010 and irregularly but frequently updated ever since.

The British Army cocked up badly that Sunday; but there was no malice, only the fear and confusion of young men in the middle of a riot in the midst of a terrorist conflict; and 16 years later, noted Civil Rights campaigner John Hume—with no cause to be overfriendly to the British state—chose to describe, not the British, not even the loyalist paramilitaries, but the IRA as ‘the nightmare of the Catholic community’.


[1] ‘Silver Blaze’ in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle:

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

[2] 126 rounds plus a 127th ejected after a stoppage. The figure of 128 was used in the Widgery report, para.40: ‘Support Company of 1 Para had, in the course of 30 January, expended 108 rounds of 7.62 mm ammunition. … About 20 more rounds were fired by the Army in Londonderry that afternoon, but not by 1 Para and not in the area with which the Tribunal was primarily concerned.’ The latter figure has since been repeated elsewhere, such as ‘The Irish Government’s Assessment of the New Material Presented to the British Government in June 1997’, see para.147.

[3] Soldier Q stated that he carried only 20 rounds spare, the remaining issued spare 10 rounds being left in the Pig: Day 339, p.2 and statement; ‘Many witnesses have told us that a standard issue was a magazine of 20 rounds and then another spare magazine, also containing 20 rounds and ten bullets in a bandolier’ (questioning of Soldier R by BSI’s Mr Clarke, Day 337, p.6).

[4] As the coroner, Maj. Hubert O’Neil accused in 1973.

[5] To select a random pseudonymous commenter.

[6] 129 people: 17 of them terrorists (15 ‘own goals’ and 2 shot in feuds); 44 civilians, 50 British Army (one from the Irish Republic, and six UDR), 17 RUC and one Garda; a further four were killed by unknown parties (but likely republicans).

[7] Taylor, Peter. Brits: The War Against the IRA. Bloomsbury, 2002. 94.; and BSI testimony on day 218, page 116.

[8] Famous quote from The Third Man (1949), Orson Welles’ Harry Lime justifying his corruption: ‘In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love—they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’

[9] As the link shows, Sharpville is more complicated than commonly thought, with the little-known Cato Manor incident a factor.

[10] Accounts such as the following put allegations of soldiers firing CS gas into vehicles (Lawton, Closing Submissions, 8C-168, FS7.1873) into perspective:

[Private Roy] Wood stared in horror at an elderly woman desperately struggling down a path. She had apparently been shot by an M-79 grenade launcher; its missile had not exploded and was embedded in her stomach.

(Jones, Howard. My Lai: Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness. Oxford University Press, 2017. 65.)

[11] Excerpts from speech aggregated from here (the latter requires a VPN if accessing from Europe) and here. A version was also published in the London Review of Books, 11(3), online here.

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