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Bloody Sunday Is a Brutal Warning to the Tories Trying to Save Brexit
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The prosecution of a single paratrooper for allegedly murdering two out of the 13 innocent civil rights marchers in Derry in 1972 has provoked inevitable criticism from knee-jerk defenders of the British army.

They stubbornly refuse to admit that the greatest recruiting sergeant for the Provisional IRA during the Troubles were the killings carried out by British army troops on Bloody Sunday. The wounds in the nationalist community in Northern Ireland opened on that day have never closed and, thanks to the meagreness of the judicial response to the massacre, they never will do.

“Massacre” is certainly the right word to use since the 12-year-long Saville Inquiry, published in 2010, concluded that none of the 28 people shot dead or wounded by the soldiers as they took part in a protest march against internment without trial posed any threat to those troops or “was armed with a firearm”.

All this happened 47 years ago, but the delay was the result of a whitewash by the Widgery tribunal followed by decades of stone-walling by the government. The passage of time has not mitigated what happened or diminished its continuing effect on the present.

The same is true of the other “legacy” issues that are becoming more, rather than less, significant as Northern Ireland becomes more polarised and divided in the wake of the Brexit referendum. The problem might have been solved by a general amnesty, which the British government and Sinn Fein would have found to their advantage – but already in calmer times this was too politically sensitive to be implemented because all parties in Northern Ireland would like to see a partial amnesty which would protect their own partisans, but force their enemies to answer for their crimes. In reality, an amnesty for one means an amnesty for all, but this is not politically saleable.

If compromise was difficult before, it is impossible now: as the prosecution of a single soldier for Bloody Sunday was being announced, Theresa May’s half-capsized government was trying to seduce the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to back its Brexit deal. This is the moment when May, if her government is to survive, must give concessions to the DUP and do nothing to antagonise them. If the party realises that it will never be so influential again and, if it wants concessions on the Irish border or the Good Friday Agreement, this is the moment to strike.

The seriousness of the situation is being underestimated. What we are seeing is the two most divisive issues in modern British history coming together in a toxic blend: these are Brexit and the Irish question.

People have searched for past examples of the deep fractures that have developed within British political life since the Brexit referendum. The crises identified as similar include everything from the reformation to the Great Reform Bill and the Suez crisis. But the closest analogy is probably the divisions generated by Irish home rule – which became known as the Irish question – in the years after prime minister Gladstone introduced the First Home Rule Bill in 1886. “The next three decades saw the Irish question polarise British political parties as it had not done before,” wrote Ronan Fanning in his compelling book Fatal Path, British Government and Irish Revolution 1912-1922.

Differences over Ireland generated the same poisonous rancour as the Brexit debate, divisions varying in intensity over 36 years but never entirely cooling down. They only ended, and then only temporarily, when Ireland was partitioned into two states, the largely Catholic Irish Free State (later the Irish Republic) and a Protestant dominated Northern Ireland.

The highly sectarian unionist state did not last, losing its grip on power in the years after 1968. Despite the pronged violence, the Troubles never became a political party issue at Westminster as Home Rule had once been. A reason why Tony Blair and a Labour government were able to negotiate an end to the violence was that the foundations for compromise had been laid by the previous Conservative government under John Major, which had declared itself strictly neutral between unionists and nationalists.

All this has already been going into reverse. British government neutrality, a central feature of the Good Friday Agreement, was discarded in 2017 when Theresa May reached her agreement with the DUP to keep her government in office. Under David Cameron the role of the Irish government in stabilising Northern Ireland was minimised or ignored.

The Irish question and the Brexit question are now coming together in a destructive way. The British government and, above all, the Brexiteers have embraced the DUP as if it was the sole representative of Northern Ireland.

Two leading advocates of Brexit and former secretaries of state for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers, stated during the referendum that the border would not become an issue. “That was either delusional or mendacious,” Lord Patten was quoted as saying in an interview earlier this week.

Paterson and Villiers are not alone: other Conservative politicians have carelessly whipped up feelings in a place which only recently endured the bloodiest guerrilla war in Western Europe since the Second World War.

Randolph Churchill wrote in 1886 that if Gladstone “went for Home Rule, the Orange card would be the one to play. Please God it may turn out to be the ace of trumps and not the two.”

Boris Johnson played a very similar card when he denounced May’s Brexit deal in a speech to an ecstatic DUP annual conference in Belfast at the end of last year. “We would have to leave Northern Ireland behind as an economic semi-colony of the EU and we would be damaging the fabric of the union,” he told them. “Unless we junk this backstop, we will find that Brussels has got us exactly where they want us – a satellite state.”


Bombastic stuff like this may be harmless enough in Woking or Orpington, but in Belfast people have been killing each other because of what they deemed to be threats to the union. Johnson may know or care nothing about the future of the Northern Irish unionists, but he had no hesitation – for his own political advantage – in fanning the fears of people who already see existential threats all around them. The ingredients for the Bloody Sundays of the future are slowly accumulating.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain, Northern Ireland 
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  1. fnn says:

    I don’t know what there could be to fight about in the present era. Britain and Ireland are now both degenerate post-Christian neoliberal secular hedonist clown countries. I remember the Hong Kongers ridiculing the departing Brits at the time of 1997 transfer of sovereignty. Think of how much worthy they are of ridicule 22 years later.

  2. “A reason why Tony Blair and a Labour government were able to negotiate an end to the violence was that the foundations for compromise had been laid by the previous Conservative government ”

    Another reason, according to my Irish (Republic) friends is the much-maligned EU: it lavished development funds and expertise on Ireland and contributed mightily to the peace.

  3. Saoirse says:

    Bloody Sunday: No Justice without Prosecutions

    By Administrator 01 on Márta 15, 2019

    Preas Ráiteas \ Statement

    March 14th 2019

    ”Republican SINN FÉIN POBLACHTACH reject the British establishments verdict that only one soldier will be prosecuted in relation to Bloody Sunday and the deaths of 14 innocent civil rights demonstrators.

    The verdict today and Karen Bradley’s recent comments stating killings by the British military and police in occupied Ireland were not crimes but rather the actions of people “fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way” is patronizing and a blatant cover up of the truth.

    Karen Bradley’s comments in reality are indicative of the British establishments mindset towards innocent Irish civilians murdered by crown forces as is today’s ruling.”

    “In matters of principle there can be no compromise”

    • Replies: @Curmudgeon
  4. Saoirse says:


    ”We recognise the danger of the growing European Union becoming a world superpower in its own right. As it grows stronger it will assert itself and become involved in what Jack Deleors described as the “resource wars” of the 21st Century. We do not believe that Ireland, with its history of being a colonial possession, should involve itself in the oppression of other nations that the growing EU will eventually mean. There is also the danger that, instead of finally winning its freedom and independence, Ireland will find itself swapping British domination for European domination.

    Republican Sinn Féin has opposed full membership of the EU from the outset as a highly centralised political and economic power-bloc where decisions about our lives are taken in completely undemocratic institutions. Our struggle has been to manage our own affairs and our programme is for maximum power at the base. That is real democracy and the very opposite of EU imperialism.

    Under the EU our resources (eg fish) are being taken. The EU bureaucrats are doing well on their large salaries and so are the big farmers. But the plan is to wipe out the small farmers and restructure industry so that the EU centre can prosper at our expense.

    In agriculture far from the promised guaranteed level, milk, cattle and sheep prices are down. New standards for milk collection are being brought in to force the small farmer out. We can expect these processes to increase further. Irish neutrality is under sustained threat.”

    {Emphasis added}

  5. Sean says:

    Mister Cockburn needs to pay more attention to the effect of the peaceful unarmed protest of the Civil Rights Movement,quite often marching through Protestant areas, had in alienating the Ulster Protestants. The reason that the British Army (armies are killing machines not police forces) were on the streets of Northern Ireland was that the peaceful nationalist marches provoked inter- communal disorder. Then the British Army being there provoked a start up of the IRA, which led to internment, which led to a march against it that ended up in Bloody Sunday, which led to more IRA activity and a provoked a lot of Protestant Paramilitary murders too. It is a fact that the reason the period following internment and Bloody Sunday was so violent was because the UDA and UVF ect were killing people on a large scale in those years. The whole thing started with the Civil Rights Movement, which was basically Catholic and Nationalist.

    The British government and, above all, the Brexiteers have embraced the DUP as if it was the sole representative of Northern Ireland.

    Unfortunately the existence of a Protestant Unionist majority in Northern Ireland is something the Irish Nationalists don’t take suficiently into account. They just keep talking about how the British Government should slap down the Unionists. It is quite clear that Nationalists do not think Northern Ireland a legitimate entity for having a democratic majority.

    Under David Cameron the role of the Irish government in stabilising Northern Ireland was minimised or ignored.

    Both the Irish Republic and UK governments had to wait for the generation that saw 1972 to get old and tired. Both governments made or seemed to make serious mistakes between 1968 and 1972, but the thing had to drag on and become an obvious exercise in mutual futility before anyone could work their magic to stabilise Northern Ireland.

  6. 22pp22 says:

    If they cancel the Brexit vote, they are cancelling a free election. At a stroke, they have delegitimised the British government. That is a really big deal.

  7. @Saoirse

    Sure Bloody Sunday was awful, but don’t think for a minute the grunts at the front went off script and began shooting.

    If they are required to prosecute everyone, then they will have to round up busloads of IRA assassins, bombers, and kneecappers, as well as UDF and UVF assassins.

    Funny how Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley found their way to make peace and bury the hatchet, but Patrick Cockburn can’t.

    • Replies: @Johann
  8. If the English had any sense, the Westminster Parliament would repeal the various Acts of Union, run the Cross of Saint George up the flagpole over Westminster Palace, and do an EXIT, leaving the husk of the UK to take its chances in the EU they keep professing in which they’d prefer to remain.

    As for Northern Ireland and the Republic, enough time and social change have occurred since Bloody Sunday for the two Irelands to either peacefully co-exist or decide to come together of their own free will. This is not a question for the English to solve.

    • Replies: @anon1
    , @Sean
  9. Johann says:

    Gerry Adams the commander of Provisional IRA escaped conviction for murdering a Catholic woman in Belfast in front of her children . This unfortunate woman was accused of being an informer by the IRA kangaroo court. Despite the preponderance of evidence Adams was found not guilty and hightailed it to Dublin where he was safe from the law. He now spends his time campaigning for LGBT rights and Abortion rights. Several years before “Bloody Sunday” in Ireland American Army troops opened fire on a group of student anti war protesters at Kent State killing seven or eight of them. There was never any attempt to prosecute these soldiers because the American Department of War protects its own.

  10. anon1 says:
    @The Alarmist

    An independent England would be best for the English. Who knows? You might even see an England inhabited by the actual English again.

  11. Another day, another Cockburn article going to bat for papist potato monsters.

    Have you no decency?

  12. Sean says:
    @The Alarmist

    Solutions are for problems. Conflicts have outcomes, not solutions.

    Unfortunately, Britain (the soldiers who opened fire of Bloody Sunday were almost entirely Scottish) cannot just run away when the going gets tough. The constitution of the Republic of Ireland bombastically claimed the North of the Ireland as its territory, whatever the majority in the North voted for. The UK has had no monopoly on irresponsible bombast. I think when you have two peoples in a conflict like this (Palestine is similar) there is no political genius who could have avoided what happened.

    • Replies: @The Alarmist
  13. @Sean

    So, what would the RoI do, send its Army across the border, and the guerrilla response would be brutal? The EU would have no choice but to turn off the subsidies, at a minimum. These are not the Palestinians/Israelis here, and both sides know where their bread is buttered.

    • Replies: @Sean
  14. Sean says:
    @The Alarmist

    There was a youth bulge in the late 60’s and that was a big part of it, those young men are no longer around in the same numbers. The sides are not what you think. Britain’s civil servants in the Northern Ireland office have had a long term strategy of letting the Unionists fly the flag while giving Southern Ireland more and more of a say in the north. Anyway, the so called Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Terrance O’Neil’s invitation of the South’s PM (‘Taoiseach’) for talks in 1965, in Belfast was along these lines. The violence started in a small way with stone throwing at the Catholic marches
    On 13 August, Jack Lynch, Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, made a televised speech about the events in Derry, in which he said that he “could not stand by and watch innocent people injured and perhaps worse.” He promised to send the Irish Army to the border and to set up field hospitals for those injured in the fighting. Lynch’s words were widely interpreted in the Bogside as promising that Irish troops were about to be sent to their aid. [..] the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, James Chichester-Clark, took the unprecedented step of requesting the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson for troops to be sent to Derry. … but not to attempt to breach the barricades and enter the Bogside itself. This marked the first direct intervention of the London government in Ireland since partition. The British troops were at first welcomed by the Bogside residents as a neutral force compared to the police and especially the B-Specials. Only a handful of radicals in Bogside, notably Bernadette Devlin, opposed the deployment of British troops. This good relationship did not last long however, as the Troubles escalated.

    The Republic Of Ireland openly trumpeted in its Constitution a territorial claim to Northern Ireland. It is pretty well established that the Provisional IRA were armed by the Southern Irish Army intelligence and the rising politicians of the South such as Charles Haughey.

    After Enoch Powell left the Conservative Party over the EU (then called the European Economic Community), he stood as a Unionist MP in Northern Ireland and supported the right of the Ulster Unionist to remain British. He clashed with O’Neil on TV.

    As you can see from the way BBC presenters and journalists are piling on Powell (already loathed for his immigration stand), mobs of Loyalist hooligans who attacked Catholics in their homes behind the police had made made Unionism a byword for bigotry among the educated people of Britain by the time of the above clip. Really, neither Powell’s implacable Unionism or O’Neil’s conciliatory gestures to the South ware going to prevent the Troubles.

    Nevertheless, Arthur Balfour had it right when he said (about Home Rule), that there could be no half-way house between Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom or becoming independent. For now, Northern Ireland is in the UK. During the troubles, failure to observe the the Border or keep any check on the movements across it until a very late stage was a major mistake. A few tall towers for observation and a Brigade with responsibility for the border made all the difference. And it will again, if the IRA make it necessary. Ireland is no longer a poor country in the EU, the subsidies are being replaced with contributions, and they are going to find their tax scams with Google ect clamped down on. That is their real problem, not Britain.

    • Replies: @The Alarmist
  15. This article is rather vague and I didn’t get much out of it.

    What I’d like to know is if GB leaves the EU will there be mounting pressure on NI to leave the UK and join Eire and the EU.

    Notice how some New IRA have started a “bombing” campaign in NI, England and Scotland at a time when BREXIT is supposed to be finalised. Is this a warning of sorts to the politicians in parliament and who could truly be behind it?

    So if the UK leaves the EU then the UK falls apart, and perhaps GB too with Scotland leaving to stay/join the EU. I know the population mainly voted to leave because of immigration and the excessive control by Brussels eurocrats of their everyday lives, but did they think it through that by leaving they may lose the UK and GB altogether? These two issues shouldn’t be linked but now that the UK is in the EU they are. So is the will of the people really in the interest of the people in this case? Let’s put it that I was all for leaving but now I’m thinking that by doing so the Scots could be pushed to leave the UK, and perhaps the Northern Irish too, and maybe later on even the Welsh who never much cared for the English.

    Maybe the Brexit vote should be treated as a protest vote against what the EU currently is and stands for and not followed through, unless the people really want to break up the UK. Or should we say we’ll face that when it happens, but that could all start to unravel very quickly, especially when the EU starts meddling to chip off Scotland and NI?

    • Replies: @Sean
  16. @Sean

    There was this twist from a self-professed Remainer caller to LBC today:

    Caller’s Solution To Post-Brexit Irish Border Problem? Invade Ireland…

  17. Sean says:

    In Apocalypse 2000, a late 80s book by noted economist Peter Jay, he had LePen become president of the EU and the Irish Republic leaving the EU. In the book LePen is delighted when Eire leaves the EU after he becomes leader, and he says he has solved the EU’s Irish problem. The EU have a terrible time trying to get Ireland to play by the rules, and it will not get better, it’s always been a money pit. Their EU free ride is coming to an end and they will be net contributors to the EU through paying for much poorer countries in E. Europe from now on

    By the end of the 19th Century, Ireland had simply ceased to pay Britain. The big landlords found their estates swallowed capital if they tried to make improvements, introduction of secret ballots and other measures allowing the tenements to vote against landlords meant Parliament was being disrupted by Irish MPs (leading to to modern party politics), and by the 20th cent much of the British owned estates had been bought out as a result of Balfour’s legislation. Then in WW1, the UK were not not even able to draw on Ireland for conscription. It was a financial, political and military liability.

    I don’t know that Britain every really processed the fact that the Republic of Ireland is a foreign country, given that people born in the Irish Republic could and still can walk into Britain (or Northern Ireland!) and despite being foreign citizens, claim benefits and even vote in UK elections.(Which puts a rather different complexion on the discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland) The republic is choosing the foreign side very clearly now though.

  18. Sean says:
    @Commentator Mike

    What I’d like to know is if GB leaves the EU will there be mounting pressure on NI to leave the UK and join Eire and the EU.

    No, not even on economic grounds. Northern Ireland does well from British subsidies. The Troubles were not much help in reconciling the Unionists/ Protestants either. The majority of the NI population of voting age are not Catholics, yet.

    • Replies: @Commentator Mike
  19. @Sean


    The results from Brexit in NI were:

    Northern Ireland

    Leave 44.2%
    349,442 VOTES

    Remain 55.8%
    440,707 VOTES

    That says most people there want to stay in the EU. Now if any subsequent referendum the question is whether to stay in the UK the results may be different but I still think you’re overconfident. From the above it could well swing to join the EU and leave the UK.

  20. lysias says:

    Nobody is mentioning the unfair way the boundary in Ireland was drawn. So that the new Northern Ireland would not be too small, it included the two counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone, which had –and have– Catholic and nationalist majorities.

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