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01 Oct 2022

"Why did they open fire? Why were people killed?"

Derry journalist, activist and campaigner, Eamonn McCann was at the Civil Rights march that would become Bloody Sunday and looks back on that day

Eamonn McCann

Eamonn McCann: "There was something egregious and outrageous about people in the State's uniform killing people. Bloody Sunday exposed the British State."

“Those questions, to some extent, still remain,” says Eamonn McCann. “Why did they open fire? Why were people killed?”.

Journalist, campaigner and politician, McCann has been at the forefront of campaigning for fairness and equality in Derry.

Those more recently-minded will recall him as a People Before Profit party MLA for Foyle before sitting on the city's council after losing his Stormont seat.

More than 50 years ago however, McCann was one of many in Derry making their voices heard against the injustice and inequality that Catholics and Nationalists had to suffer by the Unionist ruling classes at Stormont who had loaded the stack of cards heavily in their own favour.

McCann in the late 1960s was part of the Derry Housing Action Committee and worked in conjunction with the Northern Irish Civil Rights Association. He also served as Bernadette Devlin's election agent when she became – at the time – the youngest MP at Westminster.

He was also there on the march on January 30, 1972 and would vigorously campaign for the truth to come out about Bloody Sunday not long afterwards.

The week before Bloody Sunday, a march at Magiligan beach towards an internment camp saw marchers being assaulted by paratroopers.

Six months earlier, the Paratrooper Regiment would kill 11 civilians at the Ballymurphy area of Belfast – only recently as last year were the dead found as innocent victims who were killed without justification.

McCann admits that no one was under any illusions that the paras could once again employ heavy-handed tactics but – and despite what had happened at Ballymurphy – no one anticipated that the troops would employ the deadly measures that they did.

He said: “The incident at Magiligan beach the week before Bloody Sunday served as a reminder of the attitude of the security forces generally, but in particular, the reputation that the Parachute Regiment had.

“It has been well-established that they were behind the events that took place at Ballymurphy in August 1971 so there was an understanding that there would be tough action taken and that people would be in for a rough ride.

“But nobody at all expected the Bloody Sunday shooting. My first response when the shots rang out was one of confusion – 'what are they shooting at? Why? What has happened?'.

“And I was asked the question after it had happened – 'why did they open fire? Why were people killed?'. Those questions, to some extent, still remain.

“It wasn't expected at all that the march would work out the way it did. I don't know anybody who had anticipated what would happen.

“When the shots were fired, I was walking down Lecky Road – quite close to where the Bloody Sunday Monument is now – and towards Free Derry Wall where the meeting was about to start.

“I remember just before the shots rang out, Bernadette Devlin – as she then was – was beginning to speak. It was after her first sentence that the shots rang out.

“I don't know as to what sort of danger I might have been in. I suppose everybody was in danger to a certain extent I don't think my life was in danger for most of it because it took me some minutes to grasp what had happened was that people were being killed. It wasn't until it was all over how real the danger was.

“We found out what had actually happened after a couple of hours. It wasn't until the evening that the numbers were confirmed.

British soldiers blocked off William Street and prevented the Civil Rights march getting to its intended destination, Guildhall Square. (Pic: Fulvio Grimaldi courtesy of The Museum of Free Derry)

“Bernadette (Devlin) was on the phone at (journalist) Nell McCafferty's house on Beechwood Street to the hospital to find out what the score was. Using her status as an MP, she demanded the names to confirm that they were dead.

“I remember her starting to write the names out and how the hallway was packed with people that just fell quiet as Bernadette kept on writing.

“Before that, there were people who were saying that maybe three had been killed, or two killed, or four killed, who had see what and trying to piece together the whole picture. It was a few hours before the horrors seen on Rossville Street was confirmed and appreciated by everybody.

“There was disbelief and outrage when the 'official line' (from the British Army) became clear. That line being that all these people who were shot were 'bombers and gun-men' and that the British troops were 'reacting' to an 'armed assault' on them.

“That line was coming through as early as the night of Bloody Sunday. The line was put out by the army through the BBC was that 'the British Army had opened fire only on legitimate targets that had been seen to be holding guns and nail bombs'.

“Everybody knew that this was not true. People had seen what had happened in the courtyard of Rossville Street. People were looking down in horror from their eight-storey flats and had seen it all happen.

“They had seen Jackie Duddy being killed. They had seen Mickey Bridge being wounded. They had watched it from their own homes. They knew that's how Jackie Duddy died. Hugh Gilmour was shot as he ran past the Rossville flats – lots of people saw that. So we didn't have to weigh anything up and ask 'who do we believe here?' when these conflicting stories came out.

“I don't think many people were shocked at the findings of the Widgery Enquiry – maybe some were but I wasn't and neither was nobody that I know. If some did expect Widgery to uncover truth then they would be sorely disillusioned.

“There wasn't shock at Widgery's findings but there was an air of weary cynicism of 'here we go again – more lies'.”

McCann would for many years campaign relentlessly alongside the families for the truth of what happened on Bloody Sunday to come out.

In 2010, after the Saville Report was published in a report that exonerated the dead and wounded, a number of the Bloody Sunday families put McCann's name forward for the prestigious Paul Foot Award For Campaigning Journalism.

The nomination was successful as Eamonn received the Lifetime Campaign Award with the Judging Committee remarking: “McCann’s campaigning journalism is very much in the spirit of Paul Foot’s—meticulously researched, intelligent, persistent, consistent, unrelenting, beautifully written…a thorn in the establishment’s side.”

However, as Eamonn admits, the fight for the families' voice to be heard in Britain was considerable with obstacles such as ignorance of the situation in Ireland and a state of denial amongst British minds that their revered army could have done something so vicious having to be overcome.

He said: “It was some considerable time before the legitimacy of the campaign to vindicate the dead and the wounded was taken seriously. There were people who didn't want to believe it and also this was in the midst of going into the most violent period of The Troubles – part of the reasons of course for the escalation of violence being Bloody Sunday itself.

“A lot of people had trusted the British Army because they had seen the army as their own. There was the argument of 'oh the IRA have killed a lot of soldiers'. But there was a big difference which was the British soldiers were representing the State and wearing the uniform to represent the State and they did this in broad daylight. That made Bloody Sunday different.

“What wasn't different was the grief inflicted on the family members of those killed on Bloody Sunday was not different to the grief of other families who had suffered at the hands of paramilitary groups.

“While that was true, there was something egregious and outrageous about people in the State's uniform killing people. Bloody Sunday exposed the British State.

“The two things I remember from that period after Bloody Sunday was that when I would go over to London to speak at various meetings, there were two classes of people. They consisted of members of the Irish community and the far left.

“There would be occasional individuals, like Tony Benn for example, but MPs who purported to be from the left and who presented themselves as opponents of the State were like an awful lot of radicals in Britain who would sing dumb with regard to Bloody Sunday.

“Their instinct was to support their soldiers and also the level of ignorance about Ireland and the issues we had in the North was absolutely astonishing.

“I don't blame the people but it is still true that there are people – mainly in England – who only have the vaguest notion about the issues in the North and how the whole situation developed.

“We are staggered by the sheer ignorance about Ireland in Britain. But that's not to do with the ordinary people. When you look at the behaviour of certain Tory MPs and Tory Ministers in relation to Ireland over recent years, they don't have a grasp of anything at all. For example, we had a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Karen Bradley) who recently admitted to not knowing that nationalists don't vote for unionist parties and vice-versa. And yet they sent her over.

“The oceanic depths of willful British ignorance applies to history generally – not just with regard to Ireland, which is a particularly intense example of that induced ignorance. India is another example as are other British colonial enterprises.

“This was, in the end, a colonial enterprise over here. That was exposed too by Bloody Sunday. This wasn't 'police-keeping'. This was our own troops on our own streets. This was something quite different.

“Then of course there were enormous pressures put on the Protestant community here to stand by the paratroopers.

“That had began before all the smoke had cleared. There were Unionist politicians from Derry telling their own supporters that they shouldn't get mixed up with what happened on Bloody Sunday.

“That they should 'stand by the troops' and don't listen to the 'propaganda'. That was being said over and over again. That was a factor too in shaping reactions to Bloody Sunday.”

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