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21 May 2022

Bloody Sunday: The 90-minute march that has lasted for 50 years

Bloody Sunday: The 90-minute march that has lasted for 50 years

The January 30 1972 march pictured at the top of Westland Street. Photo: Robert White

On Sunday, 30th January, 1972, thousands set off on a civil rights march from the shops on Central Drive in Derry's Creggan estate.

A cold, dry, sunny winter afternoon, the mood was buoyant despite rumours that something bad was to take place.

Those taking part in the march, organised in protest at the use of internment without trial, made their way through Creggan, the Brandywell and the Bogside, with the intention of attending a rally planned for Guildhall Square.

However, when they arrived near the bottom of William Street, their path was blocked by British soldiers.

To avoid confrontation the organisers, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), diverted the march towards Free Derry Corner in the Bogside.

As they did, a small number began stoning the troops who responded with CS Gas and water cannon, resulting in those taking part to disperse.

What happened next was both horrifying and unimaginable.

Just as TV cameras caught the brutality of the RUC and B Specials on civil rights protestors on Duke Street in Derry's Waterside on October 5, 1968, the intrusion of the British Army's 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment (1st Para) was also to be broadcast worldwide.

By the time they withdrew, the Paras – the same regiment responsible for the killing of 10 innocent civilians over a three-day period in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast several months earlier - had shot dead 13 unarmed men and wounded another who was to die four months later from his injuries.

Fourteen people were also injured – including one woman who was shot and another run down by a British army vehicle.
Everyone, except hardline unionists and the British Government, knew multiple murders had taken place.

A hurried investigation held 11 weeks after the killings – the Widgery Tribunal - cleared the soldiers and British authorities of blame, describing the troops' shooting as 'bordering on the reckless,' but accepted their claims that they shot at gunmen and bomb-throwers. The families of those killed and the wounded – along with the nationalist community - refused to accept the findings, describing the outcome as a 'whitewash..'

Although a march in memory was held on each anniversary of the killings, a campaign for justice to 'right the wrong' did not begin until 1992, fronted by the families and the wounded,

Every year, they would be joined by thousands on a march retracing the original. Their efforts appeared to have paid off when a second inquiry was ordered by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998.

The Saville Inquiry opened properly in 2000 when formal public hearings began in the Guildhall with hearings also taking place in London. The hearings would continue until it was announced Saville was to publish the findings of the report in 2010.

In June 2015, thousands gathered on a warm, sunny afternoon – in complete contrast to the January 1972 march – in Guildhall Square while the families of those killed and the surviving wounded were presented with the report's findings inside the city's iconic building.

The confirmation that those shot were unarmed resulted in the then British Prime Minister issuing a public apology.

However, the findings did not recommend prosecution of the soldiers responsible, so the campaign for justice continued.

Hopes were raised when the PPS (Public Prosecution Service), announced that it had launched a murder investigation, with 17 soldiers under the microscope.

However, there was anger and disappointment when the Director of Public Prosecution, Stephen Herron, announced in March 2019 that only one soldier – Soldier F – was to face murder charges in relation of two of the victims – James Wray and William McKinney - and five attempted murder charges in connection with those wounded.

Anger heightened when it was announced the prosecution of Soldier F for murder and attempted murder was to be halted.

The march has taken place every year since 1972, except for last year due to the Covid pandemic restrictions. A 'Families Walk' and a march will take place this Sunday to mark the 50th anniversary of the killings.

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