Ireland’s Bloody Sunday: A Warning for Mali

This week sees the anniversary of one of the worst massacres in modern Irish history, when British paratroopers murdered 14 unarmed civilians in cold blood.

On 30 January 1972, the British troops opened fire on a civil rights march in Derry City, Northern Ireland’s second city after Belfast, in full glare of the international news media.

Half of the victims that day were teenagers, shot in the head or in the back by British snipers. Some of the fatally wounded were shot multiple times as they tried to crawl to safety. Others were cut down in a hail of bullets as they tended to those lying wounded, bleeding on the ground.

One iconic image from that horrific day shows a Catholic priest, Fr Edward Daly, holding up a bloodstained white cloth, pleading with the British soldiers to cease-fire as he helped carry a dying youth.

Bloody Sunday, as it became known, was a watershed event. From then on, the conflict in Northern Ireland exploded. Some 3,000 people would lose their lives in the ensuing decades of violence – a huge death toll for the tiny population, equivalent to 240,000 in Iran or 900,000 in the United States.

Many Irish citizens, outraged by the British army slaughter, went on to join the ranks of the newly formed Provisional Irish Republican Army, the armed guerrilla movement that would kill hundreds of British troops and police and take the war to the very streets of London, with massive bombing campaigns in the British capital and other major cities.

On 27 August 1979, seven years later, the IRA exacted its revenge for Bloody Sunday with a devastating double attack on the British establishment. Lord Louis Mountbatten, cousin of Queen Elizabeth, was murdered when his pleasure boat was blown to pieces off the west coast of Ireland. Meanwhile, on the same day, over on the east coast, in Warrenpoint, Co Down, a convoy of British paratroopers – the army’s elite regiment – was ambushed in a multiple explosion claiming the lives of 18 soldiers. It was the biggest single loss of British troops in the Northern Ireland conflict.

Looking at France’s current military offensive in the West African country of Mali one wonders if the same kind of blowback awaits the French government? News media restrictions by the French authorities over air and ground attacks in Mali have failed to conceal disturbing reports of civilian casualties and atrocities – only three weeks into that conflict.

Human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, say they have “credible evidence” of dozens of extrajudicial killings of Tuareg civilians by French-backed forces in Mali. Atrocities are being reported from at least three locations in central Mali, in Mopti, Sévaré and Konna, the latter being the town which separatist Tuareg rebels overran on 10 January, thus allegedly sparking the Paris government to launch a full-scale military invasion of its former colony.

There is a disquieting parallel with past events in Northern Ireland, in particular the massacre of Bloody Sunday. The turning point of that event was that the bloodshed exposed the myth for why the British army had been officially sent to Northern Ireland in the first place – “to restore peace and protect civilians.”

Prior to the arrival of the British troops, the British-controlled Northern Ireland saw an outbreak of violence in the summer of 1968 when Nationalists began agitating for equal civil rights under the corrupt pro-British Unionist administration. Peaceful demonstrations by Nationalists were subsequently attacked by Unionist gangs and paramilitaries, aided and abetted by the sectarian state police force. Many civilians were killed as Nationalist communities were shot at and burned out of their homes and workplaces in reprisals over their political demands.

The Unionist-dominated province of Northern Ireland brought international disgrace to the United Kingdom, and the London government was obliged to post thousands of British soldiers “to restore order”. At first, Nationalist communities welcomed the British troops when they were deployed in August 1969, believing the army to be affording protection from marauding Unionist paramilitaries and police.

Similarly, as thousands of French elite troops purportedly restore order in Mali from so-called “Islamist terrorists” there are happy-sounding reports of Malian civilians greeting the Légion Étrangére (Foreign Legion) with rapturous cries of “Liberté!” and “Vive La France!”

So far, the French seem to be gaining in the propaganda battle in Mali, with French President Francois Hollande declaring this week: “We are winning.” But that insouciance could dramatically disintegrate as evidence mounts of atrocities against civilians carried out by French troops, fighter jets and helicopter gun-ships, along with their Malian army allies. Then, the French intervention in the West African country, as with the British in Northern Ireland, is at risk of unravelling from its supposed pretext – to restore order and protect civilians – to be seen as none other than imperialist aggression.

When the British army went into Northern Ireland in 1969, it soon became apparent that the intervention had nothing to do with protecting Nationalist civilians, under the boot of the Unionist statelet, and everything to do with suppressing the political challenge being posed by Irish separatism, which wanted to dismantle the British partition of Ireland and to create a united, independent country, free from London’s political control.

The pretext used by London for despatching troops to Northern Ireland concealed its real purpose. That agenda was to target the Nationalist population with state terrorism for political ends. Whereas in previous years, the Unionist paramilitaries could rely on the collusion of the local police force to terrorise, from 1969 onwards these forces had the full might of the British army to ramp up the violence against Nationalist civilians and thereby intimidate them from supporting political opposition to the British government’s presence in Ireland.

The 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry was only one of several atrocities that the British troops perpetrated during that pivotal period of Northern Ireland’s conflict, ironically when they were supposedly there to protect civilians.

The year before Bloody Sunday, in August 1971, British paratroopers shot dead 11 unarmed civilians in the Ballymurphy area of West Belfast. Among the dead was a 50-year-old woman, Joan Connolly, who had been standing peacefully on the street. Another victim was a priest, Fr. Hugh Mullan, who was shot dead while trying to assist a man wounded on the ground.

On 9 July 1972 – six months after Bloody Sunday – British troops again shot dead five unarmed Nationalist civilians in another area of West Belfast, Springhill. Three of the victims were children, including 13-year-old Margaret Gargan, who was shot in the head by a British sniper as she was walking to her home. The two adults who died that day, Patrick Butler and Fr. Noel Fitzpatrick, were killed with the same bullet, it ripping through one man’s head into the other. One of the survivors of the Springhill massacre later told how, as he lay wounded, bullets were ricocheting off the ground near his head, fired by British soldiers who had taken up position in a nearby timber yard that overlooked the residential neighbourhood.

On another occasion during that year, a friend of this author told how, when he was only a young boy, he witnessed his father and a neighbour being shot at by British troops, while they were painting the family home in West Belfast. The neighbour was blown off the ladder when a high-velocity round slammed into his upper leg. It was fired by British soldiers dug in a couple of kilometres away on the Black Mountain looking down on the housing estate. Just one of countless acts of gratuitous violence committed against the civilian population by British troops.

During these gun attacks on Nationalist communities, the British army would often work hand-in-glove with Unionist paramilitaries, or death squads, as they fired into family homes, indiscriminately killing the occupants. That secret policy of collusion between British forces and Unionist death squads would later be refined with even more deadly impact.

It should be noted that this wanton state terrorism by British forces was taking place in a part of the United Kingdom, where there was supposedly the rule of law, human rights and due process.

The massacre on Bloody Sunday in Derry City was but the most graphic illustration of the British government’s real agenda in Northern Ireland – exposed before the eyes of thousands of witnesses and the international news media.

For nearly four decades afterwards, the British authorities lied through their teeth about what happened that day, claiming that some of the civil rights marchers were armed and throwing improvised grenades. The British ministry of defence also destroyed or concealed much of the crucial forensic and ballistic evidence, such as the rifles fired by its troops.

This despicable charade was finally dispelled by a judicial inquiry that published its findings in June 2010 after spending 12 years gathering evidence and testimonies from nearly 900 witnesses. Everything that the British government had said about Bloody Sunday was shown to be gargantuan lie. And now the families of the victims are calling for criminal prosecution of the soldiers involved in that atrocity 41 years ago.

Back in 1972, however, many citizens in Ireland had already arrived at the same conclusion that it took a British judge nearly 40 years to uncover. They could see that the British government and its military intervened in the North in order to terrorise civilians and to assert political control where its surrogate Unionist quasi-state had failed.

Similar implications resonate with France’s military intervention in Mali.

There are sound reasons to surmise that the French military invasion is not about upholding law and order or protecting civilian lives, as the Paris government claims. More plausible is the hidden French agenda to assert control over the shaky Francophile regime in Bamako and to exploit the resource-rich West African country, with its reserves of oil, gas, gold and other valuable metals, including uranium, iron and copper.

Indiscriminate violence against Malian civilians by French forces and their local allies belies the ostensible claim of “protecting lives” and points to an alternative purpose – a criminal imperialist power-grab. If this is so, then inevitably there will be further reports of violations, in which case, the French will find their African intrigue facing a turning point of rising popular armed resistance in Mali, as the British found on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972.

As with other pseudo-peacekeeping operations, such as the US-led NATO occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, imperialist pretexts can only hold for so long before they flounder on their own lies and contradictions. Sooner or later, the truth emerges and, with that, so too will popular resistance, exacting a heavy price on the perpetrators.

Finian Cunningham has written extensively on international affairs, with articles published in several languages. He is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England, before pursuing a career in newspaper journalism. He is also a musician and songwriter. For nearly 20 years, he worked as an editor and writer in major news media organisations, including The Mirror, Irish Times and Independent. Read other articles by Finian.