Remembering Bloody Sunday

30th January 2022

Peaceful demands for civil rights, undermined by Bloody Sunday

The history of the British presence in Ireland has always been one of violence, oppression and exploitation.  For centuries Ireland only mattered to the British ruling class as a source of cheap food, feeding the British army during the Napoleonic wars and being turned into a largely corn growing economy as manufacturing began to grow in Britain in the early nineteenth century.

The struggle for control of the land was integral to the national struggle in Ireland throughout the nineteenth century.  English landlords profited from the extortionate rents charged to the Irish peasantry, who were forced to either pay up or be evicted.  Essentially the peasant grew wheat to pay the rent and potatoes for food.

When the potato crop failed, leading to the so called Irish famine of 1845 – 1850, food to the value of £17m was exported from the country, in 1847 alone, under the protection of English troops.  As A. L. Morton observes,

“The million and a half people who died in these years did not die of famine but were killed by rent and profit.”  (A People’s History of England – Lawrence and Wishart 1938)

Different movements including the Young Ireland Movement, the Fenian Society and the Land League attempted at various times to defend the economic interests of the peasants, fight evictions and foment risings against English exploitation without significant lasting success.

The parliamentary route was represented through the Home Rule Party, formed in 1872, which quickly found an able leader in the form of Charles Stuart Parnell.  Parnell had some success in delivering a significant body of nationalist MPs into the Westminster Parliament.  However, even this route was barred when Parnell was discredited as part of a conspiracy to successfully split the nationalist position, and any attempts to introduce Home Rule for Ireland were blocked by the landlords, keen to hold onto their profits.

By the time of the Easter Rising in 1916 it was clear that significant sections of the Irish working class were against both English domination and participation in the Imperialist war.  While the rising itself was unsuccessful, and its leaders, including James Connolly, executed by the British, the rebellion triggered a steady growth of labour and nationalist activity. 

The guerrilla warfare against the English which lasted from 1919 – 1921 resulted in the establishment of the Irish Free State but at the expense of the annexation of the six counties which became Northern Ireland, incorporated into the so-called United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland itself was essentially an enclave of English occupation, managed on behalf of the English industrialists who controlled the economy, by the Protestant majority at the expense of the Catholic minority.    Working class Protestants, who should have had more in common with their working class Catholic counterparts, were bought off by preferential access to jobs, housing and dominance of the police and security services.  Voting rights for Catholics were also restricted in order to ensure an inbuilt Protestant majority in any governance arrangements in the province.

Catholic areas were regularly under attack and resistance was met by the British state with a policy of internment, arrest without evidence or trial, which further inflamed Catholic and nationalist sentiment.

Internment was, in effect, the repressive response by the British state to the growing challenge of popular resistance to defend nationalist areas from assault by sectarian Protestant forces.  It was also the British state’s attempt to stem the rising tide of a civil rights movement demanding their rights against decades of repression, discrimination, and gerrymandering.

As the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) note,

“The British and Orange state saw the resistance of the people and continued demands for civil rights as a direct challenge to the very existence of the British-imposed political settlement of 1922, which partitioned Ireland.”

The civil rights march in Derry, which took place on 30th January 1972, fifty years ago today, was called to protest against the policy of internment which had been introduced in August 1971.

As the CPI go on to point out,

“The activities of the Parachute Regiment in Derry on 30 January 1972 followed the state-organised killing of at least nine people in Ballymurphy in Belfast between 9 and 11 August 1971, all part of Britain’s military strategy of “low-intensity conflict,” a strategy for quelling and subduing local working-class resistance to its political, economic and military strategies of control.”

The ’activities of the Parachute Regiment’ on 30 January were the murder of 13 unarmed civilian protesters, as the British soldiers opened fire on a peaceful demonstration.  A fourteenth innocent victim died later as a result of injuries inflicted on the day, which has gone down in history as Bloody Sunday.

The actions of the British state on Bloody Sunday undermined the peaceful protests and class solidarity being built through the civil rights movement and drove many nationalists into the arms of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). 

The misguided guerrilla campaign of the IRA, targeting civilian as well as economic and military targets, played into the hands of the British state.  It was easy for the media to whip up opposition to IRA ‘atrocities’ and difficult for the Left in Britain to generate solidarity with those seeking a genuine working class solution to the partition of Ireland, achieving unity across all 32 counties.

The violence of British imperialism in Ireland did not end with Bloody Sunday and the economic grip upon the six counties of the Northern Ireland statelet continues to this day.  The debate over the border in the Irish Sea, which has erupted as a result of Brexit, has underlined ruling class differences over the statelet’s position as part of the increasingly fragmenting United Kingdom, or whether it can be incorporated into the safe hands of the Irish ruling class and be absorbed into the neo-liberal arms of the EU as part of a united Ireland.  

Neither solution will benefit the Irish working class in the short term but an Ireland united will at least have the opportunity to shape its own future on its own terms rather than having to fight on two fronts.  As the CPI conclude,

“The best way to remember the victims of imperialism is to struggle to end imperialist control and domination, to take up the challenge and struggle bequeathed to us by James Connolly, to struggle for and build a Workers’ Republic, from Derry to Kerry.”

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