It was a very bad year
The year 1972 was, by some distance, the bloodiest of the Troubles. Politically, it marked the end of unionist majority rule for ever, argues Dr Alan Parkinson
Within the space of 12 months in 1972, Northern Ireland had experienced the horrors of Bloody Sunday, the Abercorn, Claudy and Bloody Friday bombings, the introduction of direct rule, the dismantling of Londonderry and Belfast's no-go areas, the rise of Vanguard and the start of a pronounced campaign of sectarian assassination by loyalist paramilitaries.
Amid such frenetic political and military activity, what impact did unfolding events have upon the lives of ordinary people? My forthcoming book, 1972 and the Ulster Troubles — A Very Bad
Year, combines an analysis of the major events of the year with the oral testimony of a wide range of people and tells the story of the most extraordinary year of the modern northern conflict, as it contains a mixture of major political developments and the start of a car-bombing campaign which would plague the security forces for many years to come.
In the minds of many the year is inextricably linked to the bloodshed witnessed in Derry on January 30.
The banned civil rights march into the city centre that winter afternoon had ‘the air of a Derry carnival', but after heavy street rioting, the area around the city's Rossville Flats had been transformed into a bloody battleground, which would eventually claim the lives of 14 men.
What was different about Bloody Sunday was the perceived culpability of the British Army who had allegedly opened fire into an unarmed crowd of demonstrators.
Though largely exonerated by the Widgery Report, the security forces were castigated in the international court of public opinion and the incident was to have a major impact on events in the province for many years to come.
On the security front, the dreadful events in the city that Sunday precipitated a massive recruitment to the ranks of the IRA who consequently stepped up their military campaign.
Politically, the main effect of the shootings was to finally persuade Ted Heath's Government to assume direct responsibility for governing the region.
However, the shootings on Bloody Sunday and the lack of finality offered by Widgery was to impact most significantly upon the relatives of Derry's dead, many of whom have felt unable to move on in their personal lives. Perhaps the imminent publication of Lord Saville's findings will provide that closure.
Bloody Sunday was the final proof for Ted Heath that dramatic political change was urgently needed if the region's descent into civil war was to be avoided. It was a calculated gamble which involved the risk of the long-dreaded loyalist ‘backlash'.
However, the grim events in Derry, combined with the local administration's doomed policy of internment and their inability to stem the escalating terrorist campaign, convinced the Tory Prime Minister that it was necessary to isolate the IRA from the legitimate grievances and demands voiced by the wider Catholic community.
After being called over to Downing Street on March 22 for a meeting with Heath and key ministers, the Northern Ireland premier Brian Faulkner was bluntly informed by his London counterpart that Westminster was demanding the transfer of security powers.
Within 48 hours Heath announced to a packed House of Commons that direct rule was being implemented and that William Whitelaw, as the first Secretary of State, would head the Northern Ireland Office.
Privately buoyed by Westminster's intervention, which they believed had largely been due to their campaign, many republicans regarded the spring and early summer of 1972 in particular, as their golden ‘Camelot' period.
There is certainly some substance in this perception, as the Provisionals enjoyed a boost in recruitment in the weeks following Bloody Sunday as well as significant successes in their campaign, especially the large losses suffered by the security forces following sniping and bombing attacks. However, what appeared to be the zenith of their campaign was also the start of its decline.
Divisions between the two main strands of republicanism deepened and the Officials declared a ceasefire in May. The increased military presence in the province and the Army's improved intelligence on terror suspects continued to blight the prospect of a republican victory.
Perhaps the most furious and sustained condemnation of the IRA came after over 20 bombs exploded in Belfast on July 21, killing nine and injuring 130. TV film footage and photographs of security forces shovelling up pieces of human flesh and tissue into plastic bags were relayed around the world, further denting external sympathy for the republican cause.
The outrage of what became known as Bloody Friday also prompted Whitelaw to implement Government plans to remove barriers in no-go areas in Belfast and Derry.
As 1972 went on, the nature of the conflict altered, as the threat of the long-anticipated loyalist backlash appeared to loom closer.
So-called ‘mysterious' killings of Catholics — the grisly deeds of the UDA/UFF, the Red Hand Commando and the UVF — increased during the second half of the year.
Already pressurised by the buoyant Provisionals, the sight of the marching ranks of thousands of UDA members in balaclavas and combat jackets parading along central thoroughfares by day and cruising down similar dimly-lit streets in cars during the hours of darkness, presented those now responsible for governing the region with sleepless nights
The same officials were also disturbed by the emergence in 1972 of the umbrella loyalist political organisation, Vanguard.
This had grown out of the fracturing of traditional unionism and the early part of the year was dominated by the exhortations of its leader Bill Craig to ‘liquidate' unionism's enemies at a series of
mass meetings staged at venues across the province.
More than 500 people lost their lives as a result of violence during the year and thousands more were injured, making it, by some distance, the most violent single year of the modern Troubles.
For the first time in more than half a century, it was clear that the region would only be allowed to function politically with the genuine involvement of the minority community in Northern Ireland.
Yet the immediate hopes for a peaceful solution had virtually been dashed by the carnage and chaos which had resulted from numerous bombing and shooting incidents and most people's hopes for the future would have been practical ones like ‘living day by day' or carrying out ‘business as usual'.
Alan Parkinson’s 1972 and the Ulster Troubles: A Very Bad Year is published next month by Four Courts Press (£29.95)