Thirteen people were shot dead on Bloody Sunday and ensured any hope of peace was over
On January 30, 1972, thousands of people gathered in the Creggan area of Derry for a protest against internment without trial which had been introduced in Northern Ireland the previous year. The vast majority of those who had been interned were from the nationalist community and the situation had further inflamed demands for civil rights in the North.
A week before, on January 23, an anti-internment protest at Magilligan beach in Co Derry, where an internment camp had been set up, ended in violence when British soldiers, including members of the Parachute Regiment, attacked the demonstrators.
On January 25, two RUC officers were shot dead by the IRA in Derry.
With tensions rising, some members of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, the organisers of the planned January 30 protest in Derry, wanted to call off the demonstration. However, others decided it should go ahead.
Despite concerns over the potential for violence, the atmosphere among those who set off from Creggan on that crisp winter morning was one of determination and defiance.
However, 13 of them would be shot dead and many more injured on what became known as Bloody Sunday.
Alex Nash was not a political man. The 51-year-old father of 13 had little time for anything else other than looking after his family. This became even more important in the days before Bloody Sunday when his wife Bridget was admitted to hospital after suffering a heart attack.
However, he felt strongly about internment and decided to take part in the Derry protest. His 19-year-old son, Willie, was also among the crowd who made their way from Creggan to the city centre.
The original plan had been for the protest to end at Guildhall Square. However, this route was blocked at William Street by a barricade erected by the British army.
The demonstrators were instead directed by organisers towards Free Derry Corner in the Bogside, where speeches were to be held.
However, some young people continued along William Street and threw stones at soldiers. Among the stone-throwers was 15-year-old Don Mullan.
He remembers there being a “carnival” atmosphere among the protesters as they set off from Creggan, but that tensions quickly rose as they neared the city centre.
“I followed people down towards the William Street barrier and I remember the crowd getting tighter and then hunkering down because of the tear gas being thrown by the army,” said Mullan.
“I threw a few stones but it was not my area and I did not know the escape routes and the back alleys. I remember feeling nervous and decided to walk back up William Street and then I heard people screaming.”
Shortly after 4pm, soldiers from the Parachute Regiment moved quickly from the William Street barricade into the Bogside in what was expected to be an arrest operation.
However, over the next 30 minutes, 13 people were shot dead and a further 15 wounded.
Mullan ran as the shooting began. “The last memory I have of that time was running away and someone shouting at me to take shelter. I have never been able to recall what happened then,” he said.
“The next memory I have is of walking home and being stopped by a woman who asked me what had happened. I told her, ‘Missus, there must be at least six people dead.’”
Kate Nash had not been on the protest and was sitting in her boyfriend’s house around 5pm when a call came to the door.
“It was a friend of mine and she said, ‘Kate, your brother Willie’s dead and your father has been shot,’” she said. “My world just fell apart.”
Willie Nash was killed by a single shot to the chest near a rubble barricade in the Bogside. His father was shot in the arm and stomach as he went out to help his son.
Ms Nash, who was 23 years old in January 1972, and other members of her family, including her brother, former Olympic boxer Charlie, were taken to Altnagelvin Hospital where the bodies of those killed and the injured had been taken.
“I remember going in to see my father and seeing his injuries. I said, ‘Daddy, that looks sore,’ and all he said was, ‘Willie’s in the morgue.’”
The Nash family decided not to tell their mother, who was being treated in a separate part of the hospital, that her son was dead and her husband had been shot.
“My mother was not told until the Wednesday after the shootings. That was the day of Willie’s funeral and neither she nor my daddy were able to attend his funeral.”
Kate Nash said her brother’s death had a huge impact on her family.
“My mother blamed my father for Willie’s death and he accepted that blame because he felt it was his fault. He was never the same man again after Bloody Sunday.”
The Derry shootings provoked outrage throughout the world. The British embassy in Dublin was burned down during a protest the next day.
Under intense pressure, the British government announced an inquiry into what had happened which was chaired by the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery.
The decision to move the inquiry hearings from Derry to the mainly unionist town of Coleraine 40 miles away led to concerns among some the tribunal would not be impartial.
This belief was fostered when many witnesses, including some of those shot and injured, were not called to give evidence.
The final report of the Widgery inquiry was published in April 1972 and found no fault on the part of the soldiers who fired live rounds on the day, stating that there was a “strong suspicion” that some of those killed “had been firing weapons or handling bombs”.
The report was denounced as a “whitewash” by those who had witnessed the events of Bloody Sunday.
The shootings and the subsequent findings of the inquiry led to an upsurge in support for the IRA.
“The decision of many young men and women to join the IRA to fight fire with fire was logical. Bloody Sunday was State-sponsored terrorism,” said Don Mullan.
“The paras murdered human beings on Bloody Sunday, Widgery murdered the truth. The combination of that meant that the situation went completely out of control.
“The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was dead in the water and the initiative was handed to the men of violence.”
As the Troubles continued for many years afterwards, the relatives of those killed on Bloody Sunday fought a lonely battle for justice.
A chance meeting in Derry in 1996 was the catalyst which helped lift their campaign to a different level.
Mullan, who by then had set up home in Dublin while working for an international development organisation, met Tony Doherty, a son of one of the Bloody Sunday victims, Patrick Doherty.
“During the conversation Tony said he had read my statement about Bloody Sunday and I asked him, ‘What statement?’
“It turned out that in the days after Bloody Sunday, people had been asked by civil rights activists to go to a school in Creggan and make a statement about what they had seen. I obviously had made a statement but could not remember doing so.”
All the statements taken in the aftermath of the shootings were made available to the Widgery inquiry but the majority had been “ignored” by the tribunal, according to the families of those killed.
In 1996, after seeing other statements which had been made all those years previously, Mullan knew how important they were.
“I realised I was in possession of primary source historical documents about one of the seminal events in modern Irish history. I then got the idea of a book which would involve publishing the statements.”
The subsequent book, Eyewitness Bloody Sunday, which was published in 1997 to mark the 25th anniversary of the shootings, transformed the families’ campaign for justice.
“The power of the book is as a community testimony. You cannot get a community to agree on a collective lie. It will fall apart, whereas this story remained absolutely consistent and that’s the power of the book,” said Mullan.
New evidence within the book suggested that as well firing shots on ground level in the Bogside, soldiers may also have fired on the protesters from Derry’s famous walls.
Channel 4 later broadcast a series of reports which examined these claims in more detail.
The then taoiseach, John Bruton, met with the Bloody Sunday relatives and instructed Irish government officials to compile a new report on the killings.
This report was eventually handed over to Tony Blair in May 1997, shortly after the Labour Party leader had been elected British prime minister. After taking office, Blair said that bringing peace to Northern Ireland was one of his main aims.
“I think Blair realised that Bloody Sunday had to be part of the peace process because everyone knew it was a cover-up,” said Mullan.
In January 1998, Blair announced the creation of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry to re-examine the events surrounding the shootings in Derry.
The inquiry, which was chaired by Lord Saville, was to become the
longest-running inquiry in British legal history.
After hearing evidence from almost 1,000 people, Lord Saville’s final report, released in June 2010, highlighted the innocence of those who were shot dead and described the killings as “unjustified and unjustifiable”.
Shortly after the report was launched, British prime minister David Cameron apologised on behalf of the British government for what happened on Bloody Sunday.
While the relatives of those killed did not need the Saville inquiry to tell them their loved ones were innocent, they welcomed the fact that now the world knew the truth.
However, the families’ fight for justice continues.
In 2019, the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) announced that a decision had been taken not to proceed with criminal cases against 15 soldiers who had been involved in the events of Bloody Sunday because there was “insufficient” evidence to provide a “reasonable prospect of conviction”.
Only one soldier — identified as Soldier F — was to be prosecuted. He was accused of the murder of two men and the attempted murder of five others on January 30, 1972.
However, it was revealed last July that the case against Soldier F was not proceeding. The PPS said it had reviewed the case against him following the collapse in May 2021 of a trial against two other British soldiers for Troubles-era offences and concluded there was “no longer a reasonable prospect” of key evidence against Soldier F being ruled admissible in court.
A legal challenge against this decision is continuing.
The British government has also proposed an amnesty for all those involved in Troubles-related killings prior to 1998, which would rule out any prosecutions in connection with Bloody Sunday.
1972 was the worst year of the Troubles. Of the 497 people killed that year, more than half were civilians.
As she prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday next weekend, Kate Nash believes the shootings in Derry that day played a key role in the escalation of violence in the North.
She blames senior figures within the British army and government, whom she says were never held “accountable” for Bloody Sunday, for “stirring the pot to keep the hate going”.
“My belief is that through Bloody Sunday they perpetuated that war. My belief is that war should have actually stopped in the same year, but they kept it going. There were so many unnecessary deaths,” she said.