Bloody Sunday and the IRA
As explained in the previous chapter, violent riots in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s led to the British army being deployed there. The army’s role was to restore order, but tragically, a deadly incident where they were involved instead fomented the Northern Irish conflict.
The incident in question took place during a nationalist protest in Derry in 1972. Later to be known as Bloody Sunday, this event saw British army soldiers shoot dead thirteen civilians and injure many others. Having been targeted by stone-throwing rioters and possibly even paramilitary gunmen before the killing happened, the military tried to justify their actions, but their use of lethal force, nevertheless, seemed totally disproportionate to people in the nationalist community.
The nationalist response to the Bloody Sunday killings, as expected, was an immediate outcry against both the British army and the unionist government. The anger, too, spurred enlistment to the Irish Republican Army, which was a militant nationalist group. The Irish Republican Army had long fought militarily to end British rule over Northern Ireland, and shortly after Bloody Sunday they escalated their activities. In a single afternoon, during one of their subsequent campaigns, the IRA detonated about twenty bombs in the capital of Belfast, inflicting serious casualties. These and other bombings, the IRA hoped, would create so much havoc that the unionist government eventually would feel pressured to accept a unification with Ireland.
Just like nationalist groups like the IRA exerted violence, so did certain unionist groups. As tensions escalated, a group of unionists, for example, burned down a large number of houses inhabited by nationalists. These arson attacks combined with many other violent acts in the early 1970s confirmed Northern Ireland’s status as an area deeply entrenched in a low-intensity civil war, which, as it turned out, was to last for some thirty years. At the core of this long conflict, like so many times before in the region’s history, and as implied earlier in this chapter, lay the question whether Northern Ireland should belong to Britain or to Ireland. Equal rights for all people, as in fair elections and fair housing allocation, was also an important dividing issue for the nationalists.