Firefighters shovelling charred human remains off the street into plastic bags; The images on television etched themselves into the nightmares of a generation. Fifty years ago, 22 bombs exploded across Belfast over 90 minutes, killing nine people and injuring 130. The terrorist attack announced the arrival of the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s long war to force the United Kingdom out of Northern Ireland. The country, poet Seamus Heaney wrote, became “sour with the blood of her faithful.”
This week, in his last speech as the United Kingdom’s prime minister, Boris Johnson invoked the memory of the carnage that has come to be known as Bloody Friday. However, Johnson’s more important legacy might be the manifesto he’s left for moving on.
Few of those responsible for the 3,500 killings committed during the insurgency in Northern Ireland—of over 1,800 civilians, more than 1,000 soldiers and police personnel, and almost 400 IRA cadre—have ever been identified. Earlier this summer, the United Kingdom introduced legislation proposing to grant perpetrators amnesty in return for the truth about their crimes.
Little attention has been paid in India to this extraordinary legislation—unprecedented in post-insurgency states—nor the peace process that laid the foundations for it. For a country grappling with its own painful memories of ethnic-religious violence, though, both hold out essential lessons.
The making of the troubles
Eight metres high, built of brick and steel topped with barbed wire, the Peace Lines that keep Catholics and Protestants apart in Northern Ireland have stood longer than the Berlin Wall. The spectacular murals in the Catholic enclave of Falls Road in Belfast pay homage to the memory of the martyrs of the long war. The murals on Protestant Shankill Road, also in Belfast, do the same thing but use different faces and slogans.
Tourists drive past images of men in black balaclavas, holding up assault rifles.
Less than a fifth of over 100 Peace Lines in Northern Ireland have so far been demolished, though they are all to be removed by next year. A 2012 survey recorded that over half the residents of the communities they divide feared violence if the walls vanished. The past is still fraught.
The roots of war in Northern Ireland, like so many other communal conflicts, are centuries-old, entwined with struggles over land and religious identity under savage British-colonial rule.
In 1921, at the end of a bitter freedom war, Irish nationalists won independence. But the Protestants of Ulster, the northern-most of Ireland’s four provinces, used force to ensure their region remained with Britain. Five hundred and fifty people, primarily Catholics, were killed in Ulster from 1920-1922 in riots and pogroms.
From the mid-1960s, Northern Ireland Catholics launched a non-violent movement demanding an end to discrimination in employment and housing, the denial of political rights, and a special-powers law that enabled imprisonment without trial. The Ulster Volunteer Force, a Protestant militia, responded with attacks on protesters and Catholic communities.
In August 1969, these tensions exploded into large-scale violence, pitting Catholics against Protestants backed by police. Ireland government’s declassified documents have revealed that it even ordered its military to prepare plans for a humanitarian intervention across the border. Finally, the British army intervened—ending the communal clashes and building the first Peace Line.
Early on, Catholics welcomed the intervention—but as clashes with Protestant groups continued, the relationship soon soured. British commanders who had learned counter-insurgency tactics in Aden and Malaya, expert Ed Moloney has recorded, responded by treating Catholic neighbours as they would “an Arab souk.”
The consequences were predictable. In July 1971, two unarmed men were shot dead by the army. More killings of civilians followed. Then, from August 1971, the British army launched operations using thousands of troops to round up suspects in Catholic neighbourhoods. Residents responded by using improvised blockades to deny the army access, breaking pavements to create arsenals of stones, hijacking milk vans and using the bottles to make petrol bombs.
Lieutenant-General Harry Tuzo, historian Niall ó Dochartaigh has written, warned at a meeting in December 1971 that entering these no-go zones would “involve at some stage shooting at unarmed civilians.” Though Tuzo counselled against this, events had acquired the character of a Greek tragedy: Even though they could see what lay ahead, it could no longer be averted
Bloody Sunday and its aftermath
Catholic priest Edward Daly, waving a blood-soaked handkerchief as a flag of truce: This image, like those of Bloody Friday, has also seared itself on Northern Ireland’s memory. Thirteen people were shot dead on 31 January 1972 when soldiers from the First Parachute Regiment opened fire at unarmed civil rights demonstrators. Earlier that month, an official inquiry determined that their officer-commanding, Major-General Robert Ford, had written to Tuzo making a case for shooting mob “ringleaders.”
The injured 17-year-old whom Daly was seeking to evacuate died. “A lot of the younger people in Derry who may have been more pacifist became quite militant,” the priest would later recall. Efforts to prosecute these killers in the United Kingdom have collapsed, but separate proceedings in Northern Ireland are still underway.
For the Provisional IRA, the Bloody Sunday killings marked a moment of transformation. Even six months earlier, the group had been largely ineffectual. The entire Londonderry Provisional IRA was wiped out in the summer of 1970 when Thomas Carlin, Joe Coyle, and Tommy McCool—as well as McCool’s two children—were blown up in a bomb-making accident in Creggan.
The public support and funding for the organisation gained after Bloody Sunday, which enabled it to stage even more lethal operations. The bombings in Belfast were followed, in quick order, by the killing of nine more people in Claudy.
Even though the public horror evoked by these terrorist attacks was seen as a setback for the Provisional IRA, the organisation’s reach steadily grew. Louis Mountbatten, former Viceroy of India, was assassinated in 1979. The IRA almost succeeded in assassinating then prime minister Margaret Thatcher at Brighton in 1984 and subsequently lobbed homemade mortar at her successor John Major in 1991.
Lethal attacks on British military targets also continued. Eighteen British soldiers from the Paracommando regiment were killed in a carefully crafted ambush at Narrow Waters, the worst single loss of life the country’s military has suffered in an insurgent attack. In addition, 11 soldiers were killed in bombings in central London in 1982—ten years after Bloody Friday.
For their part, Britain’s intelligence services and military hit back hard. Like other counter-insurgency operations across the world, British forces often used dark tactics. Evidence has surfaced that intelligence moles inside the IRA were allowed to engage in killings and that British forces staged terrorist attacks to discredit the IRA.
The war wasn’t working, though. In the early 1990s, 30,000 soldiers and police ofﬁcers were committed to holding tiny Northern Ireland, precisely the same number as two decades earlier.
The long road to peace
Even though there are no photographs to tell the story, declassified documents show the two countries kept talking, even as they killed. Four weeks before Bloody Friday, top IRA leaders were secretly flown to meet with the British government. The talks went nowhere, but fresh contacts led to a ceasefire in 1975. Despite her hardline public posture, Thatcher authorised high-level contacts again in 1989.
In 1991, the IRA and Britain’s then-intelligence chief, Michael Oatley, held secret negotiations, leading to a ceasefire in 1994.
Though punctuated by violence, Dochartaigh has written, these persistent back-channel conversations helped the two sides learn “the constraints within which the other party was operating, and gradually became willing to make the moves and concessions that would allow the other party to move in turn.”
Larger events also nudged the process along. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, suffering under international sanctions, terminated his episodic weapons supplies to the IRA in the summer of 1992. The end of the Cold War, Michael Cox has argued, gave the United States the influence to nudge both the IRA and the United Kingdom to consider possibilities they might have otherwise been reluctant to accept.
The entry of Ireland into the European Union, perhaps most important, diminished the power of the nationalism on which the IRA rested. Europe made it possible to consider solutions built around soft borders and shared sovereignty. Finally, in 1998, helped by the United States, the parties would sign the Good Friday Agreement. Endorsed by a referendum, the agreement led to a decommissioning of arsenals held by both Catholic and Protestant groups—and peace.
Last year, ugly communal clashes exploded in Belfast amid Protestant fears that the terms of the Brexit agreement would sever their ties with the United Kingdom. Inside their own communities, former militia groups continue to wield power, often using violence to enforce social order—much like criminal gangs in some cities.
Final closure might be generations away—but the peace process has shown that hate doesn’t have to be cast in concrete.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)