43 years on, remember the State can kill you

LEP Columnist Barry Freeman
LEP Columnist Barry Freeman
Have your say

Forty-three years ago as I wrote these words heavily armed British men wearing the uniform of State opened fire on a crowd of unarmed British citizens on the streets near their homes.

Of 26 civil rights marchers and bystanders shot by British soldiers, 13 died more or less where they fell, a 14th dying of injuries sustained some months later.

Not one of these murders must ever be forgotten, not least because they tell us something we need at the forefront of our minds at all times, particularly in jingoistic, martial, febrile times such as these.

Yet an assumed familiarity with the events of this dreadful day, in tandem with a widespread ignorance of the historic causes and multiple consequences of the Troubles – an ignorance carefully maintained by our news media at every level – conspire to blind us.

We are encouraged to stir these killings into the larger story, a context in which Westminster-approved media prejudices kick in (put simply, casting the Republican movement as alpha and omega of the problem). Before you know it we find ourselves bogged down in claims of armed men seen near flats, rock-throwing youths, deserving or undeserving victims, this provocation, that unofficial barricade.

And the point is duly diluted.

Only when viewed in terrible isolation does the true significance of what took place in Derry on that cold afternoon of January 30, 1972 – an assault on shared fundamental values – become apparent.

The State is not your friend. The State can and will kill you, should it decide to do so.

You might have friends in the army, but the Army is not your friend either. It is a tool of the State, an armed wing, one used to apply strategic political violence whenever and wherever deemed necessary.

Historically, most of this carnage has taken place overseas, far from fearful, prying eyes. Amritsar. Burma. Kenya. The list is long.

On that day, 43 years ago, it came home.

Bloody Sunday remains the single greatest domestic misuse of State violence against British citizens in my lifetime. As a key event in the modern Troubles its significance is accepted. But this massacre belongs also alongside Peterloo and the killing of Preston’s own Cotton Martyrs, as an example of how power will always, ultimately, turn violence on those who dare challenge it.

This is no comment, by the way, on individual soldiers – not even those who charged into the Bogside at 4.07pm that day. Join the Army, follow orders, that’s how it works. Give soldiers discretion to pick and choose, the Army ceases to function. Soldiers do as they’re told, from bottom to top.

The bad apple argument is always the modern democratic State’s preferred line of defence. Throw a few grunts to the pack. But this blood is on the State’s hands. Findings from two reports – the Widgery whitewash of 1972, the sprawling Saville Report of 1998-2011 – succeeded only in wilfully adding layers of deception, doubt, complexity. Achieving nothing more, at last, than to give the State a platform from which to pay its ritual lip service to remorse.