Translation Embassy | Sunday, Bloody Sunday (Part 1)
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Sunday, Bloody Sunday (Part 1)

27 Jul Sunday, Bloody Sunday (Part 1)

The famous song by U2 refers to a bloody incident that took place in Derry in 1972. Following the traces of history I bought a bus ticket from Dublin and soon found myself exploring the atmosphere in the Northern Irish town of Derry or Londonderry for the loyalists. My visit revealed a (now) peaceful society with fresh memories of a turbulent period, called The Troubles. It was a very emotional experience I wish to share with you through this article.


Following the Irish War of Independence and the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922 (for more details see here), a Boundary Commission determined the borders of Northern Ireland, which remained part of the UK. Thus, the island of Ireland was practically divided between the predominantly catholic South, which today forms the Republic of Ireland, and the predominantly protestant Northern Ireland.

While Northern Ireland was predominantly protestant in general, the population of Derry was predominantly catholic. Following the division of Ireland, unionist efforts to retain Northern Ireland within the UK resulted in severe discrimination against the catholic-nationalist population.

Political representation

Although a proportional representation was in effect in the city council of Derry between 1920-1922, the Northern Ireland Government changed the voting system after the partition and redrew electoral boundaries. This is believed to have resulted in gerrymandering of Northern Ireland’s political institutions.

3 wards were created in Derry. One of them was predominantly Catholic with 8 council seats, while the other two had settled Protestant majorities and elected a total of 12 councillors. As the largest party in each ward won all the available seats, the new system made it inherently likely that the city council (Londonderry Corporation) would have a continuous unionist majority. What is more, the right to vote was reserved to property owners and their spouses, thus excluding sub-tenants, lodgers, servants and children over 21 who were living at home. At the same time business owners enjoyed multiple votes.

The gerrymandered electoral system of Derry

Our local guide, George, was a young boy during the Troubles. He explains how life was like for Catholics: Catholics were mostly settled in the areas of Bogside and Creggan. These areas were like ghettos. Very poor people and bad living conditions. We didn’t have a toilet in our house. Neighbourhoods were overcrowded. The Protestants were living inside the city walls. So, you had a wealthy powerful and protected protestant elite inside the walls and large oppressed catholic populations outside the walls suffering from poverty and bad living conditions. It was forbidden for us to live within the walls.

We were discriminated in terms of housing, employment and civil rights. The industry was in the hands of Protestants. Unemployment in the catholic community was high. You could see for example an advertisement seeking assistants for a butcher’s shop and below it the phrase “Catholics don’t need to apply”. You should own a property in order to be able to vote. Thus Catholic tenants were often excluded from this right, while Protestant businessmen could cast multiple votes.

The population of Derry was predominantly Catholic. The voting system placed a 67% national majority under unionist rule.

Catholic activists were confronted with suspicion. The injured ones often preferred to cross the border and receive medical help in Donegal (Republic of Ireland) instead of Derry. If a wounded one went to a local hospital, he would be in trouble. Everyone would assume he was injured in some clashes and would be immediately arrested.

The overcrowded Bogside

Among Catholics it was felt that the need to retain the demographic pattern, which allowed for Protestant majorities in the 2 wards of the city, meant that houses for Catholics were allocated, if at all, almost exclusively in the already overcrowded Bogside and Creggan. Unfair allocation of houses to Protestant candidates, although these could not have been justified as priority tenants, was often witnessed. Furthermore, Catholics felt that the Londonderry Corporation exercised its powers in employment in a discriminatory way. Well documented complaints of appointing local administrative officers to the prejudice of Catholics were common.

The fight for civil rights begins

The civil rights movement arises in the 1960s and several organisations are formed. The most prominent one is the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), which was established in 1967 in Belfast. The NICRA gained its support from the Catholic-nationalist community, while unionists believed that it was infiltrated by IRA elements. In the framework of the fight for civil rights protest marches are organized across Northern Ireland. In response to these unionists organize counter demonstrations and soon clashes among nationalists, loyalists and the police arise. Things get worse due to unnecessary violence exercised to demonstrators by the police, government bans on marches or even extremists and hooligan elements seeking to provoke. All this raised tensions and polarization. Riots and violent incidents like the Battle of the Bogside in the summer of 1969 resulted in deaths, hundreds of injuries and substantial damage of properties.

These are the main demands of the civil rights movement, as described in the Bloody Sunday Enquiry Report of Lord Saville:

  1. fundamental changes in the system of local government elections, including the redrawing of electoral boundaries and the introduction of universal adult suffrage (“one man one vote ”);
  2. the passing of anti-discrimination legislation in Northern Ireland;
  3. reform of the way in which public housing was allocated through the introduction of a points-based assessment system;
  4. the repeal of the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (Northern Ireland) 1922, a piece of legislation that gave the authorities far-reaching powers that were regarded by civil rights campaigners as oppressive; and
  5. the disbandment of the Ulster Special Constabulary, known commonly as the B Specials, a part-time police force formed in 1920, that was by the late 1960s exclusively Protestant and, according to Mr Justice Scarman, “Totally distrusted by the Catholics ”.

Mural by the Bogside artists in Derry


You are now entering Free Derry

Loyalist assaults in Catholic neighbourhoods led to the declaration of the Bogside as a “no-go” area in 1969 after a night of rioting. Catholic residents erected barricades to keep the Royal Ulster Constabulary (Northern Ireland’s police) and the security forces out and declared themselves independent of the civil authorities. The streets of the Bogside were patrolled by IRA volunteers. Inspired from the Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, the slogan “You are now entering free Derry” was painted on a prominent wall. Free Derry ended on 31st July 1972 with the operation Motorman, when British troops moved in to occupy the Bogside.

The Free Derry area suffered greatly from state violence during the conflict, with forty six people killed by the British Army, the majority being unarmed civilians, including a number of young children. Forty nine members of the security forces were killed during the same period. There are a number of memorial plaques in the area dedicated to civilians and IRA members killed by the British Army.

Today: Monument at Free Derry Corner

To be continued in Part 2

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