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Bloody Sunday anniversary: "There's no such thing as British Justice!"

So why is Sinn Fein part of a British administration in Ireland?

31 January 2022

The freshly painted Free Derry Corner mural reads There Is No British Justice to mark
the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

Following Bloody Sunday, pleas for reforms in the North of Ireland saw a clear shift to a determination to assemble an armed component to the mass revolt against the Northern statelet and a British dirty war that steadily ratcheted up the bloodshed.

In reality the partition of the island by the British created a sectarian police state that provoked resistance. When the civil rights struggle arose the British assembled a military operation - Operation Banner - aimed at crushing this mass movement. Each step by the state increased the level of violence until they threw the dice of mass murder on Bloody Sunday.

The history of opposition to partition came mainly from the republicans and the IRA. In the 50s they launched an armed campaign,  Operation Harvest, but this proved a dismal failure. The movement then moved towards political action and joined other groups in demanding civil rights. At the same time a new left movement in Europe led to the revival of  Irish socialism and the formation of a revolutionary socialist current, Peoples Democracy, which survives today as Socialist Democracy.

The Stormont administration fiercely resisted the civil rights movement and this culminated in a mass police attack in Derry - the battle of the Bogside  -  accompanied by pogroms in Belfast led by a mixture of police, militia and loyalist paramilitaries. However the local police were defeated and the use of the pogrom was so fiercely resisted that all out war across Ireland was a possibility.

This led to a split in republicanism. The Officials had staked everything on a democratic Northern Ireland and were unprepared for the violent reaction. The Provisionals wanted to build the IRA and to organise around the call for a United Ireland, although initially armed actions were defensive, aimed at reducing pressure on ghetto areas.

On the British side the failure of the state forces led to Operation Banner, the British army's longest military operation. Their presence was initially welcomed by nationalists, but the aim of the operation was to aid the civil power - that is to preserve unionist rule. As the army deployed they set up emplacements with machine guns pointing into the nationalist areas and an armed campaign with regular and irregular forces was unleashed to crush the mass movement. The use of mass curfew and of torture and interment without trial led to mass demonstrations, culminating in the Derry march.

About 15,000 people gathered in the Creggan area of Derry on the morning of 30th January 1972 to take part in a civil rights march against internment. The Stormont government had banned such protests. Army barricades blocked marchers. The majority went to Free Derry Corner in the Bogside.

Twenty one soldiers fired 108 live rounds. Fourteen demonstrators were killed and many more injured. The day after Bloody Sunday the government announced there would be an inquiry led by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery - the Widgery whitewash - claiming that the demonstrators were armed terrorists. In reality the massacre was carefully planned. The demonstrations were declared illegal. Secret meetings were held in Downing Street and minutes lost or locked away for a century. The troops sent to Derry had just carried out a massacre in Belfast's Ballymurphy area, killing ten civilians.

The immediate result was a massive setback for the British. In February their Embassy in Dublin was burned to the ground by thousands of demonstrators. The reaction to Bloody Sunday across the world led to a short term tactical shift by the British and the unionist government resigned when they refused to accept police reform.  Decades of direct rule by Britain followed.

However Bloody Sunday did divide the opposition. The reformists closed down CRA demonstrations and returned to background lobbying. Constitutional Nationalists were horrified at the fall of the British Embassy and bent every sinew to close down the mobilisations.

Many nationalist workers rallied behind the provisional movement and there was a long struggle in which there were atrocities on all sides but where the imperialists proved themselves more ruthless and savage, building a dirty war in cooperation with loyalist paramilitaries.

The republicans saw military action as the cutting edge of mass struggle and this attitude weakened the mass movement. They failed to build political opposition to constitutional nationalism, instead appealing to an imaginary nationalist family. It's telling that control of no-go areas, where state forces were excluded, in the main urban areas of the North and on the border never led to even a suggestion of a rebel government.  The Provos were never willing to offer sustained opposition to Irish nationalism.

Secret diplomacy and concessions to the British behind the back of the movement weakened it. A last mobilisation arose when the British removed political status from prisoners. Initially the mobilisation progressed without the support of the republican leadership. When they did take the leadership the visible mass campaign was accompanied by an invisible campaign of diplomacy with the Dublin government and Catholic Church. The diplomacy led to ten dead and some concessions that did not reverse the denial of political status

The defeat of the hunger strikers left the way open for a settlement between London and Dublin with the republican leadership eventually climbing on board and signing up to the administration of a renewed partition that allowed nationalists a role in a government supervised by the British. An important part of the settlement was the Saville Report, which saw the Widgery Report withdrawn, the blame fixed on a handful of soldiers,  a vague apology for our trouble from British leader David Cameron and rapturous applause from Sinn Fein and their supporters.

Sinn Fein argue that their role in a Northern administration and potential presence in a Dublin coalition government will lead to unification through a border poll and that the main obstacle is unionist resistance, to be overcome through concessions and conflict resolution. However the initial Good Friday Agreement has consistently been moved to the right by the British and Unionists and the Tory government now intend to offer amnesty to all their forces, not only in Ireland but across the world.

The Irish revolt has now been re-labelled as ethnic and cultural division. Irish Capitalism wants to deal with the history of murder through a decade of commemorations, where the story of rebellion is equated with repression meted out by the British and their allies, but this is not at all the view of the working class.

However the British are the final arbitrator and give no indication of supporting a poll or agreeing to withdraw. Irish nationalism opposes a United Ireland and is substituting a shared island that would fragment the working class under the banner of cultural inclusion for political reaction.

The 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday shares the mixed character of the times. For the majority of the workers, it is the savagery of the British state that is remembered.  Loyalist leaders continue to link themselves to the massacre by flying the paratroops regimental flag in Derry.  However the formal events are firmly within the orbit of constitutional nationalism. Our leaders are sad, but the events of Bloody Sunday are firmly in the past. Sinn Féin, the main force behind the commemoration, with front choreography by local leftists,  balance between the classes with the slogan; "There's no such thing as British justice!"  We are supposed to ignore Sinn Féin's overwhelming support for the Saville report, which ignores the role of the state or their current role in the administration of British justice in the colony.

The armed campaign of the IRA failed and their supporters have now been incorporated into the sectarian state.  Opposition to imperialism is at a low ebb. However much has changed since the massacre.  British imperialism is weaker and engaged in an experiment in populist nationalism that has weakened it further. Unionism is fragmented, unwilling to endorse sharing power with  nationalists and betrayed by the British on Brexit. The power of the traditional parties of Irish capitalism has declined to the point where they are unable to hold a popular majority.

The signs of decay are everywhere, but even rampant decay will not lead to revolution.  That requires a rejection of the LaLa land of shared traditions and border polls and an embrace of the socialist and anti imperialist policies embraced by many workers at the time of Bloody Sunday.

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