What is the legacy of Bloody Sunday for those of us who do not remember it?

There is a conception I have often come across in my life that the provisional IRA were an equal evil to the British security forces and Unionist paramilitaries. Although I generally agree, that narrative often omits a fact evident from partition; nationalists in Northern Ireland were treated as second-class citizens for decades in a way which allowed Unionists and British forces to often violently subjugate the populations of cities like Derry. The IRA were not the root instigators of this conflict. While their actions were and remain abhorrent, the Provisionals did not appear overnight. Bloody Sunday is one example.

This attitude and atmosphere of hatred towards Irish identity is what ultimately allowed the men of the Parachute Regiment to justify pulling their triggers on that fateful day in 1972 which would become known globally as Bloody Sunday, distributing death and generations of suffering upon those 26 innocent and unarmed civilians, alongside the city of Derry. 13 of whom were to never walk in the door of their family homes again. Many were shot in the back as they tried to crawl away face down from the brutality of those men. What is the legacy of those victims to those of us who never lived through that day?

I am often outspoken as to my firm disgust with Sinn Féin’s endorsements and open commemorations of the provisional IRA. This is because I believe that there is absolutely nothing to be celebrated about The Troubles. I believe that it is a chapter of this island’s history which should remain closed to veneration. Aside from those who brought peace, made the world aware of family members killed by the military or paramilitaries and those who campaigned for justice, there are no heroes. However, we must also understand what inspired young men and women to fill the ranks of the provisional IRA. 

It was not a lust for blood or a want for carnage, it was a want of basic freedoms, dignity and security which was taken advantage of by the Army Council of the Provisional IRA. If you were a young man who had witnessed a family member or friend receive a bullet to the eye for the crime of peaceful protest, would you not take up arms?

Bloody Sunday and its aftermath was the IRA’s most successful recruitment campaign. Understandably so. It was an act of horror inflicted by a British State with a very long history of inflicting death and a removal of dignity upon this island. The exacerbation of The Great Famine, The Burning of Cork, Croke Park 1920 are just a few of countless terrible events which come to mind.

Indeed, many of the IRA’s campaigns did involve the destruction of genuine military targets. But many also involved the disappearance of civilians from their family homes based on amateur intelligence. It involved nails and shards of glass becoming embedded in human flesh upon the detonation of IEDs. Of those who disappeared, the IRA refused to reveal the locations of the remains of some of those who went missing, even in a post-ceasefire world. Those families will never sleep soundly.

In my mind the IRA are culpable for much of the damage done during The Troubles, particularly during the long ‘war’. The IRA succeeded in contributing to a cycle of violence which made life in places like Derry and Belfast unbearable, undignified and inhumane. An estimated 48% of deaths during the troubles were caused by the IRA. If you are a Republican in the literal sense, you will see this as the killing of your fellow citizen, regardless of which flag they pledged allegiance to. Half of the death, half of the responsibility.

Ultimately it was not the IRA which won the basic freedoms and dignity of nationalists in Northern Ireland. It was the peacemakers like John Hume who resolutely rejected violence and sectarianism.

For my generation, the post-Good Friday Agreement babies, this horror is unimaginable unless your family was directly affected by the brutality of the era. We should seek to keep it that way. That reality should never become our reality on this island. If we become absorbed in a narrow Republicanism which utterly excludes Unionists from holding meaningful political power in a United Ireland, we are destined for an era of insurgency, whether that come in the form of a low-level civil war or a complete absence of political reconciliation.

It seems likely Sinn Féin will play an important role in our next government; it is of utmost importance that the party begins to recognise the task which they face should they seek a border poll. It is not just about dissolving a border; it is about unifying two directly contrasting identities into a meaningful, functional political system which best serves the interests of all the people of the 32 counties. To me that will require an acknowledgement by Sinn Féin and the remnants of the Army Council that many of the IRA’s actions caused severe generational suffering for many Unionist families.

The most powerful thing we can do for those 13 victims of Bloody Sunday who never came home on this day in 1972 is ensure nobody on this island is ever subjected to such an abhorrent act of State-sponsored violence again. We must ensure paramilitaries are never empowered again. The Troubles are over, and if we are diligent, they will never come back. That is the challenge for our generation which will likely preside over unification. It is the challenge of Sinn Féin who must outwardly reject the glorification of violence, no matter who was behind the barrel of the gun.

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