Recently, we’ve seen tensions again rise over bonfires, but also over the flying of banners in opposition to the prosecution of ‘Soldier F’ in connection with the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972.
Bloody Sunday – when British paratroopers shot dead 14 unarmed people taking part in a civil rights march in Derry – was one of the most horrific and defining moments of the Troubles. This brutal act of repression had the effect of pushing thousands of young people into the dead-end of the IRA’s paramilitary campaign. For decades, the families of those victims were denied truth and justice. Now, Solider F – a lance corporal at the time – faces charges for the murder of James Wray and William McKinney and the attempted murder of four others.
Role of the Paras
There is no denying the brutality which the Parachute regiment in particular demonstrated on the streets of Northern Ireland, which was not confined to Bloody Sunday. The on-going inquiry into the Ballymurphy massacre is shining a light on this. A former Para told the inquest that a ‘sweepstake’ was run by his unit to reward soldiers who “got a kill”. The same man has even claimed that a colleague recovered part of the skull of a 28-year-old man killed in the area, Henry Thornton, and used it as an ashtray.
The violence inflicted by the Paras on working-class communities was not completely confined to the Catholic population. Two workers were also killed on the Shankill Road in 1972, with then Secretary of State William Whitelaw justifying it by blaming “Protestant extremists” indulging in “un-British behaviour”. At the time, the UDA called for the regiment’s removal from the streets.
The prosecution of Soldier F 47 years later has provoked strong reactions. Many, particularly Catholics, feel that for decades the state forces acted with impunity while tens of thousands of mainly young people from both communities were sent imprisoned during the Troubles. At the same time, others, particularly in the Protestant community, are angered that those guilty of paramilitary violence in the past are now essentially “off the hook” while there has been a “witch hunt” against state forces. The focus for the Bloody Sunday families has been getting truth and justice. Many now feel again let down that only one of those who pulled the trigger on their loved ones will face prosecution.
The prosecution of the likes of Soldier F – or, indeed, paramilitaries responsible for heinous sectarian acts during the Troubles, such as the Kingsmill and Loughinisland massacres – can provide some form of justice and closure to the victims’ families. It can also shine a light on the real role played by the state and all the paramilitary forces during the conflict. However, socialists have a responsibility to point out that it wasn’t simply soldiers on the grounds who were responsible for the killing on the streets of Derry, but also the higher echelons of the army who sanctioned it. They should also be held to account.
Major General Ford was the commander of the land forces in Northern Ireland at the time of Bloody Sunday. Several weeks before this atrocity, he wrote a memo stating that: “I am coming to the conclusion that the minimum force necessary to achieve a restoration of law and order is to shoot selected ringleaders amongst the DYH [Derry Young Hooligans].”
Ford is now dead but the families have correctly pointed out that others complicit in the events of Bloody Sunday are still alive, such as Mike Jackson, who was a captain and second in command on the the ground. As the army press officer, Jackson falsely briefed the media that the Paras had acted in response to gunfire from IRA combatants, and the dead were slandered as terrorists. He would later climb up the ladder of the British army to become Chief of Staff at the time of the invasion of Iraq.
Banners, flags and emblems
In response to Soldier F’s prosecution, we have seen the flying of Parachute regiment flags and banners in support of him. The Socialist Party does not support the flying of such banners. Such displays cause offence and upset to the communities and in particular to families of the victims of Bloody Sunday and Ballymurphy. We wish to see an end to the use of flags, banners and murals to mark out territory in a sectarian manner. At the same, we recognise that people have democratic rights to express identity and political opinion. We defend the democratic rights of all, including those we disagree with, except those who wish to organise fascist violence.
On 1st July, a motion to Belfast City Council from Sinn Féin in response called for removal of “all banners” that do not have planning permission, irrespective of their content, with the right to remove any material left with Stormont. Such a motion could be used to remove banners of other campaigns, including community campaigns against cuts or banners in support of striking workers.
Even with the People Before Profit amendment which specifically targetted the Solider F banners, such an approach is extremely problematic. As we have seen with the approach to bonfires, intervention by state agencies can enflame the situation rather than defuse it. Sectarian politicians on both sides would also be very happy to turn this into a “tit for tat” issue. For example, the DUP’s Gregory Campbell said, “If cherry pickers are going to be deployed in relation to flags and banners, then JCBs will be deployed in Dungiven” against hunger strike memorials. As well as the rights of those on both sides of these controversies, there is also the overarching right of working-class people not to be dragged into sectarian quagmires over such issues.
Unite against sectarianism
The events at Avoniel leisure centre should act as a warning to all those who want to oppose sectarianism. The centre in east Belfast was closed after its entrance was barricaded by men who were behaving in a threatening way toward staff. The barricade at Avoniel came after tyres were removed from another Belfast bonfire site by masked contractors called in by the Council.
The state or the main sectarian forces are incapable of resolving issues around bonfires. Any genuine solution will have to involve and, in fact, come from within those communities in which bonfires take place. Of course, that does not mean the paramilitary organisations often connected to some of the contentious bonfires, but ordinary working-class people, many of whom have genuine concerns about health and safety and the conduct of these events. A genuine coming together of people within these communities, free of paramilitary interference, can determine democratically how they are organised in a manner which minimises damage to property and the environment, as well as ensure there are no sectarian or racist provocations.
The trade union and labour movement – representing nearly 250,000 workers from all backgrounds in Northern Ireland – must take a stand against sectarianism. The response of ordinary people to the killing of Lyra McKee and the key role played by trade unionists in organising protests in the aftermath of this atrocity points in the direction of what is needed. Had the Irish Congress of Trade Unions called a widespread day of action in response to this tragic killing, a powerful and unmistakable message would have been sent to the paramilitaries involved.
We need a strong workers’ movement that will take the lead in challenging sectarianism and the conditions of poverty and alienation that allow sectarianism to flourish. Thousands of civil servants – Protestant, Catholic and neither – taking united strike action in the midst of these sectarian controversies is illustrative of the ability of workers to come together in common struggle. We have confidence in the ability of the working-class, through the trade union and labour movement, to challenge sectarian forces – including by building a socialist political alternative to them – and find solutions to the issues that divide our communities. This includes how we deal with contentious legacy issues.
Dealing with the past
The loved ones of all victims of the Troubles have the right to truth and justice. In the hands of sectarian forces and the state, the past remains a battleground. None of the contending forces want a genuine accounting with the past which would expose their rotten role. The attitude of the British establishment illustrated in the comments by Sectary of State Karen Bradley, who disgustingly said in Parliament that killings at the hands of the security forces were “not crimes.”
Socialists have no confidence in the capacity of the state or the sectarian politicians to subject their role in the troubles to real scrutiny. We do however have a confidence in working class people to bring the truth to light. This could take place through some form of wide-ranging enquiry into the Troubles, which would not be in the hands of the state or establishment parties but made up of respected trade unionists, genuine community groups and those with a record of campaigning against injustice, including human rights groups. This could be part of creating a real peace process – one that actually seeks to create reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust among working-class people, not perpetuate division.
By Kevin Henry