The Guardian and Bloody Sunday

Thirteen civil rights demonstrators were shot dead by the British Army on the day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday, January 30, 1972, in northern Ireland, forty years ago today. But the Guardian thought it was the Civil Rights activists who were to blame:

The organisers of the demonstration, miss Bernadette Devlin among them, deliberately challenged the ban on marches. They knew that stone throwing and sniping could not be prevented, and that the IRA might use the crowd as a shield. (Guardian, 1 February 1972)

Lord Widgery’s 1972 enquiry was widely seen as a whitewash — but not by the Guardian. “Lord Widgery’s report is not one-sided,” it led. Indeed they questioned Widgery’s view that trouble could have been avoided if the army had kept a low-key attitude: “To ask anyone to keep a low-key attitude if persistently stoned is to ask superhuman behaviour.” (20 April 1972)

The demonstrators had been protesting against the introduction of the internment of political prisoners without trial. The Guardian did not support their cause.

Internment without trial is hateful, repressive and undemocratic. In the existing Irish situation, most regrettably, it is also inevitable. . . . To remove the ringleaders, in the hope that the atmosphere might calm down, is a step to which there is no obvious alternative. (Guardian leader, 10 August 1971)

Indeed, the Guardian supported the initial decision to send British troops to northern Ireland, after Derry rioters succeeded in fighting of Ulster’s paramilitary police for days.

British soldiers could “present a more disinterested face of law and order” (Guardian leader, 15 August 1969), but only on condition that “Britain takes charge” (Guardian leader, 4 August 1969). The Guardian even offered some useful advice, in case the soldiers did not know how to put down the protestors: “a curfew in the troubled areas seems essential to separate those determined to make trouble from those who are drawn in unwillingly” (leader, 16 August 1969).

In fact the Guardian always had a knee-jerk reaction against rebellion in Ireland. The paper rubbished the Fenians, patriots who fought to free their country from British rule in the nineteenth century as “silly and infatuated traitors in Ireland” (Manchester Guardian, 21 October 1848). It called for the introduction of Martial Law — “better than the midnight legislation of Tipperary.” Its editorials were so rabid that the Irish of Manchester organized a demonstration outside its offices (David Ayerst, The Guardian: Biography of a Newspaper, 1971, p. 111)

When James Connolly and Padraig Pearse, heroes of Ireland’s Easter Rising in 1916 were executed, editor C. P. Scott wrote: “it is a fate which they invoked and of which they would probably not complain” (4 May 1916, quoted in Ayerst, the Manchester Guardian, 1971, p. 392)

The paper did support the more acceptable, constitutional nationalism of the Home Rule movement in the 1880s. Similarly the Guardian’s current, Republican-sympathizing line was only adopted after Sinn Fein leaders broached an end to the armed struggle.