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Bloody Sunday 50th anniversary: how the families of the dead took on the might of the establishment

The Bloody Sunday families and the people of Derry were vindicated, and their indomitable fight for justice has always been inspiring, writes Brendan McDaid

For the people of Derry and across Ireland, the words Bloody Sunday evoke emotions, thoughts and feelings that are difficult to explain. Something stirs in us, even those of us born in the years since, and even today.

The horrific events visited on our city 50 years ago this weekend changed not only the course of history on this island and beyond, but they shaped who we are.

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Grieving relatives of the victims of the Bloody Sunday massacre - 8th February 1972 (Photo by M. Stroud/Express/Getty Images)

With the people of Derry and the wind at their back, the families of the Bloody Sunday dead and the wounded took on the might of the establishment. It must have seemed like an impossible task to speak truth to a power used to dictating the narrative, but it was too important not to try.

It was too important because of the damage inflicted upon the character of their innocent, murdered sons, brothers, fathers, friends, loved ones. It was too important because people left with life-changing injuries that day were likewise targeted with the same propaganda. It was too important because of the insults hurled at the bereaved and broken, the vile untruths poured like acid on open wounds. It was too important for the other boys and men and women and girls who might be next, here or elsewhere.

They did it for the victims of injustice here and in other lands. They stood up for us. And our city and our country stood by them.

Relatives of victims in the case of "Soldier F" walk towards Bishop Street courthouse on September 18, 2019 (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

And so they marched and we marched with them. Heartsore, but with a determination that would not be moved, the families walked for years behind the 14 white crosses, sometimes carrying large placards bearing the images of their loved ones’ faces. They walked the walk those same loved ones had that bright crisp winter morning in 1972.

And they kept walking. And through the years hundreds of thousands from Derry, across Ireland, and from around the world fell into step behind them. They trod the hallowed trail from Creggan shops, in driving rain, hail, through snow or under winter sun and as the years passed the numbers grew, the sound of marching feet grew louder until it was impossible to ignore, every step taken a step towards justice; a step towards global awareness and exposure of a truth Derry has always known.

Every crowd at a commemoration, every voice from a podium, every memorial event and lecture at home and abroad, every interview and article, every solidarity campaign and connection with other voices seeking justice and truth, every politician, member of the clergy and activist who challenged the establishment, kept the pressure on. They, and we, would not be ignored. And every hand held out, every linked arm, every kind word, every prayer said and every candle lit kept that hope alive.

And these ordinary women and men, bound together as they were in a tragedy that shook this nation to its core, did something extraordinary. They brought truth to power.

Anyone who stood on Guildhall Square as the world’s media descended on Derry on June 15, 2010 felt it. There was hope, anticipation, and you could only wonder at the dignity and composure of the families who had been through so much as they arrived at the Guildhall to hear the findings of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry.

Anyone there will have understood that this was personal for the families and that this was also personal for Derry. The air was charged. It was palpable as the families made their way on the final leg of the march to Guildhall Square, completing the intended route of the original anti-internment march their loved ones had attended.

Family members of the victims of the Bloody Sunday shootings celebrate as they leave the Guildhall in 2010 (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

I suspect, like me, thousands of others there that day will never forget the cheer that rippled through the crowd upon seeing the hands emerge through small rectangular windows from high up inside the stained glass-fronted Guildhall.

INNOCENT. Derry knew it anyway, now the world did too.

The Bloody Sunday families and the people of Derry had been vindicated. David Cameron, then the British Prime Minister, far away in London, was forced to apologise for the ‘unjustified and unjustifiable’ sins and transgressions of the British establishment. The unthinkable had happened. There have been many more clouds and battles since and the campaign to overturn some of the claims continues. This was not the end and for many the struggle goes on.

Over the decade past, the families continue to mark the anniversary in different ways and we owe them and the people who were wounded that day and their families and all those who stood with them an immense debt of gratitude.

They have been a beacon of light: indomitable, unbreakable spirits who despite their own loss and the many challenges they faced carried on their campaign with the utmost dignity and generosity in assisting others with theirs.

A man walks past a mural at Free Derry corner (Photo: Getty)

It is important to acknowledge too all the other families who lost loved ones over those decades, and whose own lives and communities were changed forever.

In a new podcast documentary, we speak to some of the sisters, brothers, sons and daughters of those who were killed on Derry’s streets as they reflect. We speak to people who were there and some of those who have been vital voices in support of the campaign, as well as prominent politicians and clergy locally and nationally.

We wanted to record this milestone 50 years on as Derry and Ireland reflects on the day when everything changed.

Over those five decades, Derry and the people of Ireland did not forget. And we remember still.

This article was originally published on our sister title, the Derry Journal. You can order a print copy of their special 50th anniversary commemorative edition here.

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You can also listen this podcast on all major podcast platforms including Apple and Spotify.

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