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Bloody Sunday, 50 years on — how a tragedy unfolded Two books on Northern Ireland examine it

Soldiers arrest civil rights marchers on the day that would become known as Bloody Sunday, 1972 © William L Rukeyser/Getty Images

Half a century has passed since Bloody Sunday — January 30 1972 — the day when the UK’s Parachute Regiment opened fire indiscriminately on a peaceful civil rights march in Northern Ireland’s second city. Thirteen men were killed, another never fully recovered from his injuries and died five months later and 17 people were wounded in the atrocity that fuelled three decades of conflict.

The UK government — which now wants to introduce an amnesty for all Troubles-era prosecutions — took 38 years to apologise. Prosecution of the only soldier charged for the events of that day was dropped last year.

In On Bloody Sunday, a new collage of eye-witness accounts, Julieann Campbell, a niece of one of the victims, does a remarkable job of taking the reader vividly back to a past that still haunts Northern Ireland. One wounded witness, Joe Mahon, then 16, recalls seeing a paratrooper shoot Jim Wray in the back when he was already on the ground. “I have a guilt — I never shouted to Jim Wray to lie still . . . and they murdered him.” A bullet lifted the body of another victim, Paddy Doherty, up into the air.

The accounts are peppered with army logs and testimony to the official inquiry, including that of Lt Col Derek Wilford, the paratrooper commander, who insisted: “We fired at seen gunmen with pistols and rifles and Thompsons [submachine guns] and nail bombs.” One victim, 17-year-old Gerald Donaghey, was found to have nail bombs stuffed into the pockets of his tight jeans — something his family said had been planted. The inquiry concluded “he was not shot because of his possession of nail bombs. He was shot while trying to escape from the soldiers.”

Five decades later, it is not just the past that is painful. London’s determination to push ahead with its amnesty plans is opposed by both unionists who want to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK and nationalists seeking a united Ireland. Too much unfinished business remains to simply draw a line under the past and consign it to history.

That was highlighted last month when the UK’s Supreme Court ruled that a decision by Northern Ireland’s police in 2014 to drop an investigation into the extreme punishment meted out to 14 men detained without trial in 1971 was unlawful. It was opposition to internment — the rounding up and jailing of suspected nationalists in a bid to smash paramilitary violence by the Irish Republican Army — that brought thousands of mostly Catholic demonstrators on to the streets of a city known to nationalists as Derry and to most unionists as Londonderry on January 30 1972, even though marches had been banned.

What happened next is known, thanks to interviews and an official inquiry that in 2010 overturned then UK prime minister Edward Heath’s whitewash attempt. What On Bloody Sunday supplies, in painstaking detail, is the how.

A myriad of personal observations chronicle the day’s events: the pride 18-year-old Alana Burke, who is run over by an army personnel carrier, had felt wearing her new brown corduroy “maxi-coat”. Or the way Father Edward Daly heard the author’s uncle, Jackie Duddy, giggle “at the sight of a priest running” as the crowd tried to escape the gunfire, moments before the teenager was shot in the back. Daly, later bishop of Derry, was immortalised on a mural waving a white blood-soaked handkerchief as he sought to clear a path for the fatally wounded Duddy.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement brought peace to Northern Ireland and atrocities like Bloody Sunday gradually receded from the headlines. But now Northern Ireland is back in the news thanks to Brexit and political and demographic change. Elections this May are likely to be won by nationalists. The official census due to be released later this year is expected to show a shift to a Catholic majority for the first time in the region’s 100-year history.

Against this backdrop, Susan McKay’s Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground is a timely follow-up to her earlier book about Protestants, published in 2000. The new work offers compelling contemporary reportage chronicling what Northern Irish Protestants from an array of backgrounds think about religion, culture, their past and their future in candid interviews.

Her nuanced portraits do much to update clichéd sectarian stereotypes. McKay, one of the most thoughtful and eloquent commentators on Northern Irish society, finds a West Indies-born former loyalist paramilitary who would accept a united Ireland and a 28-year-old woman who declares her generation is “bored of Green and Orange politics” of nationalism and unionism.

There are Troubles victims, too — a woman who lost three of her four young sons when their house was firebombed by loyalist paramilitaries, and a nurse who treated a man who had received punishment shootings through both elbows and both knees.

But what makes Northern Protestants special is its real-time insights into the changing dynamics of a society in flux, one where housing, jobs and healthcare are as important to some as traditional community identities. Understanding Northern Ireland’s anguished past is essential, but it cannot be the only lens through which to view the future.