Bloody Sunday was for me one of those life defining events, to be remembered a bit like the day JFK was assassinated, Nelson Mandela was freed, and I first heard Neil Young's "Harvest" and "After the Gold Rush" holed up in some Lexington, Virginia attic after some kind students had offered me a lift and a place to stay for the night as I was hitch-hiking my way down the east coast of America in 1973.
I was a student in Trinity College Dublin at the time of Bloody Sunday in 1972, not very happy with myself, my course, or the world into which I had been born. The world seemed to be a place where the powerful did more or less as they pleased, and the little people always got squashed. Paratroopers firing dum-dum bullets at unarmed civil rights marchers seemed to capture that feeling perfectly. I was enraged, and could do absolutely nothing about it.
Some of my contemporaries joined the Republican Movement, the anti-Apartheid Movement or Amnesty International. A Cabinet Minister and future Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, was dismissed for allegedly supporting the running of guns to the then almost quiescent IRA.
The picture of a Bogside mural at the top of this Diary is somewhat misleading. Father Edward (later Bishop) Daly did carry a white handkerchief as he was helping the wounded to safety under fire. But the attempt to portray a paratrooper standing on a bloody civil rights banner gives the misleading impression that he was standing with them and not shooting from cover some distance away. Neither were the IRA active in defending civilians. That was the time when the letters IRA were mockingly referred to as standing for "I Ran Away".
That summer I worked as a summer student on a community development project in the nationalist estate of Kilwilkie, Lurgan, in Northern Ireland: a ghetto surrounded by a motorway, a railway line, and hostile Protestant estates. Every night we had the pigs - Saracen armoured cars screaming through the streets - and hauling people off to internment - indefinite detention without trial, and often with torture as a routine part of the process.
As a group of student volunteers we had everybody confused: Irish, English, Australian, my German name and passport at the time; Catholic, Protestant, Quaker, and a Krishnamurti devotee. Who's side were we on?
We had originally been invited in as part of a VSO projectorganised by the (relatively) middle class Community Centre Committee. We got on fine with them organising children's activities, adventure trails, street football leagues, arts and craft classes, sports days and the like.
It was a good learning experience for me in terms of the importance of tribal identity. We would put red arm bands on one team, and blue on another, and instantaneously the two teams would be transformed into warring factions ready to give blood for the cause - whatever the sport or the ostensible purpose of the exercise. No matter that brothers or best mates were on opposing sides.
After a lifetime's involvement in competitive sports I have always marvelled at how coaches talk about having to motivate teams. Our problem was to stop them killing each other and keeping passions down to a manageable level. Of course all were best friends again after the battle was done and the arm bands removed. That is the beauty of sport when done properly by those who know how.
But it was our tribal identity as a student volunteer group which was the larger issue. We had status in the eyes of our middle class patrons because of our third level studies and the good work we were so obviously doing with the kids. But we were viewed with extreme suspicion by the local Stickies (the Official IRA), their mortal enemies the Provos (provisional IRA), and the various branches of the local socialist and communist groups. Who were we spying on, and for whom?
Being an outsider was an advantage in terms of navigating the many rivalries and petty jealousies within the local community which often prevented local community initiatives from getting off the ground if they were seen as the brainchild of one or other group. But it was a distinct liability if any one of the more militant groups came to regard us as spies. We did our best to get along with everyone, and our willingness to listen and learn the differing perspectives of different protagonists earned us a certain grudging, if distant, respect.
One thing we had to do however, was to demonstrate our solidarity with the community as a whole. Each of us were living with a different family on the estate and we had to be sensitive to their feelings. And so when a big Civil Rights march came to town, we made sure to join virtually everyone else (other than our more conservative middle class sponsors) on the march.
Unfortunately our Australian student (and Krishnamurti devotee) had been in a serious motorbike accident not long previously, and could only walk on crutches for a limited period of time. He was in a lot of pain returning from the march, and we were forced to take a short cut home through a neighbouring Loyalist estate.
Troops watched from corners, and an army helicopter circled over-head. Groups of denim clad youths kept a close eye. We were subsequently informed by our Provo contacts that they had been monitoring the Army radio frequencies and that there had been much chatter about a group breaking off from the civil rights march and heading through a loyalist estate.
Eventually we were confronted by a large group of young men. "Are ye Taigs or Micks or what are ye?" came the inevitable question - to our somewhat strangely attired group - well the 60's didn't come to Ireland until the 70's after all. Steve, for it was he of Australian and Krishnamurti fame, was the first to respond, remarking on the strange superficiality of tribal identities and the essential transcendental nature of Man. Or that was the gist of it as far as I could recall, being more exercised by the increasingly hostile expressions on our interlocutors faces...)
As the two groups seemed to move ever closer together I blurted out something to the effect that he was an Australian - which appeared to have an instant clarificatory and calming effect on our inquisitors. I was so glad they didn't think of the obvious riposte - ah yes, but is he a protestant or catholic Australian? Although some of us were protestant, none of us gave any hint of any religious affiliation: It would only have divided our group and set up the others for "special" treatment.
We were given a fools pardon and let go on our way, but not before our Quaker leaders' pacifist convictions and skills were given a good run out. It's amazing how much immense moral courage, a friendly demeanour, and relaxed body language can do to diffuse a fraught situation.
As we turned the corner we came across another British Army patrol with their rifles cocked at us and a rather nervous look on their faces. The English accents amongst us really helped to diffuse that situation, and soon we were back on "home" ground in Kilwilkie.
My subsequent switch to Sociology and Politics, a lifelong interest in conflict resolution, and a conviction of the importance of economic, social and political development in transforming lives for the better can all be traced back to those formative experiences. I never did join the Provos, nor the Quakers for that matter, but the rage at injustice is with me still.
And so I hear today that a British Prime Minister has deigned to say what almost every Irish person alive then has known in their bones for the past 38 years:
Cameron 'deeply sorry' for Bloody Sunday
British prime minster David Cameron said today the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday has found the British soldiers' actions in killing 14 people were in no way justified.
The 14 were killed in Derry on January 30th, 1972, by British soldiers following a civil rights rally in the city.
The inquiry set up to investigate the deaths was set up in 1998 under the chairmanship of Lord Saville of Newdigate, and it published its final report today.
Addressing parliament, Mr Cameron said the Saville findings were clear in finding the soldiers' actions both "unjustified and unjustifiable".
The prime minister said the British government was ultimately responsible for the actions of the army and therefore said he was "deeply sorry" for what had happened on Bloody Sunday.
However, he added the Saville report found there was no evidence of a conspiracy, cover-up nor premeditation over the day's events or matters relating to it since.
His last sentence is all the more remarkable given the actual findings of the Saville enquiry:
Main findings of Saville Inquiry
Firing by British soldiers of 1 Para caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury.
This also applied to the 14th victim, who died later from injuries.
"Despite the contrary evidence given by soldiers, we have concluded that none of them fired in response to attacks or threatened attacks by nail or petrol bombers."
Report says no one threw, or threatened to throw, nail or petrol bombs at soldiers.
The accounts of soldiers to the inquiry were rejected, with a number said to have "knowingly put forward false accounts"
Members of the official IRA fired a number of shots although it was concluded paratroopers shot first on Bloody Sunday.
Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, second in command of the provisional IRA in Derry in 1972, was "probably armed with a Thompson submachine gun", and though it is possible he fired the weapon, this cannot be proved.
The report concludes: "He did not engage in any activity that provided any of the soldiers with any justification for opening fire".
It is even more remarkable in the light of the fact that the original Widgery "Whitewash" Tribunal had declined to use the evidence and testimony of a soldier who had said just what Saville has now found - and was in an ideal position to testify as he had a direct line of sight and had also been a radio officer and could hear all the orders and reports coming through.
That soldier also testified that soldiers kept a "private" supply of bullets which they filed into dum dum bullets and that this could account for the discrepancy between the number of bullets "officially" fired by the British Army and the newsreel footage sound recordings which demonstrated that a far greater number of bullets had actually been fired.
Perhaps now, 38 years on, some soldiers will be prosecuted. Wearing your Nation's uniform should not be a licence to commit murder.
Much of the mayhem into which Northern Ireland descended can be traced back to that fateful day. The IRA was main-streamed and constitutional politicians sidelined. It would be 30 years before constitutional politicians regained the initiative, and it took some outstanding peacemakers to make it happen.
John Hume led the process, and David Trimble, Martin McGuinness, and even Ian Paisley eventually saw the light - helped by more constructive attitudes from the British and Irish Governments. Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern have a lot to answer for, but their contribution to the Peace process cannot be gainsaid.
Meanwhile I'm still raging at Israelis persecuting Palestinians and the politically serious people who tell us this situation must be tolerated by us all. If only we could remove their tribal identities as easily as we could take the coloured armbands off kids. If only life could be so simple again...
U2: Sunday Bloody Sunday