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Northern Ireland's peace faces new Brexit threats

Kommentarbild-  David Ehl
David Ehl
January 30, 2022

The 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre was a turning point in Northern Ireland's conflict. Peace has prevailed for a quarter of a century. That is a success that must now be defended against new threats, writes DW's David Ehl.

British soldiers surround a group of demonstrators during the bloody clashes in 1972
The events of Bloody Sunday, which left 14 unarmed demonstrators dead, still scars Northern IrelandImage: dpa/UPI/picture-alliance

Nationalists in Northern Ireland remember the 1972 Bloody Sunday as an assault by elite British soldiers on unarmed Catholics. The mass shooting, which ultimately led to 14 deaths, has often been instrumentalized to justify killings by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and other groups held responsible for about two-thirds of the more than 3,500 deaths — including more than 1,000 members of the British security forces — in the three-decade conflict.

The events of January 30, 1972, in Northern Ireland's second largest city, Londonderry, were a turning point, however: In an already politically charged atmosphere, British soldiers shot two dozen unarmed people at a protest. We know now that the commanders' aim was to show toughness and demonstrate the state's monopoly on the use of force. The result, however, was that the conflict between the Irish Catholic nationalists and the mostly Protestant unionists spiraled further. The IRA registered a large number of new members and continued to stoke the violence: 1972 became the bloodiest year in the entire conflict, with almost 500 deaths.

Bloody Sunday is the only event in British history that has been investigated by two judicial commissions.

 David Ehl
DW's David EhlImage: Privat

The first report, hastily written in April 1972, seemed to mostly serve the purpose of exonerating the soldiers. But the Saville Report, presented 38 years later, meticulously reconstructed the course of events of the massacre and leaves no doubt about the interpretation: The paratroopers fired on civilians, none of whom posed a threat, and 14 British citizens were ultimately murdered in an operation commissioned by the state.

In 2010, after the report was completed, Prime Minister David Cameron asked for forgiveness. For the bereaved families, who had fought for so long against the prejudiced portrayal of the first report, this was an important victory. But today, 50 years after the fateful day, it is more uncertain than ever whether even one of the shooters will ever be prosecuted.

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Johnson's dangerous proposal

The greatest threat for the further investigation of Bloody Sunday and all other atrocities of the Northern Ireland conflict comes from the British government: Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who admittedly has quite different concerns right now, wants to put the conflict in the past. In 2021, the government published key points for a statute of limitations to end all prosecutions. That would prohibit further investigations into state actors, and even ongoing proceedings would be abandoned. Northern Ireland's civil society erupted in outrage against this proposed blanket ban on Troubles-related prosecution.

Boris Johnson in lower house of Parliament
Johnson's government has proposed ending prosecutions related to the TroublesImage: REUTERS

It is unclear whether these far-reaching plans will ever become law. But the proposal itself shows once again that Johnson is using the sledgehammer method in Northern Ireland.

The unionists have already been dealt a heavy blow, especially the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party, which leads the Northern Ireland regional government with its Irish nationalist coalition partner, Sinn Fein. The DUP had campaigned for Brexit in 2016, hoping that the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the EU would bring Northern Ireland more closely to London economically and politically. Johnson promised the same thing when he took office — before dropping Northern Ireland like a hot potato to appease Brexit hard-liners on the mainland.

Today, thanks to an additional protocol in the withdrawal agreement, Northern Ireland is de facto still part of the European Union's single market, while trade with the rest of Britain is more difficult. For Northern Ireland, this has certainly paid off in the first Brexit year — think of the numerous supply bottlenecks in the United Kingdom.

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But it is a severe betrayal for the unionists. Their camp is politically divided, and it is conceivable that Sinn Fein will triumph in regional elections in May. In other words, the Irish nationalist camp now sees itself in a position of strength after decades of oppression and is now confidently calling for Northern Ireland to unite with the Republic of Ireland.

All this is causing new frustration in a society still largely split between nationalists and unionists. Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, there has been relative peace in Northern Ireland, but the 50-year anniversary of Bloody Sunday is a reminder that there is still plenty of mutual mistrust.

It is primarily Brexit and the renewed discussion of Irish reunification, as well as reckless proposals such as Johnson's de facto amnesty plans, that have added fuel to the fire.

The overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland do not want new violence or instability. Peace will be put to the test. Northern Ireland will have to prove that it has learned the lessons of history.

This commentary was translated from German.

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