Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 4, 2002; Page A12
LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland, Feb. 3 -- Undeterred by the freezing rain on their heads and the muddy slush beneath their feet, 30,000 people filled the steep streets of this ancient town today to mark the 30th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," a civil rights demonstration that turned deadly and sparked three decades of sectarian fighting in this British province.
In a city so divided that Roman Catholics and Protestants do not even agree on its name, today's march had a calm and amiable spirit -- a marked contrast to Jan. 30, 1972, when British soldiers fired into a crowd of stone-throwing marchers and killed 13 Catholics, all of them unarmed.
Today, Northern Ireland's Catholics have achieved many of the rights -- in education, employment, housing and political power -- that they were marching for 30 years ago. And yet people flocked here by the bus load from the British mainland, Ireland and the United States to show, as Catholic political leader Gerry Kelly put it, "that we will always remember Bloody Sunday."
That tens of thousands would turn out on a wet and windy winter's day to look back three decades is a testament to the power of memory in Northern Ireland. The seemingly endless arguments here between pro-Irish Catholics and pro-British Protestants frequently center on perceived wrongs dating back 30, 130, even 300 years.
That well-remembered history has been a major obstacle to progress on the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998, under which Protestants and Catholics share power in a fractious local assembly.
"One of the biggest problems we've got is that people never forget," noted Monica McWilliams of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition. "We have world-class victims on both sides. They nourish the old wounds. In that atmosphere, it's hard to move on together."
The point is made nicely by a character in Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical, "The Beautiful Game." The play concerns students in Belfast trying to lead a normal life amid the sectarian warfare. "We're living in ancient history!" one student complains in the play. "Everybody's always talking about Oliver bloody Cromwell and William of bloody Orange -- and those guys died 300 years ago!"
Northern Ireland comprises six counties that remained under British control when the Irish Republic won its freedom in 1921. Its 1.6 million residents are divided between "unionists," who want to retain the tie to Britain, and "republicans," who want to merge with Ireland. Most unionists are Protestant and most republicans Roman Catholic, so ancient religious animosity sharpens the political divide.
In this city, perched on steep green hills rising from the broad River Foyle, the argument extends even to geography books. In Catholic schools, the maps show the city's name in its traditional Irish form, "Derry." The Protestant schools, and the government's maps, use the British version, "Londonderry."
For decades, Northern Ireland maintained a sort of Jim Crow system that gave the Protestant majority heavy preference in jobs, schooling and voting power. Inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States, the Catholics of "Derry" began a nonviolent campaign in the 1960s to demand equal treatment. But this peaceful movement was gradually infiltrated by militants from the Irish Republican Army, a heavily armed paramilitary group.
The civil rights march on Jan. 30, 1972, was organized by Catholics and Protestants from the nonviolent wing. But the local IRA unit joined the march; some of the IRA contingent were already facing murder charges and were known to the police. IRA leaders say they told their troops to march without weapons that Sunday.
As the march entered a Catholic neighborhood known as the Bogside, some young protesters hurled stones and tin cans at the soldiers down the street. The army responded with gunfire. Within 20 minutes, 13 civilians were dead, and another died later from the wounds.
"Bloody Sunday" shocked both Britain and Ireland. It radicalized much of the younger generation of Northern Ireland's Catholics. "That one blunder by the army made hundreds and hundreds of young men sign up for the IRA," recalled John Hume, a Catholic civil rights leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Good Friday plan. "The irony is, it was mainly the British who turned a peaceful civil rights movement into a violent struggle."
The Catholic community here has never let Bloody Sunday be forgotten. Responding to local demands, Tony Blair, Britain's prime minister, has established a board of inquiry to sift through the 30-year-old evidence and produce a definitive report on what happened.
The inquiry, underway for two years, is expected to continue its work at least until 2004. A recent budget summary showed that the inquiry has already cost $76 million -- most of it in attorney fees, which run as high as $2,300 a day -- and likely will top $150 million before a final report is issued.
British and Irish newspapers published long sections marking the 30th anniversary of the shootings. Two new movies about the march were released in Britain last month; one of them, a documentary called "Bloody Sunday," won the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
"We cannot allow Bloody Sunday to be forgotten," said John Rooney, an Irish American from Worcester, Mass., who joined hundreds of other Americans winding through the streets here today. "We need to keep the memory alive until we find out exactly why those young people were shot dead."