"The British government may have some regrets about calling an inquiry into Bloody Sunday. That's tough. We're here now," said Tony Doherty, whose father was one of the rights marchers killed by British paratroopers here in 1972. The killings were an attempt by the British government to set back the rising mass movement for civil and national rights that sought to overturn the second class status of Catholics, a cornerstone of British rule in the north of Ireland. In 1998 the British government conceded a public inquiry into the killings.
A week earlier a similar number marched in Belfast in a show of strength by Irish nationalists to commemorate the life of Tom Williams. Nationalists favor unification of Ireland and the end of all forms of British rule over the country. Williams was a 19-year-old volunteer in the Irish Republican Army who was hung by the British army in 1942, despite a a campaign including a 200,000 signature petition to secure a reprieve.
After Williams was hung his body was buried by the British in an unmarked grave until the end of last year. "I've not seen a demonstration as big since the funeral of Bobby Sands," said Imelda Flynn, who marched in the Bloody Sunday action as well. "There were buses there from all over, as far as Wexford and Cork. People came because there had been such a fight to get him out."
Here in Derry, Doherty and the other relatives of those killed in 1972 led the march that demanded "truth, justice, and healing." For the first time, the annual march did not culminate in a rally at Free Derry Corner, close to the sight of the British army massacres, but went through the city center to rally at the Guildhall, which will be the venue for some of the sessions of the new inquiry that is scheduled to open in March.
Marchers came from all corners of the British-occupied six counties of Northern Ireland, from the Republic in the south, and from around the world. A majority of the marchers were from Derry, with many young people in attendance.
Speaking at the rally was Alana Burke, wounded on the civil rights march in 1972. "Once again the British government is trying to obscure the truth," she said. "They have granted the soldiers immunity from prosecution and have granted a request to block the release of some Ministry of Defense material relating to Bloody Sunday. We warn them: we're not interested in a government public relations exercise."
The granting of a Public Interest Immunity Certificate to the Ministry of Defense means that it can attempt to withold any information it likes on the grounds that "national security" is jeopardized. It has also been discovered that all but five of the rifles used in the massacre have been destroyed.
"Clearly what is coming to light through this revelation and other developments over the last two years is that those who stand to lose most from the inquiry, the British army and the Ministry of Defense, are involved in every trick in the book to prevent the true facts of Bloody Sunday from emerging," Doherty said.
Picking up on this point, Sinn Fein's Bairbre de Brun told the rally the British media "still peddle the idea that those killed were responsible for their own misfortune." De Brun, recently named as the health minister in the new assembly in Northern Ireland, was introduced to applause as "the first government minister to ever address a Bloody Sunday rally."
Joe Cox, who had come to the march from Fermanagh, explained that he was here "not for retribution but for truth and justice for those killed on Bloody Sunday."
Alex Sothern, a student from London who was participating in the march for the first time, said he came to the march "because I wanted to see the original route and to remember the people who fought for civil rights in Derry. This is an Irish event, not just a nationalist or republican event. Its about gaining the rights of the people."
Recently released government papers detail the British state's planning of Bloody Sunday. In the weeks leading up to the massacre, government officials and army officers discussed what would be involved in retaking "Free Derry," the area of the Bogside and the Creggan that had been occupied by nationalists after the Battle of the Bogside in 1969.
During this fight the Catholic residents of the Bogside had battled the British-trained Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) for days to prevent a sectarian and triumphalist Apprentice Boys parade from marching through their community.
According to the government's report, an option advanced in 1972 by Major-General Forde, the second in command of British forces in Northern Ireland at the time, was to occupy "the Bogside militarily. The risks of casualties is high. Unarmed teenagers will be shot in the first stages."
The demonstration marched past scores of signs posted along the route and in the city center that demanded, "Disband the RUC." A banner along the way read "RUC --PSIN: What's the difference." PSIN is the abbreviation for the new police service that is to be set up as a result of British government reforms.
The RUC is widely hated by Catholics since it was used to brutally suppress the fight for national rights. The reforms, which include reducing the number of cops, are opposed by the opposition Conservative Party and the Ulster Unionists.
Days before the march, the RUC arrested a man selling black ribbons that are worn throughout Derry to commemorate those who died on Bloody Sunday.
Paul Davies is a member of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) in Manchester, Caroline Bellamy is a member of the TGWU in London.
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