Bloody Sunday, International Human Rights Advocacy, and a Georgetown University Connection
Ryan Conner is an M.A. candidate in European Studies in the School of Foreign Service and a 2021-22 Global Irish Studies Research Fellow. He previously published research about the politics and legacies of the civil rights movement in Derry. Ryan writes in a personal capacity.
January 30, 2022, marked the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday—the day when the British Army’s Parachute Regiment opened fire on civil rights demonstrators in Derry, Northern Ireland, killing thirteen and injuring another fifteen.1
Many families of the dead and injured used this year’s anniversary to continue to demand justice for their relatives. It has been a long road. The first official inquiry, in spring 1972, found that soldiers fired on suspected gunmen in the march and that the march organizers, not the soldiers, were responsible for the deaths. In 1992, the families formed the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign to demand that the British government recognize their relatives as innocent, and they effectively pressed the government into announcing a second inquiry. It opened in April 1998. This one issued a report in June 2010 that found the dead and injured to have been innocent, and that held the army responsible. Prime Minister David Cameron also issued a formal apology that same month. However, to this day, no ex-soldiers have been prosecuted. It is not yet clear how the UK government’s recent offer of conditional amnesty to ex-combatants will affect the families’ search for justice.2
I would like to use this anniversary to reflect on the international advocacy—with a connection to Georgetown University—that challenged the first inquiry and helped support the second one. This advocacy demonstrates that contemporaries understood Bloody Sunday as a global human rights issue from the start, rather than a narrowly defined local or sectarian one.3
In February 1972, the families of the dead and injured reportedly did not want to testify at the first official tribunal, which was led by former British Army officer Lord Widgery. Then-civil rights leader John Hume advised people not to engage with it. “We reject the Widgery Inquiry as an independent tribunal,” he stated, “as we cannot accept any British-based inquiry as independent or satisfactory.”4
Since the families did not want to testify, the National Council for Civil Liberties, a UK organization, asked the International League for the Rights of Man, a New York-based NGO with consultative status at the United Nations, to assist the families in finding a forum in which to deliver their eyewitness accounts.5
The League’s Chairman John Carey asked Samuel Dash, then a law professor at Georgetown University, to travel to Northern Ireland with him. As explained in the League’s eventual report, Carey hoped that “American lawyers, acting for an international organization, and having no axe to grind, might be able to help in a situation fraught with bitterness and distrust.” Dash met with the families, persuaded them to testify, and reviewed the full transcript of the hearings. He and the League soon issued a report, Justice Denied: A Challenge to Lord Widgery’s Report on “Bloody Sunday.”6
Widgery’s inquiry concluded that the soldiers had shot at the marchers in self-defense. Although it found no evidence that the dead or injured were holding weapons when the soldiers shot them, the inquiry noted a “strong suspicion” that others in the area had fired on the soldiers. The inquiry’s report concluded that the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was ultimately responsible for the violence. By organizing the march, NICRA had allegedly created a “highly dangerous situation in which a clash between demonstrators and the security forces was almost inevitable.”7
In response, Dash contended that NICRA could not have known that the Army would assign an “aggressive combat paratroop regiment for arrest operations.” This regiment, he wrote, had a “notorious reputation in Northern Ireland for brutality to civilians.” Dash did not find any evidence in the transcripts that the IRA planned to use the march as cover to attack the soldiers. The report found that there were some civilian gunmen that afternoon in the Bogside, a Catholic neighborhood in Derry and a major site of civil rights activism since 1968, but the available evidence did not connect them to the civilians who were killed and injured.8
Despite its forthright challenge to the official inquiry, Dash’s report was not all that influential at the time. The UK government defended the official report and disavowed Justice Denied; it regarded the conflict as an internal affair best left to its own jurisdiction. At the same time, the Irish government attempted to bring Bloody Sunday into its case against the UK government at the European Court of Human Rights. The Court, however, declined to consider Bloody Sunday. The eventual judgment, issued in January 1978, only mentioned it in the historical overview of the case.9
In Washington, Dash’s report received interest from members of Congress despite the Nixon administration’s preoccupation with the U.S. war in Vietnam. For example, on August 21, 1972, Rep. Robert F. Drinan (D-MA—a Jesuit priest and a future faculty member at Georgetown Law) wrote to Dash, asking what members of Congress could do. Drinan, a notable human rights advocate himself, explained that many of them felt “hopeless and helpless.”10 Dash responded several days later. He wanted to make a brief statement on the report before Congress and have it printed in the Congressional Record. Dash explained his motivation: “Since the issues relate to human rights that extend beyond internal concerns of the United Kingdom I believe Congress can demonstrate its interests. This is especially true since the Widgery Report represents an abuse of judicial power in a system of justice which we claim to be our heritage.”11
It was not until the second inquiry, in the early 2000s, that the report gained prominence. For example, the Counsel to the Inquiry, Christopher Clarke, referenced Justice Denied during the June 2000 round of opening statements. Clarke explained that several conclusions in Dash’s report were based on an absence of evidence, including the one that soldiers deliberately fired at unarmed civilians. Dash, he concluded, failed to consider evidence from the soldiers themselves. However, Clarke left it to the Tribunal to draw its own conclusions about Dash’s report.12
These findings suggest that the international advocacy efforts of Dash and the League did not amount to much in the 1970s. They might have had slightly greater influence in the 2000s. In that case, why study them at all? They matter to our understanding of Bloody Sunday. For years it was widely regarded within the UK as a sectarian issue—a perception that the families of the dead and injured confronted when they started the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign in 1992. Irish republicans were certainly involved in the public commemorations from January 1973 onward; the day became an important part of their “culture of resistance” against the British state.13
Bloody Sunday, however, was not only a local or republican issue. The League and Dash understood it as an abuse of human rights from the start. As Dash himself explained in the letter to Drinan, the killings and the first inquiry were an injustice in a system of law that many Americans long claimed as part of their own heritage. These matters were not internal to the UK—they concerned, and ought still to concern, any who care about human rights and the administration of justice.