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Book Review

How Politics and Fury Gave Birth to Tragedy

THOSE ARE REAL BULLETS Bloody Sunday, Derry, 1972 by Peter Pringle and Philip Jacobson;Grove Press $25, 320 pages

February 09, 2001|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On Jan. 30, 1972, British paratroopers fired real bullets at unarmed Irish Catholics marching for jobs and civil rights in their ghetto-like enclave of Bogside in Londonderry, Northern Ireland's second largest city, which the Irish commonly call Derry.

After minutes of furious and uncontrolled firing, 13 Irish Catholic men--seven of them teenagers--lay dead. Another 14 were wounded.

An official British inquiry, established by the government of Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath and led by the lord chief justice, Lord Widgery, exonerated the British soldiers and their commanders. But the slaughter, Peter Pringle and Philip Jacobson write in "Those Are Real Bullets," "marked a crucial turning point" in the strife, called in Ireland the Troubles, that had flared anew in 1968.

"Those Are Real Bullets" is a sad but instructive tale about the way in which centuries of inertia, as well as a modern failure of political imagination, was responsible for this tragedy.

"The fury among the Catholics," the authors write, "produced a queue of volunteers to swell the depleted ranks of the IRA [the Irish Republican Army]. A terrorist war was launched, bringing assassinations; bombs to Belfast, Birmingham, Westminster and Whitehall; arms shipments were smuggled from Libya and millions of dollars were raised [from the Irish community in America to buy arms]."

"More than 3,000 people," they say, "died in the conflict over the next quarter century."

Now, a generation later, Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor government has opened a new inquiry, under Lord Saville, to establish the "truth" of what happened that day. The Saville report will be finished in about a year. In the meantime, Pringle and Jacobson--who covered the 1972 incident as part of the London Sunday Times' "insight team" under then-editor Harold Evans--have relied on recently declassified documents and on some new interviews to produce their poignant look at Bloody Sunday.

"Those Are Real Bullets" is a powerful indictment of the dead hand of history that lies so heavily on Northern Ireland and of the brutal efforts of a conventional and unimaginative British government to control a Catholic population they had for so long oppressed and neglected. It was as if the British had learned nothing in their centuries of empire about the necessity of either absorbing an alien population or letting it go. Since the partition of Ireland in 1921 the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland felt itself to be alien in a Protestant land, and so it was, the Protestants trumpeting their dominance and, for many years with the British government's complicity, rubbing the Catholics' noses in a perception of their inferiority.

Pringle and Jacobson make it clear that the British army moved with an increasing willingness to use force that made the events of Jan. 30, 1972, inevitable. Their commanders received equivocal advice from London the way they wanted to, allowing them to move ahead with "control" of Bogside even if it meant shooting unarmed demonstrators. The authors make quite plain the grim and utterly inappropriate determination of the British commanders. And the grievances of the Catholics, and their suffering and terror that afternoon, are presented well.

Barely touched, though, are the emotions of the occupying British soldiers who suffered not only taunts but also bricks and other missiles and handmade bombs. Their situation seems like that of Israeli soldiers in the current intifadas. The Israeli high command is worried about their soldiers' discipline under such provocation in a way that the British commanders in 1970s Northern Ireland seem not to have been.

Following its tendency to conceal important controversial information from its public, the British government used judges who forbade the naming of soldiers firing the shots that killed the civilians; They are known only as Soldier F, Soldier H and so on.

"In the annals of atrocities committed by the state against its own people," Pringle and Jacobson angrily declare, "Bloody Sunday takes its place alongside India's Amritsar, South Africa's Sharpeville, Mexico's Tlatelolco and America's Kent State."

The authors make a good argument. It is unfortunate that they make it so sloppily. Their narrative is jumbled; people and places are introduced without being explained until later, if at all. The book reads as if it had been written in a rush to publication right after the event, rather than 29 years later. The subject deserves more attention than "Those Are Real Bullets" is likely to receive, at least from audiences in America, where the scene and its actors are less familiar.

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