The Rossville Street (Derry) Bloody Sunday murals
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by Irvine Forgan
‘…illusion only is sacred, truth profane’ – Feuerbach: The Essence of Christianity.
A mural on the gable end of a housing estate in Rossville Street in the Bogside neighbourhood of Derry depicts events that occurred on Bloody Sunday when the British army opened fire on civil rights protestors and killed fourteen people.  The protest occurred in January 1972 when the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association organized a march in Derry against internment. This setting is explained in the mural with an image that shows a sizeable crowd of protestors and a megaphone placed below a banner containing the writing – Civil Rights Association. The mural which has its own cultural specificities provides a contrast between coerced somatic control and democratic politics. This contrast emerges from its dramatic imagery which is largely based on a photograph taken during the march. A group of men, led by a local catholic priest (later to become Bishop Daly) who is waving a white handkerchief, is seen carrying the body of Jack (Jackie) Duddy from the scene of the shooting. The photograph shows blood on Jack Duddy and on the handkerchief. Notably, the mural does not – an indication that emphasis is placed on grievance and democratic rights and not on the body. The intrusion of violence on this exercise of democratic rights is underscored by a banner that during the attack became bloodstained when used to cover the body of one of those killed and which is represented in the mural not as one might expect on the body of a protestor, but with a masked and armed British soldier standing on the blood spattered writing: Civil Rights.
The street is a site of spiritual and cultural significance famous as the focus of resistance to British presence in the six counties. The artists describe the murals as follows: “This is real art done by the people and for the people. That’s what makes it authentic. That’s what gives it meaning in a world where meaning has all but been destroyed by ambition and the greed for money. It honours our past. Our work commemorates the real price paid by a naive and innocent people for simple democratic rights.” This characterisation which assigns to the mural an authority pitted against the marginalization caused by the victorious ideology of economic growth does not alone however enable the mural to resonate with the Peircean notion of the iconic mode as a sign which bears the closest possible resemblance to what it stands for (as the artists put it – ‘This is real art done by the people and for the people. That’s what makes it authentic . . . it commemorates the real price paid by a naive and innocent people . . .’). Since Foucaultian theory which sees power manifesting through discourse as intrinsic to the ideological structuration of a society—whereby meaning is produced and mediated through the dynamics of this force, and notions of Debord whose spectacle ‘…depicts what society could deliver, but in so doing it rigidly separates what is possible from what is permitted’ (Debord, 2009: p. 25), the uniformity of the iconic mode is susceptible to questions of practice and power.
This means that the meaning of a text, the meaning arising out of discourse, the meaning that emerges from any medium, is always mediated and constructed—it is never transparent but is driven by an underlying ideology. However, the implication for the Bloody Sunday mural is that its highly evocative signifier does not draw our attention to its mediation; embedded in convention it seems to present reality more directly than symbolic signs. Daniel Chandler has noted that a highly motivated sign—such as an iconic sign, is a sign informed largely through social convention (Chandler, 2007: p.38), a notion that recurs in the writings of Umberto Eco who argues that at a certain point an iconic representation appears to hold greater ‘truth’ than the real experience. In this way experience is transferred to convention —thereby people begin to “look at things through the glasses of iconic convention” (Eco, 1976: pp. 204/5). In this illusory state, the sign is preferred to the thing signified thus permitting imagery to mediate the growth of convention. This enquiry is thus concerned to explore the signifying and ideological values articulated in the Bloody Sunday mural.
The convention that foregrounds the Bloody Sunday mural is articulated by Tom Kelly one of the Bogside artists as ‘…the real price paid by a naive and innocent people for simple democratic rights’ (ibid). But the march was scarcely a question of democratic grievance. Bill Rolston observes that by the time of the march a mood prevailed of insurrection against the British. “When British troops were deployed on the streets of Belfast in August 1969, it was ostensibly to protect nationalists under attack from mobs of loyalists and members of the local part-time paramilitary police force, the B Specials. At the same time, it was clear from at least the beginning of 1970 that an insurgency was brewing, leading to the conclusion that the British army was to be involved in a counter-insurgency mode in Northern Ireland” (Rolston, 2005: pp. 181-203). The mural should be compared to the polemic of early agitprop iconography such as the Resist British Rule and Brits Out posters and murals against the British army’s presence.
Unlike the exhortations of these early murals, however, the Bloody Sunday mural speaks of the victim – those injured and dead rushed to cover under the armistice of the white cloth. These protagonists are passive anti-heroes. Hence the imagery does not document the event; rather a moment from the event is captured and reformulated as a new contingency: one which advances a propogandistic message whereby insurrection is encouraged into an alternative modality of meaning as helplessness. This signifier is one of relational and community membership that is considered to live on in a narrative sense after biological death. Unlike the kaleidoscopic opportunities for interpretation offered by allegory, this narrative pivots on the metonym – who is the masked British gunman?
However, the space of agitation this narrative offers, in line with the social circulation of all public imagery, involves a variety of semiotic shifts and constraints against its circulation when brought under the mediating influence of political exigencies. Helplessness and therapy as displayed in this mural are inevitably submission to hegemony which, once won, embeds itself in the iconic imagery. A mural (the Loughgall mural, no longer extant) painted in 1987 in Springhill Avenue, Belfast serves to illustrate this point. The mural was a memorial to eight members of the IRA ambushed and killed by the Special Air Services unit (SAS) of the British army. It showed the Celtic Cross Shields of the four provinces of Ireland and names of the dead and figurative representations of the members wearing IRA berets and camouflage dress. The following two reports, separated by 17 years, capture the changed thinking within the republican and nationalist community. In May 1987, An Phoblacht/Republican News argued: ‘Republicans do not complain about the way in which the British Forces carried out their operation. Centuries of British terror have taught us to expect it. The illegitimacy of the forces which carried out the Loughgall killings is not simply in their actions but in their very presence in our country. It has always been and always will be illegitimate and unacceptable.’ Seventeen years on, in August 2004, the Irish News reported that relatives of one of the IRA members killed at Loughgall had a ‘very useful meeting with the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s (PSNI) chief constable. One member of the family commented afterwards, “We are just a family trying to get the truth about what happened to my brother”. The police spokesperson described the encounter in similar terms: “It was a useful meeting with an open two-way discussion. The Kellys (the family in question) raised a number of issues with the chief constable. He in turn offered his assessment of the decision to deploy the army against what he feared was a dangerous gang.”’ The defiance that characterized the republican struggle has been replaced with what Kevin Bean refers to as a therapeutic tone and a joint search for the truth as part of a process of reconciliation (Bean, 2007). The dead volunteer in question was Padraic Kelly. The Republican activist Kevin Rooney recalls: ‘I remember vividly his father’s tribute the day after the Loughgall ambush, when he described his son and seven comrades as ‘brave Irish soldiers fighting a war against an oppressor’. At the time, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the six county’s then police force) and the British Army regularly attacked IRA funerals to prevent any military displays. When asked by a TV reporter about the prospects of a clash between security forces and mourners at his son’s funeral, Kelly replied: ‘My son will be buried with full military honours as befitting an Irish soldier. If they try and prevent Padraic’s coffin leaving the house with his IRA beret and gloves then we will bury him in the back garden!’ However such an open spirit of defiance is a far cry from the current dialogue centred on demands for Victims’ Commissions and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. The revisionism that the lexicon of victims, suffering and trauma that dominates discourse, ‘securing the peace’, ‘bedding down and keeping the peace on track’ suggests that it was the peace process itself, and not bringing an end to British rule, that had always been republicanism’s goal.
Until June 2010 the Bloody Sunday mural mediated the provisionality of the annual march in Derry. Each year the catholic population of Derry crowd together in thousands under huge banners bearing the portraits of those killed. The discursivity of this gathering is driven by a specific contingency, namely to determine who was ultimately responsible for the killing of the civil rights protesters by British paratroopers in Derry on 30 January 1972 – a contingency which the mural exudes. When the British Paratroopers shot dead 14 people on Bloody Sunday British government claims of neutrality and moral authority in dealing with the escalating violence in Northern Ireland were exposed. Existing historical accounts of Bloody Sunday treat the killings as the outcome of a more-or-less unified military anxiety at increasing disorder in Derry, combined with unexpected events on the day, presenting the killings as the outcome of essentially responsive actions by the British military. In so doing they lend support to the theory that represents the killings as the outcome of a series of errors of interpretation and communication.[i] Following upon an accord arising from the Peace Agreement in 1998 the British government set up the Bloody Sunday Inquiry led by Lord Saville this supplanting the earlier Widgery Report of April 1972, the original enquiry into the killings that exonerated the British forces which had concluded that the protestors were armed.
To make generalized claims about the fairness of inquiries though is problematic as the construct of the Bloody Sunday inquiry frames the Troubles as a period of sectarian violence and not as a state of war, which rules out a finding of war crime. One phenomenon which goes to the heart of state terror is the state’s sponsorship or condoning of death squads. This issue is one which is particularly relevant to Northern Ireland. Rolston has convincingly argued that: ‘In the course of a thirty year war against republican insurgency, the state derived a complex range of police, army and intelligence units to gather intelligence, run agents and engage in direct action which included on occasion assassination of insurgents. At the same time, loyalist paramilitary groups were also engaged in action against both the republican insurgents and the wider nationalist civilian population. Finally, there was the interface between the state forces and the pro-state paramilitaries which gave rise to collusion, whereby the state forces directed, supported and covered up for the activities of the loyalist groups ’(Rolston, 2005. p. 185). The tripartite phenomenon of state death squad activity, loyalist death squads, and collusion between state agents and loyalist paramilitaries formed an overarching texture in republican murals.[ii] An example which links its imagery to these sorts of material facts is the mural in Springhill Avenue, Belfast showing automatic weapons with the writing: Sold in South Africa / Bought by M15 / Supplied to UFF/UDA Death squads.[iii] The symbolisms deployed in these murals are not decorative. Rather they are agitational in the sense that they explain a simple idea to lots of people. Thus the mural in Oakman Street with the writing End British Collusion, which shows members of the loyalist paramilitary groups standing with members of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the RUC above Republican burial crosses, a 9mm pistol held by Britain and the UDA. Screeds of official documents scattered through the image find support in records produced by Rolston showing that collusion was well documented (ibid).
The demand for a public acknowledgment of collusion and its effects invokes the rule of law, but, as Rolston argues the rule of law went hand in hand with a dirty war of ‘dubious legality’: ‘Ultimately the dirty war was authorised at the highest levels of the state itself in terms of the chains of command which led back to chief constables, army generals, the secret services and political rulers’ (Rolston, 2005: p. 195). The appearance of constitutional legality in fact acted as an effective mask for terror. Through both dirty war activities and collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, the British state in Northern Ireland, albeit democratic, was intimately involved in terror. This cannot be dismissed as some inexplicable aberration from the rule of law. Rather dirty war and support for death squads in Northern Ireland ‘…represented an endemic response to political challenge by an authoritarian British state with a history of colonial oppression” (Rolston, 2005: p.198).
The Troubles reconfigured an existential specificity that originated both in the violence and in the broader text of the discursivity of the Troubles. The imagery is thus an effect in context: A mural in Beechmount Avenue shows a lampoon of John Major’s address for lasting peace with Republican demands spelled out: British Troops out / End Unionist Veto / Stop Collusion / Disband RUC and RIR / POWs released / All Roads Opened / A Just and Lasting Peace. These demands are specific to the contingencies of battle. Another in Rossville Street Derry shows the figures of the British Soldier, the Policeman, the Judge and the Capitalist characterized as Occupation, Discrimination, Injustice and Exploitation respectively. The implication is that these elements are specific to the discursivity of the Troubles whose removal will resolve the conflict favourably for republicanism. But these demands were not the conflict’s raison d’état; rather they articulate the counter culture argued by Kevin Bean. In his perceptive work The New Politics of Sinn Féin Bean argues persuasively that the Provo’s of which Sinn Féin is the political wing, transformed into a constitutional party which became an integral part of the state and institutions it was once pledged to destroy. The transcontextualized insurgency thus pivots on an ironic parody of itself, which demands an equitable exchange with its one time foe for whose system of justice it has no respect.
The inquiry is furthermore located in the postmodern structural discourse of cultural identity and difference which constructs pockets of cultural diversity (called ethnicity), thus halting the general state of provisionality and disturbance of the status quo that arises with the Bloody Sunday march by confining its contingency to the reconstruction of the catholic/Derry culture. The power invested in the imagery, which was founded on a performativity of insurgency has transferred from the political project against colonial occupation to a cultural demand – – who authorized pulling the trigger? Thus the mural’s engagement with the dangerous potential of the violence of Bloody Sunday (likewise with the other murals on the Bogside in Rossville Street which depict the violence of other events in Derry – the Battle of the Bogside, Operation Motorman, The Death of Innocence – the mural showing Annette McGavigan, the 14 year old schoolgirl in her school uniform who was shot dead on the 6th September 1971 on the Streets of Derry by a British soldier, the Petrol Bomber, the Rioter resisting the British army Saracen vehicle), have been infused with the inevitability of victimhood rather than impaling the occupation on a counter narrative. The pivotal contest therefore can be seen to have shifted from replacing the system of British justice to that of a demand for the fairness of its application.
The Bloody Sunday mural is thus tensed to the power politics that ultimately has undermined its agitational possibilities with the publication of the findings of the Saville Inquiry. The inquiry found that there was no conspiracy by either the British or Northern Ireland governments, or the military, to cause a confrontation with the nationalist community on the day of the shootings. Instead, it blamed the 10 minutes of chaos on 20 individual paratroopers who lost their self-control and shot civilians in the back as they tried to flee. It said they acted after a serious and widespread loss of fire discipline and that many had since knowingly put forward false accounts in order to justify their firing. The newly elected Prime Minister of Britain David Cameron provided a bureaucratic apology – by the government for the actions of its military for whom it is ultimately responsible. The applause that greeted David Cameron’s apology broadcast on a giant TV screen to the crowd assembled outside the Derry Guildhall where the Inquiry report was presented to the victims’ families, confirmed the success of this initiative in addressing the demand for faith in British justice; ironically in the rule of law.
The report and its generally positive reception in Ireland and Britain suggest an event abstracted from history. The fatal shooting appears to lack antecedents – or consequences – other than the personal sufferings of the affected families. The killings seem to have no meaning beyond that of an encounter between innocent victim and evil paratroopers. The soldier’s behaviour is depicted as irrational and inexplicable. Hence admission of collusion is blocked and blame of the armed forces is avoided. But Bloody Sunday was a historic event as well as an occasion of private grief. The day had begun with a march organized by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association of Derry, part of an upsurge in nationalist resistance to the British military occupation of Northern Ireland and the oppressive regime it sustained. This demand for civil rights – equal treatment in housing, employment and voting amongst other issues – had begun in earnest in 1968. But by October of that year a peaceful demonstration in Derry had been attacked by police with truncheons and water cannons. The conflict gathered momentum with the arrival of British troops in August 1969 and had intensified following a mass internment of republican suspects without trial in August of 1971. Though the Derry march was formally illegal, it drew support from 10,000 people. Conservatively portrayed as democratic politics, the march was the start of an uprising opposed to the British state.[iv] Thus the SAS (Special Air Services), the chief counter-insurgency unit of the British army, was in operation in Belfast from 1970, although their presence was not officially acknowledged until January 1976. The British government’s decision to deploy the Parachute regiment reflected the determination of the military authorities to clamp down forcibly on militant nationalists. The resulting killings on Bloody Sunday succeeded only in provoking an influx of recruits to the Provisional IRA and hardening resistance to the British state in Northern Ireland.
By way of contrast a mural that addresses the issue of state violence against innocents emerged in the South African context after the fall of apartheid. The mural, an enlarged black and white photograph shows two children one of whom is carrying a third but dead child away from the killing which occurred during the 1976 uprising. Its somatic performativity is moralized with the message ‘Honour the Youth’. Aside from the figures, the dramatic stage of the insurgency is absent. The message is transitional in the sense that it points away from the past to a raised level of consciousness. But the Bloody Sunday mural is transfixed on past events; its historicism does not allow it to stand on its own and engage with the past. Its conformism rests thus on political tactics.
The Bloody Sunday mural and the Honour the Youth mural provide striking iconographic and stylistic contrasts. Bloody Sunday is a figurative representation of people known to the community – its complex components intended to capture the imagination and alter society by redressing the unfinished business of Bloody Sunday. Its representational aesthetics act as a mediator between reality and memory. But this mediation is eliminated in the Honour the Youth mural in which the act of violence coincides with its documentation. Its subversive aesthetics depict real people in the act of the violence struck on them. This depiction of actual bodies is intended to be accepted as ‘real’ as being ’true’ thus iconophilic revealing the vulnerable, desiring bodies of all youth. We know that the loss of life is documented by this image. This reinforces belief in the image and attempts to move the image beyond any criticism of representation. But we must differentiate between its empirical truth and its empirical use as an image – which carries a symbolic value in the process of post apartheid reconciliation. This value gains strength from the mural’s iconography reminiscent of Renaissance representations of the slain Christ in the arms of Mary. South African Albie Sachs, political activist and victim of a state terrorist murder attempt who as a judge of the South African Constitutional Court put it this way: ‘I can’t separate my humanity and understanding from your humanity and understanding. I am a person because you are a person – we are individuals whose richness is from acknowledging others as people.’ This resonates with the eugenic marginalization embedded in apartheid and underscores the ideology and theological undertones driving the Honour the Youth mural. It is the mediated attempt to re-establish ‘humanity’ in the face of violence which provides a bridge to the Bloody Sunday mural irrespective of the iconographic and stylistic differences between the two murals.
But the political strategies which frame Bloody Sunday have not yet fully resolved. Unlike the South African experience there remains some doubt whether the Troubles have ended. The focus on Bloody Sunday does not result from increased demands from the victim’s families, human rights groups and the Irish government for a new inquiry, or as an automatic response to the end of the conflict of the Troubles. Rather it is fair to say that the apology which resonates with notions of admission and narrative, will bolster the Irish peace process and further an attempt to reach the all-elusive ‘reconciliation’ in Northern Ireland. In his essay, “On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness,” Derrida discusses the paradox of granting forgiveness: true forgiveness consists of forgiving the unforgivable. Both forgiveness and reconciliation are concepts that have secular and religious interpretations. Although there is a trend towards an attempted liberalization and secularization of reconciliation discourse, the theological undertones of reconciliation continue to play an important role in the way in which reconciliation takes place. As Derrida illustrates, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s role as Chair of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission undoubtedly influenced the public’s perception of reconciliation in relation to forgiveness. The tensions between religious and secular conceptions of reconciliation also foreground the roles of individuals in comparison to those of the collective. Secular ideas of reconciliation tend to emphasize tolerance on the individual level and see amnesty on the collective level as a valid way to proceed. Religious conceptions of reconciliation, however, emphasize the idea of forgiveness and national healing. Derrida argues that the concept of forgiveness is misplaced when used in relation to a national trauma. For example, he writes that “forgiveness must engage two singularities: the guilty (the ‘perpetrator’ as they say in South Africa) and the victim” (Derrida, 2001: p. 42). If a third party steps in to mediate this process (such as a national truth commission or juridical entity such as the Saville Inquiry), pure forgiveness is no longer possible. Forgiveness then stays in the domain of the individual, not the state. And once the process of reconciliation has begun, pure forgiveness is no longer possible. Because once one embarks on a process of understanding the ‘Other’, the guilty, the perpetrator, the irreducibility and incomprehensibility of the ‘Other’ is shattered. Pure forgiveness as Derrida states “must plunge, but lucidly, into the night of the unintelligible” (Derrida, 2001: p. 49.). And because reconciliation works to make sense of this unintelligibility, it drives one away from forgiveness.
These problematics characterize the discursivity of the Bloody Sunday mural. Forgiveness (the apology trades amnesty for the cause of conflict) and postmodern identity politics have absorbed the mural’s interaction with the state’s acts of terrorism in the framework of the fairness of British justice and constructed it with a new convention – the power that bespeaks reconciliation. This is not the undeconstuctable justice envisaged by Derrida — the ideal after which the rules aspire — but the investment of a different type of power in the murals of the Bogside Peoples Gallery. The variables of terror and death, the physical impact of violence on the body of the community, remain unexamined. Also unexamined is the cause of the insurgency, a counter-narrative opposed to imperial occupation. Because the sheer physical force of violence has been occluded with the inquiry finding its unresolved presence maintains and perpetuates a secret oppression of the community. The metaphorizing in the mural attributed to the events thus leads to them being seen as simply another form of textuality – thereby transferring contestation with British presence ( the masked gunman) to its endorsement (the fairness of British justice).
Bean, Kevin. The New Politics of Sinn Féin. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. 2007.
Chandler, D. Semiotics the Basics. London: Routledge. 2007.
Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Sussex: Sussex Bay Press. 2009.
Derrida, Jacques. On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. London: Routledge. 2001.
Eco, Umberto. A Theory of Semiotics. London: Macmillan. 1976.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London: Tavistock Publications. 1970.
Rolston, B., and Scraton, P. “In the Full Glare of English Politics”: Ireland, Inquiries and the British State. British Journal of Criminology, 45, (4): 547-564. (2005).
Posted on July 12, 2013, in 21st century republicanism and socialism, British state repression (general), Censorship, Civil rights movement, Commemorations, Culture, Democratic rights - general, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Irish politics today, Partition, Prisoners - past, Provos - then and now, Repression and resistance in 1970s and 1980s, Repression and resistance in the six counties today, Revolutionary figures. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.