Reflections on Bloody Sunday and Occupation

The 40th anniversary Bloody Sunday march makes its way along Brandywell Road. (3101PG87)
The 40th anniversary Bloody Sunday march makes its way along Brandywell Road. (3101PG87)

Just as the Civil Rights campaign in the late 60s drew strength from what was happening in the US, those interested in a non-violent struggle for justice here now should look to the Occupy Movement, argues JIM KEYS, a former member of the Bloody Sunday Weekend committee.

Wakey wakey!

The noble enterprise that began as a campaign for civil rights within Northern Ireland but got derailed by history, deprivation, and state repression into an armed struggle to break the link with Britain, failed. We’re still governed by London. And more importantly, still enmeshed in a web of economic interests emanating, not just from there but from other nodes of economic power across the globe.

It is this system that continues to contribute to Derry’s impoverishment, shaping and extracting profit from our way of life as its factories and consumer outlets arrive and go, and its economic development plans continue to sell us its illusions of peace and freedom.

So, not only was there no victory but the political direction we are now being herded in, on parallel Unionist and Nationalist tracks, will neither succeed in making the vast majority of our lives anymore prosperous nor help us make sense of the vicious conflict that engaged us in killing each other for mutually exclusive ideals of freedom.

This last point is vital as so much of our creative energy is corralled in reductive ideas of Irishness and Britishness which on the surface may seem to explain things but in reality distract us from a much more complex collective predicament we share with citizens across the globe.

Given that, it can seem that there is nothing to be done.

And indeed there mightn’t be, were it not for the history of the human impulse to be free. An impulse that is deeper than nationhood and stretches far beyond these islands. It predates the rise of colonialism and the British Empire itself, along with its consequences for us, which understandably still colonise our ideas of freedom.

I remember I used to say, “I’m occupied by occupation”, and I was. But it was always to understand it within the broader context of how malign power operates on us and through us. So, post the Good Friday Agreement, with the return of troops to their barracks, there’s been a kind of schizophrenia in Irish Republican circles as to whether we still live in the ‘North of Ireland’ under British occupation or now live in ‘Northern Ireland’ and are part of the UK.

The thing about Bloody Sunday is that while in its contemporary political context it was a human rights issue of consequence for every citizen of the United Kingdom, the Irish Republic and beyond, it was also a kind of colonial invasion aftershock. So its energy dissipated into the fissures of colonial legacy here and across these islands, reinforcing old allegiances and enmities. And as the militarists on both sides took control of the streets, the mass of the people, having developed only a fledgling commitment to the principles of non-violence and inclusive justice, hadn’t sufficient capacity to hold the peace-ground and were forced behind closed doors.

What is significant for me about this year’s 40th anniversary ‘March For Justice’ is that three grandmothers took an initiative that broke the macho male hegemonic grip on Irish politics here and brought the principles of inclusive democracy and non-violent struggle back onto our streets. That’s vitally important, because we have to wake up to the fact that violence doesn’t work against the system we’re up against.

In ‘68 we drew strength and inspiration from the black civil rights campaign in north America. Today I suggest we draw it from the Occupy Movement, whose methodology is democratic non-violence and whose slogan is, ‘We are the 99%’. It’s a manifestation of us waking up to the fact that ‘representative democracy’ has been corrupted into ‘management of the people for the corporations by the corporations’. There are thousands of occupations across the United States and elsewhere, including London, Dublin and recently Belfast, as economic policies that protected the 1% see decent people loose their homes and jobs.

Devastating cuts are coming our way too, along with, in all likelihood, more earthquakes and landslides. For it’s not just the people who are protesting but the very planet itself. So let’s agree to democratically disagree about whether or not we’re occupied or whether or not Derry is an Irish or a UK city. Let’s just decide where we’re going to be Occupying when the cuts really start to bite. And get better practised in the ways of human rights, inclusive democracy and non-violence so that this time, when the repression comes as it surely will, we can hold the peace ground.

That’s the kind of culture I’d like to see this city modelling in 2013!