Sunday, January 30, 2022

Letters on Bloody Sunday - The International Response - From the Kevin Boyle Archive


As the news reached international media of the killings of thirteen (and soon to be fourteen) civil rights marchers in Derry on Bloody Sunday, 30th January 1972, by British parachute regiment forces, international response and condemnation would follow from many quarters. As an Executive Council member of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), many figures wrote to Kevin Boyle in the weeks and months that followed, and also in a direct personal capacity, offering sympathy to Boyle on the killings, and in condemning the atrocity that happened.

Murray Sayle, an Australian journalist and foreign correspond with the Sunday Times, wrote to Kevin in June 1972 thanking him for a piece he had written. Sayle adds that “I suppose one day we will learn what really happened on B[loody] Sunday. However, it certainly takes its place with Amritsar, Sharpville, etc. as a turning point”. Sayle, originally from Sydney, Australia, was foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times in the 1960s and early 1970s. Through his career he reported on wars and conflict in Pakistan, Vietnam, and the Middle East.

Letter from Murray Sayle to Kevin Boyle, 2 June 1972. 
Kevin Boyle Archive, NUI Galway Library

Sayle travelled to Derry on the night of the 30th January 1972 and reported directly from the scene in the aftermath of the Bloody Sunday killings, reporting that the soldiers were not fired upon first, as they had reported. The Sunday Times refused to print Sayle's report. The journalist quit the paper later in 1972 in protest to this editorial decision. The letter to Boyle, on Sunday Times headed paper, brings an international dimension to the Bloody Sunday to other colonial-era massacres, such as at Amritsar, India, where over one thousand peaceful protesters were killed by British army forces in 1919, and Sharpville, South Africa, where sixty-nine black marchers were killed by police officers while peacefully protesting the Pass Law system. (Boyle later reported on the Pass Law system in South Africa in the 1980s for Amnesty International, having researcher and lectured extensively on the human rights and legal failings of the Apartheid regime in South Africa.)

On February 12th, less than two weeks after Bloody Sunday, Friedel Malter, wrote to Edwina Stewart, Secretary of the NICRA, from Berlin, expressing condemnation of the killings in her capacity as Chair of the GDR Human Rights Committee:

“On behalf of the citizens of the German Democratic Republic, the Committee for Human Rights condemns the cruel terror of the British Army against the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland which found its most brutal expression so far in the assassination of 13 civil rights marchers in Derry”.

Telegram from Friedel Malter to Kevin Boyle
Kevin Boyle Archive, NUI Galway Library

Malter continues in her telegram to state that “we follow with great interest and deep sympathy the struggle of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland for attaining their political, social, and national rights”. Malter concludes the letter by lending demands for “the immediate release of all civil rights fighters detailed in concentration camps [in Northern Ireland]. Malter was an anti-fascist activist, communist, and trades unionist who had been detailed in German concentration camps during the Second World War.

The International Association of Democratic Lawyers also contacted Boyle with days of Bloody Sunday. Writing to Boyle at the Law Faculty, Queen’s University, Belfast, the organisation updated that after “the tragedy of Londonderry” they had issued a press statement demanding “immediate measures to prevent further escalation in repression and breaches of civil rights [in Northern Ireland]”. Later the next week, the American Congress on Irish Freedom, through its Chair, James Heaney, sent a letter on behalf of the ACIF to “all United Nations Delegations”, and urged the UN to intervene “to end the senseless slaughter” in the wake of Bloody Sunday.

Letter from Joe Nordmann, International Association of Democratic Lawers
Kevin Boyle Archive, NUI Galway

Letter from James C. Heaney, American Congress on Irish Freedom to Kevin Boyle
Kevin Boyle Archive, NUI Galway

The letters that feature here are a sample from wider files within the archive of Kevin Boyle at NUI Galway Library that show the international response by a variety of groups and individuals to Bloody Sunday. Within his role as PRO for the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, Boyle was at the forefront of formulating a response in the midst of the grief and outrage at the killings. Boyle own response to the Widgery Report (published in April 1972 to investigate the events of Bloody Sunday) would come later that year in the form of his paper: “Widgery: A Critique”. The paper takes a legal and human rights perspective on dismissing and dismantling Widgery’s findings. Boyle opens the paper by defining what ‘a whitewash’ is. He undermines Widgery by critiquing the findings on three avenues of investigation: “What was the British Army’s plan for dealing with the N.I.C.R.A. march on 30th January in Derry? [2] What were the consequences of implementing that plan? [3] Was the plan justified?”.

"Widgery: A Critique" by Kevin Boyle, 1972
Kevin Boyle Archive, NUI Galway

Extract from "Widgery: A Critique" by Kevin Boyle (NICRA)
Kevin Boyle Archive, NUI Galway

Boyle's paper was published by the NICRA and a copy is within one of the thousands of files within over 120 boxes of manuscripts and papers which form his archive at NUI Galway. The papers which relate to Northern Ireland and the Civil Rights Movement are a hugely detailed record of not just Boyle’s perspective but also those of his many colleagues and fellow activists from the NICRA, PD, and many regional civil rights branches across Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s. The catalogue of the papers can be searched online here.

For more on Boyle’s life and career, the biography “Are You With Me - Kevin Boyle and the Rise of the Human Rights Movement” is written by Mike Chinoy and published by Lilliput Press.

For previous posts in this series, see: 

Remembering Bloody Sunday: Kevin Boyle and the lead up to 'the Derry march', January 1972

Local Responses to Bloody Sunday - Material from the Boyle Archive

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