Clergymen reflect on the work that remains to be done 50 years after the Bloody Sunday massacre

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The image was one of the starkest and most heartbreaking ever captured during the riots.

A priest, body crouched, arms outstretched as he shielded a dying child from gunfire, waved his bloodstained handkerchief as four frightened men carried him to safety.

Young boxer John ‘Jackie’ Duddy was just 17 years old when he joined a civil rights march “for fun” that day. He became the first of 13 men and boys shot dead by British soldiers on Bloody Sunday, 50 years ago this weekend.

The army claimed that the IRA fired first and that the soldiers acted in self-defence, but in 2010 this was dismissed by the Saville Inquiry, which said the deaths were the result of “unjustifiable shooting”. No one has ever been convicted in connection with the killings.

Rev David Latimer (left) and Father Joe Gormley at the Bogside, Derry
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Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye)

The devastation on that day in 1972 came at the start of the bloodiest year of the riots, with 479 people killed, including 130 British soldiers. A staggering 4,876 were injured.

And while five long decades have passed since paratroop shots rang out over Derry’s Bogside on that cold January day, memories are long in this community and among the clergy who followed in the footsteps of the priest in the picture, Father Edward Daly.

Walking together this week, near where a mural now recalls that devastating image of so many years ago, two clergymen, one Catholic and one Protestant, came together to reflect on the work that still remains to be done.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement heralded a new era for Northern Ireland, but many fear that peace will be fragile again after Brexit and ongoing disputes over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“Just this week, as Bloody Sunday families prepared to mark the anniversary, Parachute Regiment flags were raised on the outskirts of town,” says the Rev. David Latimer, who became a minister at First Derry Presbyterian Church. in 1988. “It is moments like these, when actions are deliberately taken to hurt and antagonize, that we realize how far we still have to go.”

The iconic white handkerchief waved by Bishop Edward Daly as Jackie Duddy’s body was being transported from the Rossville Flats area
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For years, Reverend Latimer’s Protestant church, which is a stone’s throw from the famous Free Derry Corner in the city’s nationalist Bogside area, was defaced with sectarian graffiti and persistently attacked with paint bombs. Then, in 2006, he found an unexpected ally in Martin McGuinness, a former IRA chief and senior member of Sinn Fein. Over time, the attacks subsided, and despite backlash from his own community, it was a friendship Reverend Latimer cherished until McGuinness’s death in 2017.

“I firmly believe that it was the right thing to do, and that Martin and I were meant to meet,” says Rev Latimer, who has also built strong connections with the Bloody Sunday families.

“I have come to learn over the years that we have to leave our own silos if things are ever going to change. Martin and I became as close as brothers, which was amazing when you think about our backgrounds. During the course of our friendship I wore the uniform of the British Army. As a chaplain, I served in Afghanistan during the second half of 2008, a terrible tour of duty with so much death and destruction. Martin said he would pray for my safe return, and I was with him in the hospital shortly before he died. He took me by the hand and said, ‘There’s still work to do, David.’ And he was right.

With him this week in Derry was Father Joe Gormley, 53, pastor of St Mary’s in the city’s Creggan estate, the Catholic church where the victims of Bloody Sunday were buried in 1972.

Holy Thursday 2019 anointed journalist Lyra McKee, who was shot dead a few hundred meters from her church.

“It was another terrible waste,” he says. “Lyra’s death gave me a window into the many horrible events that clergy of all denominations have faced in the past here. It also gave me an idea of ​​what a horrible future could be if our peace does not hold.”

Journalist Lyra McKee was shot to death in April 2019
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Reverend Latimer has also seen firsthand the devastation wrought in his own community, almost entirely at the hands of Republican paramilitaries.

“Among my own church members I have sat with families who paid the ultimate price when the IRA murdered their loved ones for wearing RUC or UDR uniforms,” he says. “I have seen this pain, I have seen how these families were torn apart. And I have to say that they feel exactly the same pain that my Catholic neighbors have felt. There is no difference. That is the great common denominator, that regardless of labels, all human beings are made in the image of God. We are made for community, and our communities should support each other.”

Now, right in the heart of their communities, both Father Gormley and Reverend Latimer, 70, describe themselves as “outsiders” in the city.

Father Gormley grew up in Omagh, Co Tyrone, another part of Northern Ireland devastated by violence during the Troubles. An IRA bomb killed 31 innocent people there, including unborn twins, in 1998.

Rev Latimer hails from the market town of Dromore in Co Down, 90 miles from Derry. However, for years before moving to the city, like everyone else in the country, they were both familiar with the story of Bloody Sunday, although what they had heard was very different.

“What I understood was that the people who were killed that day were innocent, but their names had been sullied and they had somehow been blamed for what had happened,” says Fr Gormley. “As a young Catholic, there was a great sense of injustice in that.”

From Rev Latimer’s perspective, it was a completely different story.

The victims of Bloody Sunday are depicted on a mural in Londonderry
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“I lived in a different world back then and our country was still very divided,” he says. “Each side tended to ignore the suffering caused to the other and we were very good at walking past. That would have been my position as Unioninst all those years ago. As a Protestant and unionist, I did not think that the government would be wrong or mislead us. The narrative as I understood it at the time was that none of those shot were innocent. He was amazing”.

Then, in 2010, decades after the original Widgery Tribunal into the murders was labeled a “cover-up” by the families of the victims, the truth finally came out with the publication of the Saville Inquiry.

Established in 1998, it was the longest-running investigation in British legal history, costing around £200 million.

The report found that none of those shot had posed a threat. They hadn’t done anything that would have warranted being shot. It found that the demonstrators, who began their march at 3pm in defense of civil rights and protesting internment, had received no warning before the soldiers opened fire.

While the investigation said there was “some shooting” by Republican paramilitaries, overall, it found the army fired first.

David Cameron said he was “deeply sorry” for the murders
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Prime Minister David Cameron later apologized, saying he was “deeply saddened” by the killings.

“I had worked right on the edge of the Bogside for years by then,” says Rev Latimer, who retired in 2019. “My perspective progressively changed over the years, but it was David Cameron’s speech and official confirmation that nothing could have justified the murders that came as the lightbulb moment for me.

“It was a dream come true for the families, who had fought for so long for the truth and when it came it was like the sun rising in Derry. There was a cloud over the city but with those words, the families were able to breathe again. Everyone else finally knew what they had known all along, that their loved ones were innocent.”

One man who supported families through all those years was Bishop Daly. Speaking after Saville’s report was published, he recalled how Jackie Duddy “got shot right next to me and I knew he was no threat to anyone.”

“I just heard his gasp as he hit the ground,” the cleric said. “I was in disbelief. I was a witness, I was with Jackie in the last moments of her life and I always felt it was up to me to bear witness to that fact and to bear witness to her innocence.”

Both Father Gormley and the father of three, the Rev Latimer, knew Edward Daly, who was 82 and Bishop of Derry when he died in 2016.

“Bishop Daly was at my ordination and attended my mother’s wake,” Father Gormley says. “It was the last trip he took in his car before he died, and he was a great man. He had great empathy for the Bloody Sunday families, and rightfully so, they always held him in high regard.”

“He was a good and brave man,” adds the Rev Latimer, who will speak at Sunday’s Bloody Sunday Memorial Service in Derry. “As chaplain at the city hospice he visited members of my Presbyterian congregation, and I had the joy of meeting him and thanking him for it. It is wonderful that we have a mural for him and for that moment in the city and it is crucial that the people in power, as the UK and the EU continue to grapple with the Northern Ireland Protocol, remember where we came from and the progress that we have done. Yes, we have made many steps forward, but there is still work to be done.”

The victims of Bloody Sunday were: John ‘Jackie’ Duddy, 17, Patrick Doherty, 31, Michael McDaid, 20, William McKinney, 27, Michael Kelly, 17, Bernard ‘Barney’ McGuigan, 41, Gerald Donaghey, 17, Gerard McKinney, 35, James Wray, 22 , Hugh Gilmour, 17, William Nash, 18, John Young, 17, Kevin McElhinney, 17.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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