They were colorful words but fitting. Today, the former head of the British Army said that he hoped that this week’s comprehensive report on the Bloody Sunday shooting – and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s apology –would "lance the boil" of conflict in Northern Ireland.
For the 38 years since British paratroopers shot and killed fourteen civil rights marchers in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, what became known as “Bloody Sunday” has been a festering wound in British and Irish history – the iconic image of the so-called Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ – more so, even, than the many equally bloody car bombs and other attacks on civilians carried out by the IRA.
Americans may forget but Britain had a full-fledged terror campaign underway for decades well into the 90s. And while the IRA doesn't get the same Hollywood casting as Islamic terrorists – picture Brad Pitt in ‘The Devil’s Own’ – they were just as brutal and far more successful than Islamic terrorists have been here. IRA attacks killed an estimated 1700 people – men, women and children in often horrific circumstances – compared with 52 by Islamic terrorists in the 7/7 London subway bombings (though of course many more plots were foiled). A car bombing in Omagh, Northern Ireland in 1998 by an IRA splinter group killed 29 people – twice the death toll of Bloody Sunday.
However, Bloody Sunday is widely seen as the incident that sustained the war, backing up IRA philosophy that the British were cold-blooded occupiers and providing a powerful recruiting tool. Like Islamic terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iraq, many IRA recruits joined up for war after experiencing violence or losing loved ones to it. It wasn't until 1997 that the IRA began a formal ceasefire.
What it took was good leadership on both sides – and the conclusion by both sides that the conflict couldn't be resolved by arms alone. Both the IRA and the British needed brave leaders who could overrule the more vengeful of their supporters. This week's report and apology on the most memorable of the many attacks through the years is one powerful sign of that courage. A similar dynamic ended apartheid in South Africa. People from the Mideast and beyond are watching and listening.