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Speech by President Michael D. Higgins on the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday

Sunday, 30 January 2022

A chairde, 

Fifty years ago today, in one of the shaping events of our modern shared history, thousands of men and women set out from the Creggan to march for civil rights. Fourteen people ultimately lost their lives, and many more were injured, as a result of what unfolded on the streets of Derry that day.

As we listen to their names being recited with deep sadness today, we remember them, and those tragic events, not simply as history on a page, but as part of the living memory of so many of the people of the people of this city, and indeed of this island.

Just as the families of those lost that day have done throughout their long years of campaigning, we remember too all of the families who lost loved ones to violence during the Troubles. 

Let me pay tribute to those who have made, and continue to make it possible, for us to stand in this ceremony of memory and solidarity with you today, the families and neighbours of those who lost their lives in Derry all those years ago, those who, in a relentless pursuit of truth, stood in solidarity with you during your long campaign to vindicate the memories of your loved ones.  Your campaign required overturning those forces who sought to avoid the necessary truth of what took place, and evade accountability. Forces that stood between you and your efforts to overturn, for example, the historic, grievous wrong of the Widgery Tribunal.

Let us recall and acknowledge that an important outcome of that campaign, against what was an enforced amnesia, was the Saville Report, and the significance, let us recognise it, that is attached to achieving the fundamental acknowledgement in it that what happened that day was “unjustified and unjustifiable”.

Through that hard-won outcome, that acknowledgement of the profound injustice that had been done, and in the reconciliation thus made of historical record with the full evidence and facts of what had happened that day, it was possible to conceive of a memory based on the vindication of truth, a vindication that might come to be, in time, a source of peace and value in the search of all others seeking peace through such a recovery of truth as constitutes ethical memory.  

We remember today that breakthrough of justice that is represented by the Saville Report and the importance of recognising and acknowledging the courage and endurance of those involved in the campaign that precipitated its publication. We remember it, not as something perfect or complete, and not as a resolution for the families or for the city or for one community, but rather as a step away from any form of collusive evasion, a step forward for everyone, everywhere seeking the truth of actions, a gain in common with every other effort at achieving a measure of an enabling justice for the future, one that can succeed, and in that it comes after historic injustice, invites to a future in peace.

The events of that day 50 years ago reverberated across this island and around the world. It is a profound tribute to the community they left behind, and all the people of Derry who have such a profound sense of belonging, a sense of community that generates resilience, one that includes those that have passed on as well as the living. You are seeking once again to send ripples out around the world, not now merely of justifiable shock and anger, but of an enabling hope, justice and reconciliation.

The people of this city have offered an example, indeed led the way, in finding agreement and accommodation between communities and traditions. May they go from strength to strength. Go néirí leo. How well qualified you are in your seeking to share your experiences with other communities engaged in peacebuilding.  

You have pioneered a meaningful form of dialogue, one underpinned by mutual respect. It is an approach that engages with and construes a troubled and divided history, not as any setting of the limits of what is possible, but rather by transacting its facts with an inclusive respect, constituting a means of bringing into being new possibilities and new opportunities. Féidireachtaí nua agus dóchas.

Yours is a city of diverse sources of pride, ideas and of energy with a vision for the future. Yours is a city thriving in its efforts at achieving a transformed society, one that was made possible by the Good Friday Agreement – built, as it is, on ideas that reflect the values for which those thousands of people marched that day 50 years ago: equality, justice and respect for civil rights for all. Above all, your city of today, and the future, is made possible by the best of what was and what remains in your hearts, and your willingness to share it.

In marking the events of Bloody Sunday, we are given a unique opportunity to recognise and respond to some of the most painful facts in our history, atrocities inflicted on communities, including state violence. Such a process of ethical remembering is the very antithesis of any other forms of remembering which would seek to facilitate or encourage any kind of conscious or unconscious amnesia as to persons or events. 

Your use of memory, of recognition of fact and transaction of difference, or construction of intention, is a potential path to an inclusive, healing and ethical remembrance. It is one that allows for the necessity that must never be avoided, of coming to terms with recalled outrage. Transacting that outrage is an empowerment that may even prove to be emancipatory of grief.  Amnesia, however it is based, and it is sometimes feigned or masked, is amoral, denying as it does those affected by painful historical events of any recognition of their losses, or the right to have memories of those losses.

The 30th of January 1972 will live on in our collective memory, as will your efforts of vindication of the truth. We honour the morality of that memory today. We honour the men who died.  And we continue to honour them into the future by our continued commitment to the rights that were won at such great cost. We do so best by protecting these rights won, and sustaining the principled and inclusive peace that we have built together.

Let us all celebrate that, in transcending all the darkness and the wrongs, the exclusions, today Derry stands as a beacon of hope and justice, of battling and succeeding against the odds, a peace and a people with an inclusive achievement of dignified and respectful ethical remembering. That is your legacy and the legacy of those who lost their lives on that day, Bloody Sunday, and on subsequent days. It is a contribution to be sustained and extended. 

Do íad a mharaíodh, síocháin síoraí dá n-anamacha.

May they rest in peace.

Beir Beannacht d’on todchaí.