Don Mullan was 15-years-old when he witnessed the British Army fire upon a group of peaceful protesters in Northern Ireland in 1972. Years later, he turned his experience into a book, Eyewitness Bloody Sunday: The Truth, which ultimately opened a new inquiry into the massacre and led to a formal apology from the British government.
Following the event, the Widgery Tribunal cleared the British government of wrong-doing, stating the soldiers fired in self-defense. 13 marchers were killed on the spot and one died later; six of the protesters were 17-years-old and most were shot in the back or the head. A later inquiry proved that Mullan and the other Civil Rights protesters were unarmed.
While working for humanitarian group Concern Universal, Mullan started his own investigation and in 1997 wrote his book– a powerful indictment of what happened that day. By 1998 Prime Minister Tony Blair promised to open in inquiry and in 2010 Prime Minister David Cameron issued a public apology.
Mullan’s fight for truth and reconciliation ultimately helped bring peace to Northern Ireland. “Don has been tireless in his efforts to uncover the truth about these distortions of history, and to much personal sacrifice,” said Christine Kinealy, renowned Irish historian, faculty member at Drew University, and the Director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University. “He’s passionate about Ireland, but his work demonstrates a universal demand. He’d say we can’t just argue our cause, because our cause is social justice everywhere.”
Despite the violence he witnessed, Mullan decided to take the path of peace. “He understands the pain on both sides and knows that the root of violence perpetuates those divides. He has compassion and tenacity. Violence becomes tit for tat, so how do the break the cycle? Taking the path of peace can be seen as betraying your own people, but you do it for the greater good,” Kinealy says.
The Irish peace process can serve as an exemplar for other countries, Kinealy believes. And understanding the complexity of the problems is the first step. “The Troubles were not just between Catholics and Protestants, but also socio-political and economic issues that underpin the tension,” she said. “Peace must be built on several foundations, with an educational process that includes all views.”
Talks began secretly in 1994 and each step was a hard fought-out battle, Kinealy says. The process involved the British, Irish and American governments and, to a large extent, the American Diaspora. “The Diaspora communities kept people focused on the issue. If Americans want to be participants, they should make sure it’s in contributing to building a lasting peace.”
Kinealy moved to Belfast in 1988 and says that at the time the prospect of peace seemed very elusive. “It took goodwill and a lot of trust. And as someone who lived it, I believe there’s no glory in being blown up or shot. People shouldn’t will a war to go on.”
Exposing the truth and re-building trust are key elements to the peacebuilding process, Kinealy believes. And Mullan is integrally involved in that global endeavor. “Don finds the humanity in any situation. He really believes in the goodness of people. He proves that anyone can change the world.”
Kinealy presented the Peace through Truth and Reconciliation Award to Don Mullan at the Inaugural CRCC Gala on March 31.