The British government has two closely related probems in dealing with Bloody Sunday. The first has to do with political motivation and the responsibility for the massacre, the second with the possibility that a subsequent cover up was organised at the highest level within the British political and legal establishment.
The facts suggest that the military operation was mounted in order to shore up the Stormont administration headed by Brian Faulkner, and that afterwards the Lord Chief Justice conspired to distort the truth and pervert the course of justice. The reason Tony Blair has rejected calls for a new inquiry is that he fears such an inquiry would establish these likelihoods as fact.
Bloody Sunday was so hugely shocking at the time, and has echoed so distinctively and ominously down the years since, that it has come to be seen almost as an event on its own, as if having happened in isolation from the political context of its time. But the pressure which produced the spasm of evil around Rossville Street on 30 January 1972 had been generated from deep within the North's political system.
The 30 January march was in opposition to internment without trial which had been introduced by Brian Faulkner's government the previous August. The march was illegal, all parades having also been banned in August. Faulkner's extreme Unionist critics had welcomed internment but were angered that the blanket ban curtailed Orange processions too.
Internment so enraged the Catholic working class areas that many instantly became (some not for the first time) 'no go areas' for the RUC and British army. The largest and most obdurate was the 30,000 strong Bogside-Creggan district of Derry. The 30 January march was scheduled to begin in the Creggan and to weave through the Bogside before proceeding to Guildhall Square in the city centre. It promised to be the biggest in a series of marches which had begun in Belfast on Xmas day.
Between then and Bloody Sunday there were ten illegal anti-internment marches across the North. Faulkner was constantly challenged on the issue by dissidents within his own party such as William Craig, and by Ian Paisley's recently formed Democratic Unionist Party. Internment, they complained, had not made the state more secure. The law was openly being flouted on a vast scale. If 'drastic' action wasn't taken, warned Mr Craig on 16 January, 'There will be determined Loyalist action to sweep weak leadership away.'
On 22 January an anti-internment march in Armagh was scattered by British soldiers firing CS gas and rubber bullets. On the same day a march to a newly opened prison camp at Magilligan in County Derry was beaten and kicked into disarray by soldiers, including paratroopers bussed in from near Belfast. Civil rights leaders complained about soldiers putting the boot in. But as far as Faulkner's far right critics were concerned, he was still pussyfooting around.
As Armagh and Magilligan marchers nursed their bruises on the way home, the Grand Amalgamated Committee of the Orange Order, the Royal Black Preceptory and the Apprentice Boys of Derry met in Lurgan and issued a threat to organise Orange marches if a stop wasn't put to the anti-internment protests: 'In the absence of a clear demonstration of [the ban's] effectiveness, the government can hardly expect our people to observe it.'
At Stormont the following Tuesday, 25 January, Ulster Unionist MPs Robert Mitchell and John Laird defied the party whip and voted for a motion jointly proposed by Craig and Paisley condemning the application of the ban to parades by 'Loyal orders'. On the same evening the Derry branch of the Democratic Unionists called for action against the Bogside-Creggan - 'The queen's writ must run in all parts of our city' - and announced a 'prayer meeting' in Guildhall Square the following Sunday at 3pm to coincide with the scheduled arrival of the march. The statement ended with a plea: 'Where are the men at the top? Why are they so silent? What are they waiting for?'
The following evening Mr Craig told a packed rally at the Apprentice Boys Hall in Derry that Loyalists 'must find new leaders and go into action'. He announced a series of demonstrations to begin the following week, to culminate in a 'monster rally' in Belfast on 18 March - 1972 would be 'Loyal Ulster's year of decision'. At 8.30 the following morning the first two RUC men to lose their lives in Derry in the Troubles were killed in a Provo ambush at the edge of the no go area. There was now even more intense outrage in the calls for harsher security action. As the two policemen lay dying, Faulkner was en route to London, possibly ruminating on the meeting of the Stormont Joint Security Committee which he had chaired the previous night. It had been attended by the general officer commanding British troops in the North, Lieutenant-General Harry Tuzo, RUC Chief Constable Graham Shillington, junior home affairs minister John Taylor and a British government official. It is likely, to put it no higher, that the handling of the Derry march had been the main item on the agenda. In London Faulkner met for more than a hour with Prime Minister Heath before flying home.
The following morning, Friday 28 January, Heath presided at a meeting of his cabinet's defence and overseas committee, attended by Home Secretary Reginald Maudling, Defence Secretary Lord Carrington, Leader of the Commons William Whitelaw, and the joint chiefs of staff. This group, minus the joint chiefs of staff, also constituted the cabinet's Northern Ireland committee. It is likely that the Derry march featured at this meeting too - later, during the Commons debate in April 1992 on presentation of the Widgery Report, Heath revealed that 'cabinet ministers' had been been aware of the plans for handling the Derry march.
The next day, 29 January, the RUC and British army issued a joint statement:
'Experience this year has already shown that attempted marches often end in violence and [sic] must have been foreseen by the organisers. Clearly, the responsibility for this violence and the consequences of it must rest fairly and squarely on the shoulders of those who encourage people to break the law. The security forces have a duty to take action against those who set out to break the law.'
That afternoon the Democratic Unionists announced the cancellation of their 'prayer meeting', saying, 'We have been assured that the civil rights march will be halted by force if necessary. We are prepared to give the government a final opportunity to demonstrate their integrity and honour their promise, but warn that if they fail in this undertaking they need never again ask Loyalist people to forfeit their basic right of peaceful and legal assembly.'
Bloody Sunday has been a bitter and emotional factor in Northern politics for 26 years but didn't become a mainstream issue or begin to figure in Anglo-Irish relations until the early 1990s. It was a measure of the difficulty of winning mainstream support even in Ireland that when the present writer travelled to Dublin in January 1992 with a number of relatives of the victims for the publication of the book Bloody Sunday in Derry, written to mark the 20th anniversary, only one member of the Dail, the left wing independent Tony Gregory, attended the launch, although all 166 members had been individually invited.
It has been the recent 'peace process', which has required the Southern authorities to be seen representing the concerns of Northern nationalists, which put Bloody Sunday on the inter-government agenda. Interest in the issue of Bloody Sunday has been boosted too by new evidence coming to light in the last two years. But in fact, the more clearly the truth emerges, the uglier it seems, and the less likely that the Blair government will agree to look it in the face.
Given the context, it will strike many as common sense that the Bloody Sunday operation was intended to strengthen Faulkner's position and stave off Stormont's collapse. Direct evidence might be found in the minutes of the meetings referred to above, at Stormont on 26 January and two days later at Downing Street. At the Widgery hearings James McSparran QC for the relatives raised this with the commander of land forces in the North, Major-General Robert Ford.
McSparran: 'Before the brigade orders were prepared, it had been discussed by the security committee and it had been discussed by the cabinet ministers in England?'
Widgery: 'That is not a question for the general.'
McSparran: 'Could I ask him does he know if it had been discussed?'
That Widgery's exclusion of the political background was itself politically motivated is suggested by the minutes of an extraordinary discussion between Widgery, Heath and the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, at Downing Street two days after the massacre, on the evening before the Commons announcement of Widgery's appointment to conduct the inquiry. Among 'a number of points to which [Heath] thought it right to draw to the lord chief justice's attention' was that 'it had to be remembered that we were in Northern Ireland fighting not just a military war but a propaganda war'.
Heath is also recorded saying that Derry Guildhall would be unsuitable as a venue for tribunal hearings, being 'on the wrong side of the River Foyle' - on the mainly Catholic west bank of the Foyle. Widgery himself 'saw the exercise as a fact finding exercise... It would help if the inquiry could be restricted to what actually happened in those few minutes when men were shot and killed; this would enable the tribunal to confine evidence to eyewitnesses'.
In the event Widgery confined himself to the evidence of some eyewitnesses, refusing to hear the evidence of others. In writing his report, he then ignored much of the evidence which he had heard, and distorted a great deal of the rest - an examination of the text rules out the possibility of this having come about through misunderstanding, carelessness or unconscious bias.
In the days after Bloody Sunday, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) gathered more than 700 eyewitness statements from civilians in Derry. Copies of these were presented to Widgery on 9 March. But instead of welcoming this reservoir of relevant information, Widgery, according to an internal tribunal memorandum dated 10 March, 'considered that the statements...had been submitted at this late stage to cause him the maximum embarrassment'. In fact the three inch thick file of statements had been delivered to the Treasury solicitor's office in London on 3 March, only 34 days after the event.
The 10 March memorandum records that 'only 15' of the statements were 'drawn to (Widgery's) attention'. It is not clear whether Widgery himself actually read any of these 15 statements. But on the basis of this knowledge, he is recorded saying of all 700 statements that 'he did not think that the people who wrote them could bring any new element to the proceedings'. The statements were discarded.
The NICRA dossier forms the basis of the book Eyewitness Bloody Sunday, published last year. What gave the book its huge impact were the repeated references, in a hundred statements reproduced verbatim, to shots fired from the city walls where they beetle over the Bogside. The evidence selected by Widgery had either been unspecific on the point or told only of shots fired from ground level within the Bogside. Campaigners now argue that this factor on its own invalidates Widgery's conclusions and makes the case for a new inquiry.
Other evidence emerged of shooting from the walls. Last year Channel 4 News broadcast tapes of British army and RUC communications recorded during the shooting by an amateur radio enthusiast, Jim Porter. Soldiers clearly identified as being on the walls are heard reporting incoming fire, firing and claiming 'hits'. Mr Porter recalled offering his tapes to the tribunal and being rebuffed - on the ground that the recording of radio communications without appropriate authorisation is illegal. Channel 4 also presented expert evidence from the post-mortems that at least three of the victims had been shot from a height and not from ground level.
Widgery rejected an offer of evidence from former Derry mayor Dr Raymond McClean, who had pronounced four of the victims dead in the Bogside and attended all 13 post-mortems at Altnagelvin Hospital. He would have given his opinion that at least one man and possibly two others had been shot from high above.
Widgery completed his mission with remarkable dispatch. The hearing of evidence and legal submissions was completed in under 100 hours spread over 17 days. He heard 114 witnesses - 37 people from Derry, including seven priests; 21 journalists/ photographers; five named and 35 unnamed British soldiers; eight police officers; six doctors or forensic experts; and two other civilians, including Lord Fenner Brockway, one of the scheduled speakers at the intended anti-internment rally. Widgery delivered his report on 10 April. It was published on 18 April - 71 days after the killings. It runs to 39 pages.
All this indicates a cavalier approach by a man who, far from high mindedly seeking out the truth, was on a political mission and had his mind made up how best and most speedily to accomplish it. This is even clearer from looking at examples of Widgery's handling of the evidence which he did choose to hear - for example, relating to the key moment when paratroopers opened fire in the courtyard of Rossville Flats and shot dead 17 year old Jackie Duddy, the young man seen in a much used film clip being carried dying through British lines by a group of men including the future Roman Catholic bishop, Edward Daly.
Lord Widgery heard from eight members of the First Paras who told that they had come under fire as they debussed from an armoured personnel carrier (APC) in the flats courtyard, intending to arrest 'hooligans'. However, every soldier's account of the hostile fire contradicted every other soldier's account. The 'fog of battle' hardly accounts for the discrepancies.
Sergeant O told of around 80 shots being fired in this enclosed space in the course of two to three minutes. Lieutenant N, on the other hand, couldn't recall any civilian gunfire at all. Major 236 described 'continuous firing' not for two to three but for ten minutes. Lance Corporal V heard only single-shot rifle fire. And so on. Some of the soldiers took cover behind the APC, a bulkier vehicle than, say, a Ford Transit van. But not only did the blizzard of bullets miss the sheltering soldiers, it missed the APC.
Widgery heard evidence from six civilians about events in the flats courtyard. They were: Father Edward Daly; Guardian journalist Simon Winchester; Mary Bonnor, a resident of the flats; Derrick Tucker, an Englishman living in Derry who had seen service with both the Royal Navy and the RAF; Joseph Doherty, an unemployed man from the Creggan estate; and Francis Dunne, a school teacher. All were adamant that the soldiers' account was total fabrication: there had been no shots at the Paras, they hadn't had to take cover, etc.
Widgery professed himself 'entirely satisfied' that the Paras had come under fire and had fired back only in self defence. He explained, 'Such a conclusion is not reached by counting heads or by selecting any particular witness as truthful in preference to another. It is a conclusion gradually built up over many days' (three, actually) 'of listening to evidence and watching the demeanour of witnesses under cross-examination.'
Nowhere in his report does Widgery compare the two hugely conflicting stories. The reference to the 'demeanour' of witnesses is his entire account of his process of reasoning. The same approach is seen in other crucial findings by Widgery, including that 'on the balance of probabilities' Gerald Donaghey, 17, had four nail bombs in his pockets when shot in Glenfada Park. Much has been made of this case by defenders of the Bloody Sunday operation. It was the only case in which a weapon of any kind had allegedly been found on the body of a victim. (All others had been 'spirited away'.)
The nail bomb evidence came from a bomb disposal officer, Soldier 127, who told Widgery that shortly after the shooting he had been called to Craigavon Bridge to examine a car containing a body. He noted two nail bombs protruding from the jeans pockets, and two from the jacket pockets of a dead youth. Each of the nail bombs was 'about the size of a cocoa tin'. He summoned a police photographer and a Times reporter to note the nail bombs. Both gave evidence confirming that the nail bombs were in Donaghey's pockets when they arrived at the car.
Widgery heard evidence from two civilians who had carried the wounded Donaghey into the Glenfada Park home of Raymond Rogan, chairman of the local tenants' association. The two described his tight fitting jeans and denim jacket, and said they saw no nail bombs. Leo Young described searching Donaghey's jacket pockets for identification after they'd laid him down in the Rogan home. There had been no nail bombs. Donaghey was examined in the house by Dr Kevin Swords of Lincoln Hospital who had been in Derry visiting relatives. He gave evidence of loosening Donaghey's clothes to examine a gunshot wound in his abdomen and then 'going over his whole body' for other wounds. He noticed no nail bombs. Charlie Hazlett, a reporter with the Belfast Telegraph, sheltering in the Rogan home, said he watched closely as Dr Swords examined Donaghey. He noted no nail bombs. Mr Rogan carried the dying Donaghey in his arms to his car and eased him into the rear seat. No nail bombs. Leo Young sat into the rear seat and cradled Donaghey as they set off. Still no nail bombs.
At Barrack Street the car was stopped by a military patrol and Rogan and Young ordered out. A soldier drove the car to a first aid post on Craigavon Bridge. Here Donaghey was examined by a medical officer from the First Anglian Regiment who gave evidence of examining the body before pronouncing Donaghey dead. He noticed no nail bombs. Shortly afterwards, when Soldier 127 summoned the police photographer and John Charteris of the Times, the nail bombs were, literally, sticking out. Charteris told the tribunal that he could see one of them clearly from outside the car, protruding from Donaghey's denim jacket pocket.
A 10 year old of average intelligence could work out what happened here. But Widgery concluded that the nail bombs had probably been in Donaghey's pockets all along. Donaghey had probably been a nail bomber. The Paras had probably had the right to kill him.
The demands of the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign are for a clear declaration of the innocence of all the victims, the repudiation of the Widgery Report and the prosecution of those responsible for the shootings. Campaigners stress that they are not out for personal revenge. 'I'm not fixated on having a 60 year old Brit put in prison for murdering my father,' says Tony Doherty, whose father, Patrick, was shot dead at Joseph Place. 'What I want is the complete truth.' It is the demand for a formal renunciation of Widgery's Report which raises the need for a new inquiry. 'No matter what apology is made or what sort of "review" is offered, until the British government formally repudiates Widgery's Report, his findings will remain on the record as the official truth of what took place,' says Tony Doherty. 'We will not accept that. The repudiation of Widgery would logically involve establishing a new inquiry. And after Widgery, we are justified in insisting on an independent element, whether an international panel of judges or whatever. We want all the available evidence made public and examined objectively. That includes any evidence of political motivation.'
The most obvious explanation of what happened is that the Paras were deployed either to entice the IRA into battle or in the expectation that they would anyway be confronted by IRA members intent on battle. The plan being to inflict a major defeat on the Republican forces and thereby shatter the resistance of the 'Free Derry' no go area while teaching the illegal anti-internment marchers a lesson in law and order they would remember for a long time - long enough for Faulkner to staunch the haemorrhage of support to Craig-Paisley and to consolidate his position at Stormont. Given the certainty of thousands of marchers in the vicinity, any such plan would have involved a reckless disregard for civilian life. The Paras were not policemen. Recalling the events in a BBC documentary broadcast in January 1992, the commander of First Paras, Lieutenant-Colonel Derek Wilford, put it plain: 'When we moved on the streets we moved as if we in fact were moving against a well armed, well trained army.'
Reporting the publication of the Widgery Report in April 1972, the Sunday Times Insight team claimed that the plan of action for 30 January had been approved in advance by the Northern Ireland committee of the British cabinet - because it carried an 'obvious' risk of casualties. This was the obvious possibility James McSparran had continued to pursue at the tribunal: 'Do you know if the question of firing in the course of the arrest operation was discussed by the security committee?'
Ford: 'I do read the minutes... I can recall that the joint security committee did take note of a comment made by the general officer commanding and the chief constable that it was possible that the events in Londonderry...might lead to shooting by the IRA.' After an exchange about the standing instructions governing return of fire, McSparran tried to return to his key question: 'Did the operation which you carried out in the Bogside...conform, in your view, to the tenor of the instructions issued by the joint security committee?'
Widgery: 'No, you need not answer that.'
But from the point of view of the relatives this brings up precisely what needs answering. Under the Public Records Act (1958) the minutes of both Stormont and Westminster cabinet committees are released after 30 years, unless specific reasons, usually 'national security', are adduced for keeping them closed. In the normal course of events, then, the Bloody Sunday files should be opened in 2003.
But the 1958 act also provides for a decision by the Lord Chancellor to release such papers at any time. Current Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine could, with the approval of Tony Blair, take an executive decision to publish forthwith all papers relevant to Bloody Sunday. This, in itself, might go a long way towards answering the questions which must be disposed of before the relatives can put the grief of Bloody Sunday behind them. On the other hand, publishing the papers might suggest - and a new inquiry might show clearly - why Lord Widgery averted his eyes from some of the evidence and distorted some of the rest so as knowingly to reach conclusions at variance with the truth. The truth about Bloody Sunday may go so deep into the heart of British politics and law as to be mortally dangerous to the authority of the state.