CAIN: Events: Bloody Sunday and the Report of the Widgery Tribunal - Widgery Report and New Material

CAIN Web Service

Bloody Sunday and the Report of the Widgery Tribunal - Widgery Report and New Material

[KEY_EVENTS] [Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
'BLOODY SUNDAY': [Menu] [Reading] [Summary] [Chronology] [Dead] [Circumstances] [Background] [Events] [Photographs] [Sources]

Text: Irish Government ... Page design: Fionnuala McKenna
Material is added to this site on a regular basis - information on this page may change

The Widgery Report and the New Material

Points 69-110

The Widgery Report and the 'New' Material

69. The following is a deconstruction of the Widgery Report, drawing on the different sources of new material already outlined. Its purpose is to assess, on the basis of a prima facie examination, the significance of the new material for the credibility of the Widgery Report (extracts of which are reproduced in italics).

Terms of Reference

Para 2. The terms of reference of the Inquiry were as stated in the Parliamentary Resolutions and the Warrants of Appointment. At a preliminary hearing on 14 February I explained that my interpretation of those terms of reference was that the Inquiry was essentially a fact finding exercise, by which I meant that its purpose was to reconstruct, with as much detail as was necessary, the events which led to the shooting of a number of people in the streets of Londonderry on the afternoon of Sunday 30 January. The Tribunal was not concerned with making moral judgements; its task was to try to form an objective view of the events and the sequence in which they occurred. The Tribunal would therefore listen to witnesses who were present on the occasion and who could assist in reconstructing the events from the evidence of what they saw with their own eyes or heard with their own ears. I wished to hear evidence from people who supported each of the versions of the events of 30 January which had been given currency.

70. In light of the new material, virtually all of the main points of this paragraph are open to contradiction. Not all of the relevant facts available to the Tribunal were taken into account. Nor were the facts which were dealt with by the Tribunal considered adequately or in a balanced way. The determination of what was and was not a fact was highly questionable. A precise reconstruction with necessary and germane detail was not attempted and in the case of Glenfada Park avoided. The Tribunal did not visit the scene of any of the shootings.

71. Lord Widgery failed to adhere to his stricture not to make moral judgements. Time and again throughout the Report, he pronounced at length on the nefarious motives of elements within the civil rights march ("hooligans" aiding and abetting the IRA) and the honourable motives of the soldiers ("the intention of the senior Army officers to use 1 Para as an arrest force and not for offensive purposes was sincere" and "there is no reason to suppose that the soldiers would have opened fire if they had not been fired upon first."). Lord Widgery did, then, make "moral" judgements, most significantly in his first conclusion that no deaths would have occurred "if those who organised the illegal march had not thereby created a highly dangerous situation in which a clash between demonstrators and the security forces was almost inevitable."

72. Where there were conflicts in the evidence, the Report persistently supported the version offered by the soldiers involved in firing and whose interests in concealment were obvious rather than those with greater claims to objectivity (e.g. civilian eyewitnesses, journalists, ex-service men, soldiers and officers who were not implicated). In failing to reveal the inconsistencies and alterations in the earlier statements of the soldiers, the Tribunal prejudicially sustained the credibility of the testimony offered by the soldiers at the Inquiry and thereby actively aided the presentation of a misleading version of events.

73. Despite Lord Widgery's emphasis on the importance of eyewitnesses, the Tribunal failed to give substantive consideration to the eyewitness statements taken and submitted by the NICRA/NCCL. Lord Widgery did not call even a significant minority of the hundreds of civilian eyewitnesses who made known through their NICRA/NCCL statements the relevance of what they had witnessed and the fact that they were prepared to testify (or even those few witnesses deemed by his staff worthy of giving testimony). Nor did he call many witnesses who were demonstrably relevant to his Inquiry and who could have assisted in a reconstruction of what happened, most notably six of those wounded and prepared to testify.

Para 3. I emphasised the narrowness of the confines of the Inquiry, the value of which would largely depend on its being conducted and concluded expeditiously. If considerations not directly relevant to the matters under review were allowed to take up time, the production of the Tribunal's Report would be delayed. The limits of the Inquiry in space were the streets of Londonderry in which the disturbances and the shooting took place; in time the period beginning with the moment when the march first became involved in violence and ending with the deaths of the deceased and the conclusion of the affair.

Para 4. At the first substantive hearing I explained that the emphasis on the importance of eye witnesses did not exclude evidence such as that of pathologists. Nor did it exclude consideration of the orders given to the Army before the march. The officers who conceived the orders and made the plans, including those for the employment of the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, would appear before me.

74. The salient points of these paragraphs are all open to question. The value placed by Lord Widgery on an expeditious Inquiry is simply not explained. If it was a genuine consideration and if it was the genuine reason for the short-cuts taken by Lord Widgery (such as the failure to consider the NICRA/NCCL statements), it was a profound error of judgement since it resulted in frustrating the primary purpose of the Inquiry as defined by Lord Widgery himself. It is impossible to accept any argument that eyewitness statements, including by those wounded, were not directly and indeed crucially relevant to the matters under review. As Prof. Walsh points out, the Scarman Tribunal of Inquiry took ten times longer than the Widgery Inquiry, despite the fact that Lord Widgery was investigating far more serious incidents.

75. In light of the new material, setting the limits in space as those streets in which the disturbances and the shooting took place, now emerges as a fundamental error. The new material strongly suggests that shots were fired from the vicinity of Derry Walls which possibly resulted in deaths and/or injuries in the area of the Rossville Street barricade. The Report, by its own unduly restricted interpretation of the terms of reference of the Inquiry, failed to account for a major and directly relevant aspect of the events of that day. It should also be noted that many of the eyewitness statements at the time attested to shots having been fired from the vicinity of Derry Walls.

76. Lord Widgery's limit in time is extraordinary, not least in that it was not adhered to in the Report itself. It was breached when Lord Widgery set an extensive and partisan context to the situation in which the march occurred but which failed to mention internment, the very reason for the march and a major factor which had contributed to the deterioration in relations between the nationalist community and the security forces. Yet Lord Widgery observed the limit when he failed to thoroughly examine the role the civil and military authorities played in planning and organising the response of the security forces to the march. He abstained from tracing the origins of the Operation Order which purported to define the British Army's plan for its activities that day (including the provision for an arrest operation by 1 Para) despite his own acknowledgement that the final decision on it was taken by a higher authority than General Ford and the Chief Constable. This failure is all the more remarkable when one considers that the Report concludes that had the arrest operation not been launched, "the day might have passed without serious incident".

77. The limitation in time has now been further called into question by the Para AA document which alleges that 1 Para were given a briefing by a Para Lieutenant on the day before the march which encouraged the soldiers to "get some kills". The nature of this alleged briefing and whether, for example, it formed part of a military operation to flush out and destroy members of the IRA, goes to the heart of the British Army's role in the events of Bloody Sunday. The allegation, the source from which it comes, the context in which the Operation Order and the inclusion of 1 Para arose, and the failure of 1 Para to adhere to its role and area of activity as defined by that Order, are matters which fundamentally undermine the efficacy of Lord Widgery's approach in his Report.

Choice of Location

Para 5. My original intention was to hold the Inquiry in Londonderry.....For reasons of security and convenience I reluctantly concluded that other possibilities would have to be considered.....I decided on Coleraine.

78. The emergence of archival material relating to the establishment of the Widgery Inquiry has now given rise to important questions regarding the political influence which may have been brought to bear on the nature of the Inquiry itself and thus by implication on the Report. The release from archival sources of a record of the meeting between Prime Minister Heath, Lord Hailsham and Lord Widgery raises important questions about the degree of political direction of the Inquiry from its outset.

79. According to the report of the meeting, the Prime Minister suggested that the subject matter of the Inquiry was unprecedented and that therefore it might not be "the sort of subject that those who had designed the 1921 Act originally had in mind. It followed that the recommendations on procedure made by Lord Salmon might not necessarily be relevant in this case." Since any matter requiring a Tribunal of Inquiry is almost by definition unprecedented, it is unclear why the Prime Minister should stress the uniqueness of Lord Widgery's task. However, the Prime Minister's suggestion that consequently the recommendations of Lord Salmon "might not necessarily be relevant in this case" is disturbing since the Salmon recommendations contained in the 1966 Report of the Royal Commission on Tribunals of Inquiry, as Prof. Walsh points out, specifically addressed the problem that an Inquiry's "inquisitorial approach will result in serious allegations being made against an identifiable individual during the proceedings, without that individual being afforded a realistic opportunity to answer those allegations and generally defend his reputation." The failure to comply with the Salmon recommendations and protect the reputations and character of the victims, through adequate and fair legal representation, remains one of the enduring sources of grief and pain to the relatives as well as being inherently unfair. This failure appears to have originated, at least to some extent, from a suggestion by the Prime Minister. As such, it suggests that a central feature of the Inquiry arose in a political rather than legal context; and that the independence of the Inquiry was compromised by political considerations from its outset.

80. The Prime Minister placed heavy and repeated emphasis on a speedy outcome. Lord Widgery by his own account similarly emphasised the need for expedition. Thus the speed with which the Inquiry was concluded, ultimately so corrosive to a proper examination of all relevant evidence, again appears to have arisen from political considerations offered at the highest levels.

81. The Prime Minister notes that "it had to be remembered that we were in Northern Ireland fighting not only a military war but a propaganda war." The possible implications of this reference can hardly be benign vis a vis the objective task of a Tribunal of Inquiry. The sentiment appears to suggest that the possible outcome of the Inquiry, whatever it might be, had to be viewed in the context of a propaganda war and the public debate which that entailed. It suggests that the Inquiry's outcome was conceived as a potential tool for either side in that war. If one was fighting a propaganda war, as suggested by the Prime Minister, a finding that the British Army was culpable for the deaths of innocent civilians would clearly be unhelpful. Thus just as Lord Widgery accepted the task allotted to him, he appears to have been explicitly warned about the implications of a finding against the British Army. Coming from the Prime Minister, the significance and influence of this advice on Lord Widgery's approach, and the officials assigned to the Inquiry, cannot be lightly dismissed.

82. Lord Widgery himself says that "the Tribunal would be asked to inquire into what happened, not into motives." This seems extraordinarily pre-emptory; by any standard of legal inquiry, motives would be considered relevant. In fact, Widgery referred repeatedly to motives throughout his Report, though without seeking to establish a rational basis for his views. His judgements on motives invariably reflected well on the intentions of the soldiers despite the evidence against them. He referred, for example, to the sincerity of the motives behind using 1 Para as an arrest force. He not only accepted the good intentions of the soldiers in opening fire but used that assumption as a rationale to discount independent evidence to the contrary. On the other hand, Lord Widgery assumed the most nefarious of motives on the part of the civilians involved without establishing any basis for such assumptions. Had Lord Widgery made an investigation of motives a clear objective as it properly was and not taken such a pre-emptory stand, he might have approached the Inquiry with greater consistency and balance on this critical point.

83. Lord Widgery also says that "it would help if the Inquiry could be restricted to what actually happened in those minutes when men were shot and killed; this would enable the Tribunal to confine evidence to eyewitnesses." With these words, Lord Widgery appeared to have decided from the outset to limit the scope of the Inquiry to the events themselves, not to investigate in any meaningful way how those events came about and not to determine who might or might not have been responsible for decisions which contributed to the killings other than those on the ground at the time of the shootings. Furthermore, Lord Widgery appeared to have decided that eyewitnesses - civilian versus military - would set the confines for the Inquiry's deliberations. That enabled him later to more readily dismiss crucial corroborative evidence of a technical kind, most notably ballistics and medical evidence. These were extraordinarily pre-emptory decisions.

84. Lord Chancellor Hailsham suggests a purpose for the Inquiry which appears to be pre-emptive: "whether the Troops shot indiscriminately into a crowd or deliberately at particular targets in self-defence." Posing the purpose of the Inquiry, which had yet to be established, in such stark and restrictive terms clearly ruled out other possibilities, such as deliberately shooting at targets but not in self-defence as appeared to many to have occurred or shooting as part of a "flush out and destroy" operation referred to by Lord Widgery himself in his Report. Since it is evident from the Report that the Lord Chancellor's view becomes the central and essential purpose of the Inquiry, one can reasonably suggest that it was, self-evidently, an influential one.

85. The Prime Minister said that "it would have to be decided where the Tribunal should sit. It probably ought to be somewhere near Londonderry; but the Guildhall, which was the obvious place, might be thought to be on the wrong side of the River Foyle. One possibility would be to fix a suitable meeting place a little distance away from Londonderry." Why there might be a "wrong side" is not explained. However, it is clear that the Prime Minister successfully steered Lord Widgery from siting the Tribunal in Derry itself, despite Lord Widgery's own comment to him that he thought it should be held there "so that people were not inhibited from giving evidence". In other words, a very proper consideration by Lord Widgery was reversed and the Tribunal's location coincided with the views expressed from the outset by the Prime Minister. It is now clear that Lord Widgery's comment in his Report that his reasons for not siting the Inquiry in Derry were "for reasons of security and convenience" was a less than full and convincing explanation.

86. The Prime Minister suggested a departure from the previous practice in which the Treasury Solicitors had gathered depositions and other evidence in advance on the grounds that this made for "a long and cumbersome procedure" and because "it was not clear whether some of the witnesses who might otherwise give evidence would be prepared to comply with such a procedure". This rationale was hardly appropriate or convincing on either count. That it might prove "long and cumbersome" was hardly a consideration equivalent to the over-riding need to establish how thirteen civilians had met their deaths at the hands of the British Army. If there were doubts about the degree to which relevant eyewitnesses would cooperate, it would seem more appropriate to attempt to allay those concerns and ensure that the Tribunal was supplied with all the relevant evidence to properly carry out its remit. The result of setting aside the previous practice of collating evidence in advance was that a whole field of information was ignored - information that would eventually challenge the statements put forward by the implicated members of the British Army.

87. Despite the serious implications of this decision, the basis for the Prime Minister's views were not established or clarified in the record of the meeting. While the record shows that the Prime Minister noted that it was a decision for Lord Widgery, the latter replies that "it did not seem to him to be the sort of Inquiry in which preliminary statements and depositions would be called for." The grounds on which Lord Widgery took such a profoundly important view on the procedure to be followed - with such speed and in compliance with the Prime Minister - are neither stated nor clear. One is simply left with the fact that without recorded reasons, Lord Widgery complied with the view of the Prime Minister on this critical point virtually immediately. It is clearly open to the interpretation that it arose directly from the Prime Minister's suggestion and as such constituted political influence on a crucial aspect of the Inquiry's subsequent activities.

88. It is reasonable to assume that other material exists within the British Government's archives which would illustrate further the political context in which the Widgery Inquiry was convened and operated. Until those archives are released, that context can only be guessed at. However, the record of this meeting and its self-evident influence on the nature and operation of the Widgery Inquiry raises important and disturbing questions about untoward political influence and the ostensible independence of that Inquiry in terms of its remit, purpose, procedure and location.

Sessions of the Tribunal

Para 6. The witnesses...fell into six main groups: priests; other people from Londonderry; press and television reporters, photographers, cameramen and sound recordists; soldiers, including relevant officers; police officers; doctors, forensic experts and pathologists.

89. Lord Widgery's reference to "other people from Londonderry" was a convenient rubric in that he did not claim civilian eyewitnesses, the value of which he had emphasised at the outset of his report, as a distinct category. Nor does he clarify that only soldiers - as opposed to NCO's and officers - who fired their weapons were called. The new material which has emerged clearly demonstrates that the sessions of the Tribunal would have been immeasurably enhanced had the list of witnesses called been as comprehensive as paragraph 6 sought to suggest.

Representation of Relatives' Interests

Para 7. it was highly desirable that other interests should be represented at the same level so that cross examination of the Army witnesses should not devolve on the Counsel for the Tribunal. In the event, this need was met by my granting legal representation to the relatives of the deceased and to those injured in the shooting....

90. While Lord Widgery granted legal representation "at the same level" - though not in accordance with the Salmon recommendations - he did not accord that representation equal access to all relevant statements and evidence. The significance of this failure is set out in Prof. Walsh's study and detailed throughout this Assessment.

Sources of Evidence

Para 8. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association collected a large number of statements from people in Londonderry said to be willing to give evidence. These statements reached me at an advanced stage in the Inquiry. In so far as they contained new material, not traversing ground already familiar from evidence given before me, I have made use of them.

91. The publication of the eyewitness statements in Eyewitness Bloody Sunday and the report by Prof. Walsh bear directly on this claim and, together, completely undermine it as both spurious and misleading. In the course of the Report, Lord Widgery made general references to accusations about the actions of soldiers and cited six civilian sources on who fired first in the Rossville Street courtyard. But even here, he did not subject them to any examination or detailed comparison with the statements which ultimately he chose to accept (i.e. by the soldiers who fired). Nor did he make that choice on any firm basis but on a conclusion "gradually built up over the many days of listening to evidence and watching the demeanour of witnesses under cross-examination." Apart from this instance, Lord Widgery did not clarify that the statements were from civilian eyewitnesses and not as he vaguely termed them "people in Londonderry". These are merely "said to be willing to give evidence" as if there remained any doubt about either the willingness of civilian eyewitnesses to do so or about the status of the statements as evidence in and of themselves. Lord Widgery made no reference to the fact that hundreds of civilian eyewitnesses, in forwarding their statements to the Tribunal, overcame their considerable reservations, not to say profound scepticism, about the Inquiry as a proper and fair investigation into Bloody Sunday.

92. Lord Widgery's statement that the Inquiry was at "an advanced stage" when the statements were submitted can, on the face of it, be questioned as more properly a secondary consideration to the actual import of the statements. However, recently released archival material, published and treated by both Mullan and Walsh, reveal more disturbing questions. To take one example, the following points can be made based on an examination of a memorandum by the Secretary to the Tribunal, W. J. Smith, dated 10 March on the eyewitness statements:

- The statements were received on 3-4 March and Lord Widgery saw some of the statements on 9 March: 15 had been brought to his attention. Since the first hearing was convened on 21 February, there was hardly a sufficient time lapse to justify Lord Widgery's claim that the statements reached him at an advanced stage. Furthermore, sessions of the Inquiry continued in Coleraine until 14 March and further sessions were held in London up to and including 20 March. In other words, the Inquiry was actively involved in public hearings during and well after the statements had been received. Moreover, by 9 March, the statements had been sifted and 15 deemed worthy for consideration by Lord Widgery.

- Lord Widgery was strongly advised by his own staff to take evidence from some of these potential witnesses. Lord Widgery comments that he had no choice but to take evidence from all or none. No reasons were recorded for this view, nor for his judgement as recorded by the memorandum that "he did not think that the people who wrote them could bring any new element to the proceedings of the Tribunal" - a view diametrically at odds with his emphasis in the Report on the value of eyewitnesses and with the fact that the civilian eyewitnesses directly challenged the versions offered by the implicated soldiers.

- Smith notes that two of the statements are in conflict with a witness, Ms Richmond, but are in agreement with the forensic evidence and are deemed by him "as probably much more reliable". He comments that it is important the report "should not include references to the deaths of these four men [sic: he mentions only three, Gilmore, Doherty and McKinney (G) but presumably is referring in addition to William McKinney] which could be criticised as being contradicted by evidence which was available to the Tribunal but not considered by it." It is clear here that Smith was less concerned with taking into account what he deemed more reliable statements and more concerned with ensuring that the presentation of the case in the Report be protected from criticism - criticism which by Smith's own account could be regarded as valid.

93. The memorandum suggests that the Secretary of the Tribunal appeared more concerned with how to deal with the problematic existence of the NICRA/NCCL statements in the Report, and consequently on advising Lord Widgery on how best to do so, than with their intrinsic merit, implications or possible contribution to the search for the truth. As Jane Winter of British Irish Rights Watch comments in her foreword to Eyewitness Bloody Sunday, "the eyewitness statements, collected with such care and recounted with such pain and terror, were never given their due or proper consideration by the man bearing the highest judicial office in the land, who clearly regarded their perusal as of no great import and a task to be undertaken in the last resort".

94. In and of itself, the failure to give substantive consideration to these statements and the failure to call a reasonable number of witnesses

94. In and of itself, the failure to give substantive consideration to these statements and the failure to call a reasonable number of witnesses from those who made them to give evidence and thus make their own critical contribution (by any measure essential but particularly so given the clear conflict of evidence before the Inquiry) to establishing the facts and reconstructing what happened constitutes a sufficient basis on which to discount the Widgery Report as incomplete and unbalanced.

95. Prof. Walsh analyses in detail the significance of this and other memoranda released by the British Public Record Office which illustrate the substantive and guiding role of the Secretary to the Tribunal in the drafting and direction of the Widgery Report. In Prof. Walsh's assessment, Lord Widgery accepted and acted upon the Secretary's suggestions with the implication that "the Tribunal's findings have been influenced by arguments that were not made in the course of its public hearings and tested in cross examination by the parties affected". Even more disturbing, Prof. Walsh writes, the impact of the Secretary's role was such as to present the British Army's case "in a more favourable light than might otherwise have been the case in Lord Widgery's drafts."

96. Both Mullan and Walsh refer to the hand written statement by the Secretary on one of these memoranda that the Lord Chief Justice "will pile up the case against the deceased, including the forensic evidence and the willingness of local people to remove guns, but will conclude that he cannot find with certainty that anyone of 13 was a gunman". There is by any measure a sinister overtone to the notion of piling up the case against the deceased with the express intention of imputing guilt but avoiding the direct accusation. It strongly suggests that the Tribunal was motivated by objectives other than an impartial search for the truth and that a core motive was to sully the reputation of the victims in defence of the British Army's actions. It is difficult to arrive at any other reasonable interpretation of these remarks.

97. Given the ostensible and essential public function of an Inquiry, Prof. Walsh comments that "there should be no role for the Secretary of the Tribunal to work behind the scenes, hidden from public view and from Counsel for the parties and the Tribunal itself, to seek to influence the Tribunal's interpretation of the evidence, the substance and presentation of the Report and the Report's conclusions. Such actions are hardly compatible with the obligations placed on the Tribunal and the manner in which they are expected to be discharged". He concludes that "by accepting and acting upon the Secretary's recommendations, the Tribunal failed to deliver fully on its obligations to be totally impartial in ascertaining and presenting the full truth of what happened". This is not to contest the legitimate role of officials to advise and assist. However, the weight of the archival material released thus far strongly suggests that the role assumed by the Secretary was, on the face of it, prejudicial to a fair and objective outcome.

98. The failure to give substantive consideration to the eyewitness statements rendered the Widgery Report incomplete and unbalanced. The manner in which they were approached and the role played by the Secretary to the Tribunal as detailed by Prof. Walsh support the allegation that the Report lacked impartiality and transparency. That was widely suspected at the time. The emergence of this new material now effectively confirms that suspicion.

Sources of Evidence

Para 8. I did not think it necessary to take evidence from those of the wounded who were still in hospital.....

99. Even on a prima facie basis, there can be little confidence in this audacious judgement. In light of the publication of the eyewitness statements which clearly contradict statements by the soldiers, given Lord Widgery's own professed confusion about the four deaths in Glenfada Park, and since at the time it was evident that those wounded could provide invaluable testimony, this judgement has to be seriously open to the charge that it was self-serving rather than objective. Lord Widgery's decision in this regard amounted, frankly, to an astonishing disregard for what contribution these crucial and indisputably relevant eyewitnesses might have made to the Inquiry's knowledge of the events and actions as they unfolded. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he simply did not want to know what they witnessed.

Londonderry: The Physical Background

Para 9. The events with which the Tribunal was primarily concerned took place on the west bank, and indeed wholly within an area about a quarter of a mile square, bounded on the north by Great James Street, on the east by Strand Road, Waterloo Place and the City Wall, on the south by Free Derry Corner and Westland Street and on the west by Fahan Street West and the Little Diamond. (Free Derry Corner is the name popularly given to the junction of Lecky Road, Rossville Street and Fahan Street.) This the north-east corner of the Bogside district, is overlooked from the south-east side by the western section of the City's ancient Walls...

100. The area thus defined by Lord Widgery is now revealed as inadequate by the emerging evidence that the British Army hit and killed a number of civilians with shots fired from the vicinity of the Walls. The actions by the British Army in the vicinity of Derry Walls are simply not dealt with by Lord Widgery despite evidence from a number of different sources, as detailed by Mullan, available at the time that firing by the British Army from the vicinity of the Walls into the Bogside had in fact occurred. Furthermore, in setting such a tight geographical constraint, Lord Widgery effectively ruled out a search for decisions and actions on the part of the authorities which materially contributed to Bloody Sunday, either directly or indirectly, but which were beyond his self-imposed and restrictive horizons.

Security Background: Events in Londonderry during the previous six months

Paras 10, 11,12. At the beginning of July, however, gunmen appeared and the IRA campaign began. Widespread violence ensued with the inevitable military counter-action...the IRA tightened its grip on the district....So the law was not effectively enforced in the area....At the end of October, 8 Infantry Brigade...was given instructions progressively to regain the initiative from the terrorists and reimpose the rule of law.....These operations hardened the attitude of the that troops were operating in an entirely hostile environment.....Many nail and petrol bombs were thrown during these attacks. Gunmen made full use of the cover offered to them by the gangs of youths, which made it more and more difficult to engage the youths at close quarters and make arrests. The Creggan became almost a fortress....The terrorists were still firmly in control.

101. These paragraphs contain Lord Widgery's general account of the circumstances prevailing in Creggan and the Bogside which he characterised as one in which the IRA remained in control and acted in concert with "hooligan gangs" to mount attacks on the security forces and were threatening to expand their control beyond lines established by the security forces. Army incursions, according to Lord Widgery, were likely to be met with rioting hooligans giving cover for IRA attacks. As such, the context offered by him was essentially that promoted by the British Army at the time. It was, therefore, the view of only one side, that of the British Army, whose actions the Inquiry had been established to investigate. As a description, it did not seek to portray the situation as it was seen from the nationalist side, i.e. the side from which all the victims came.

102. Astonishingly, as one legal commentator has pointed out, there is not a single mention of internment, (nor for that matter of any political dimension to the disturbances). Yet it was the imposition of internment on 9 August 1971 which precipitated the escalation of tension, which was a direct cause of the serious deterioration in relations with the security forces and which was the reason why there was a march on 30 January. As Prof. Dash pointed out, "allegations against the military in Northern Ireland of physical brutality in the treatment of internees were the subject of a highly publicised official Home Office inquiry under the chairmanship of Sir Edmond Compton."

103. Lord Widgery, in casting a moral judgement on the organisers of the march by claiming that they were directly culpable for the deaths, made a consideration of their motives and intentions a relevant one. Yet that consideration was patently absent and as such was indicative of the partiality of the context offered by Lord Widgery. The context offered by Lord Widgery, rather than being studiously neutral or balanced, becomes in effect an apologia for the decisions and actions of the authorities in dealing with the march with such fatal consequences.

104. Lord Widgery did not seek to establish the intentions of the march organisers and whether they had made bona fide efforts to ensure that there would be no serious (i.e. IRA) violence accompanying it. He did not investigate whether their approach had been tempered by the actions of members of the Parachute Regiment in the violent clashes on Magilligan beach the previous week, nor whether their anticipation that the Parachute Regiment would be on duty at the internment march had encouraged them to ensure that the march pass off peacefully.

105. On the other hand, neither did Lord Widgery seek to establish whether the British Army's claim that the IRA would be present was reasonable on the day in question. He did not seek to establish whether Provisional IRA members and most Official IRA units were out of the Bogside on Bloody Sunday (as was believed widely at the time) and whether the British Army might have been aware of this. Yet these considerations were all germane factors in any assessment of what actions by the British Army could have been deemed to have been objectively reasonable. And they were germane by Lord Widgery's own terms e.g. the emphasis on who fired first, the degree of danger anticipated by the soldiers and whether they were justified in firing.

106. As is again made now clear by Don Mullan, the march was organised and stewarded as a peaceful event and steps had been made to ensure that paramilitary violence would not precipitate military action and endanger civilians. This interpretation, known at the time, has never been challenged. Indeed the very absence of any gunmen among the casualties or those arrested was in itself a testament to the success of the march organisers in removing the threat posed by the IRA to the security forces. Herein may lie the tragic folly of the British Army's actions and the most problematic issue for it once lethal force was used against the civilians. Without IRA gunmen posing a significant and active threat, the actions of the British Army became subsequently difficult to explain, much less excuse.

Para 13. Early in 1972 the security authorities were concerned that the violence was now spreading northwards from William Street, which was the line on the northern fringe of the Bogside on which the troops had for some considerable time taken their stand.....The local traders feared that the whole of this shopping area would be extinguished within the next few months.....In the last two weeks of January the IRA was particularly active. In 80 separate incidents in Londonderry 319 shots were fired at the security forces and 84 nail bombs were thrown at them; two men of the security forces were killed and two wounded.

107. This paragraph is inherently partisan in that it again omits any reference to the march in question and whether it was or was not the intention of the marchers to attempt to breach the line established by the security forces at William Street but it implies that that was in fact the case. And it suggests implicitly that the march was not concerned with demonstration as a political act but was instead an event staged to precipitate disorder and destruction. The partiality of this paragraph is further highlighted by the publication of the eyewitness accounts and the failure of any evidence to emerge over time validating Lord Widgery's assessment of the degree of threat represented by the march.

Para 14. At the beginning of 1972 Army foot patrols were not able to operate south of William Street by day because of sniper fire.....The hooligan gangs in Londonderry constituted a special threat to security. Their tactics were to engineer daily breaches of law and order in the face of the security forces, particularly in the William Street area, during which the lives of the soldiers were at risk from attendant snipers and nail bombers. The hooligans could be contained but not dispersed without serious risk to the troops.

108. The reference to sniper fire south of William Street during the day appears to function as a rationale for a belief that IRA snipers might be present on 30 January, that this expectation was a logical one for the Army and a contributory factor in explaining the actions of individual soldiers on the ground. However, Lord Widgery at no point attempted to establish whether this was in fact the case on 30 January and did not examine whether it was a reasonable or well-founded assumption. But more significantly, in describing an affinity of purpose between "hooligans" and IRA snipers (i.e. to kill British soldiers) he suggested that those causing minor disturbances (e.g. stone throwing) were complicit in the danger, injuries and deaths suffered by British soldiers at the hands of the IRA. In other words, Lord Widgery clearly defined "hooligans" as a distinct entity serving as an adjunct of the IRA, and a successful one at that.

109. Without establishing on an objective factual basis their role in IRA tactics either generally or on 30 January 1972, Lord Widgery suggested that anyone throwing a stone or bottle appeared reasonably to the soldiers to be de facto a hooligan and therefore acting in support of the IRA. The apparent licence granted post hoc by this rationale to the security forces in dealing with even modest disturbances was, in those terms, obvious.

Para 15. It was the opinion of the Army commanders that if the march took place, whatever the intentions of NICRA might be, the hooligans backed up by the gunmen would take control. In the light of this view the security forces made their plans to block the march.

110. The new material and the version of events suggested by it is diametrically at odds with this ill-defined but portentous threat of the hooligans and gunmen taking control as defined by the Army and presented without challenge by Lord Widgery in his Report. The eyewitness accounts of the circumstances in which lethal force was used against civilians completely undermine the relevance of his description of the role of hooligans, if such a role ever actually existed, to the events of 30 January. Moreover, it was clearly not relevant to the events of the day since what disturbances occurred were minor and there was no evidence to suggest that the role assigned to hooligans by Lord Widgery existed in fact. This lack of relevance raises further questions about the presumptions inherent in the context offered by him and why they formed a part of the Report. It might well be asked why this context was included in a Report whose remit in time Lord Widgery himself limited to the moment when the march first became involved in violence. In short, the context offered by Lord Widgery appears to function less as necessary background and more as post hoc rationale for the acts of the British Army.

The Army Plan to Contain the March

Para 16. The proposed march placed the security forces in a dilemma. An attempt to stop by force a crowd of 5,000 or more, perhaps as many as 20 or 25,000, might result in heavy casualties or even in the overrunning of the troops by sheer weight of numbers. To allow such a well publicised march to take place without opposition however would bring the law into disrepute and make control of future marches impossible.

Return to Contents

CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

go to the top of this page go to the top of this page
Last modified :