CAIN: Bloody Sunday and the Report of the Widgery Tribunal - Conclusions

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Bloody Sunday and the Report of the Widgery Tribunal - Conclusions

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The Widgery Report has been the basis of the British Government's response to the events of Bloody Sunday since its publication on 18 April 1972. As a credible version of events, it has long been widely regarded as seriously flawed by many sections of opinion in Ireland and abroad. Indeed, it has been viewed by many as an attempt to present an "acceptable" official version of events, the purpose of which was not to establish the truth but to exculpate the actions of the British Army. The grounds for these suspicions were many and obvious; the highly constrained terms of reference of the Inquiry itself, the speed with which the Inquiry's proceedings were concluded, the nature of the proceedings and the manifold failures to consider the evidence either fairly or comprehensively. The most telling feature of the Widgery Report, however, was that it failed to hold any individual or agency accountable for the deaths of thirteen innocent people.

In the wake of Bloody Sunday, a clear chasm rapidly emerged between the version of events put forward by the authorities and the many accounts offered by civilian eyewitnesses. The Army offered that its soldiers had come under a sustained gun and nail-bomb attack and lists were circulated by the authorities citing the weapons allegedly found on the victims. The civilian eyewitnesses attested to a largely peaceful event, albeit with some stone throwing on the fringes, the absence of IRA gun fire, nail bombs or petrol bombs, and the sudden arrival at speed of British soldiers who opened fire immediately on debussing, shooting into the backs of fleeing civilians. Rather than resolving how such a stark, not to say startling, contrast could exist between the British Army's version of events and that of the many civilian eyewitnesses, the Widgery Report opted, contrary to what many at the time believed was the weight of the evidence, for the version put forward by those who were implicated in the deaths and injuries, particularly the soldiers of 1 Para.

The new material which emerged recently provided a fresh platform on which to mount a reconsideration of the events of Bloody Sunday and the Widgery Report. It reinforced the original doubts about the completeness of the official version of events, particularly through the strong evidence that shots were fired into the Bogside by the British Army from the vicinity of Derry Walls. It provided fresh grounds for the belief that members of 1 Para wilfully shot and killed unarmed civilians. It suggested that the approach and conduct of the Widgery Inquiry was informed by ulterior political motivation from its inception. It demonstrated that the Widgery Inquiry was inherently flawed by the failure to reveal or acknowledge that the testimony of the implicated soldiers had been altered in successive statements to the Military Police, Treasury Solicitors and to the Inquiry itself. Furthermore, it suggested an increasingly detailed - though obviously incomplete - picture of what happened on Bloody Sunday which was radically different from that offered by Lord Widgery. The new material offered little on why Bloody Sunday occurred; the answer to that question undoubtedly lies in large part in official British archives and the memory of those involved on the British side.

The material emerged from many different sources, including published contemporary eyewitness accounts, recent releases from official British archives and academic analyses of them, and ongoing investigative reports by the press and media. To draw these strands together, the Government decided to assess the new material and focus in particular on what significance could be attached to it vis-à- vis the Widgery Report. To do this effectively required a detailed analysis of the Widgery Report in which virtually every paragraph was considered afresh in light of the new material.

As is evident from the foregoing assessment, it can be concluded that the Widgery Report was fundamentally flawed. It was incomplete in terms of its description of the events on the day and in terms of how those events were apparently shaped by the prior intentions and decisions of the authorities. It was a startlingly inaccurate and partisan version of events, dramatically at odds with the experiences and observations of civilian eyewitnesses. It failed to provide a credible explanation for the actions of the British Army, particularly the actions of 1 Para and of the other British Army units in and around Derry. It was inherently and apparently wilfully flawed, selective and unbalanced in its handling of the evidence to hand at the time. It effectively rejected the many hundreds of civilian testimonies submitted to it and opted instead for the unreliable accounts proffered by the implicated soldiers. Contrary to the weight of evidence and even its own findings, it exculpated the individual soldiers who used lethal force and thereby exonerated those who were responsible for their deployment and actions.

Above all it was unjust to the victims of Bloody Sunday and to those who participated in the anti-internment march that day in suggesting they had handled fire-arms or nail-bombs or were in the company of those who did. It made misleading judgements about how victims met their death. The tenacity with which these suggestions were pursued, often on flimsy or downright implausible grounds, is in marked contrast to the many points where significant and obvious questions about the soldiers' behaviour, arising from the Report's own narrative, are evaded or glossed over.

There have been many atrocities in Northern Ireland since Bloody Sunday. Other innocent victims have suffered grievously at various hands. The victims of Bloody Sunday met their fate at the hands of those whose duty it was to respect as well as uphold the rule of law. However what sets this case apart from other tragedies which might rival it in bloodshed, is not the identity of those killing or killed, or even the horrendous circumstances of the day. It is rather that the victims of Bloody Sunday suffered a second injustice, this time at the hands of Lord Widgery, the pivotal trustee of the rule of law, who sought to taint them with responsibility for their own deaths in order to exonerate, even at that great moral cost, those he found it inexpedient to blame.

The new material fatally undermines and discredits the Widgery Report. A debt of justice is owed to the victims and their relatives to set it unambiguously aside as the official version of events. It must be replaced by a clear and truthful account of events on that day, so that its poisonous legacy can be set aside and the wounds left by it can begin to be healed. Given the status and currency which was accorded to the Widgery Report, the most appropriate and convincing redress would be a new Report, based on a new independent inquiry.

The terms and powers of any new inquiry would need to be such as to inspire widespread public confidence that it would have access to all the relevant official material and otherwise enjoy full official support and cooperation, that it would operate independently, that it would investigate thoroughly and comprehensively, and would genuinely and impartially seek to establish what happened on Bloody Sunday, why it happened and those who must bear the responsibility for it.

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