National Catholic Register


New British Tribunal to Investigate Bloody Sunday

BY Cian Molloy

February 08-14, 1998 Issue | Posted 2/8/98 at 2:00 PM


DERRY, Northern Ireland—Retired Bishop Edward Daly of Derry has welcomed the news that the British government is setting up a tribunal of inquiry into the events surrounding Bloody Sunday in Derry when 14 Catholics were massacred by British troops 26 years ago.

“It is about time this festering sore was healed,” said the bishop who was present when troops of the Parachute Regiment opened fire on peaceful demonstrators

Bishop Daly and his successor, Bishop Seamus Hegarty, have long been calling for a fresh inquiry into the killings, rejecting the first British government inquiry into the matter which was lead by Lord Justice Widgery. The Widgery Tribunal found that British troops had opened fire in self-defence to protect themselves from gunmen and bombers among the protesters. But that finding has always been disputed by the nationalist-Catholic community who claim the protesters were unarmed and peaceful.

Only two hours before the British prime minister Tony Blair announced the setting up of the new tribunal, the Irish government published a dossier containing evidence which the Widgery Tribunal had not considered. The dossier, which described the original tribunal as “wilfully flawed, selective, and unbalanced” and “a startlingly inaccurate and partisan portrayal of the events,” includes: dozens of eye-witness statements, from both civilians and troops present on the day, that were not considered by Lord Widgery; forensic evidence proving that at least three of the victims were shot by troops stationed on Derry's city walls—a claim rejected by Widgery; and transcripts of radio communications between British troops and police officers showing that at no time did troops come under fire when they started shooting demonstrators. The dossier also details wide discrepancies between statements made by British troops to military police immediately after the killings and the statements the same troops made to the Widgery Tribunal. Details of their positions, the number of shots fired, and descriptions of who they were firing at changed substantially.

Perhaps, the most damning evidence against the original official inquiry is the disclosure that the then British prime minister Edward Heath sent a confidential memo to Lord Widgery reminding him that Britain was engaged in both “a military and a propaganda war in Northern Ireland.”

It remains to be seen if Heath will be called before the new tribunal, to explain that memo.

The leader of the predominantly Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party, John Hume, said he welcomed the new tribunal saying that it would aid reconciliation and the healing process in Northern Ireland. Hume is the only member of the British parliament who was present on that fateful day.

But David Trimble, leader of the predominantly Protestant Ulster Unionist Party rejected that claim saying: “The basic fact is that an arrest operation went wrong, an arrest operation directed at rioters orchestrated by republicans. The fault lies less with the men placed in difficult circumstances than with the men who created those circumstances.”

Noting the harm done by Bloody Sunday and the Widgery Tribunal to relations between the Catholic-nationalist community and the security forces in Northern Ireland, Bishop Hegarty said: “The more perceptive observers are asking the question whether the Troubles which we have experienced during the past 25 years would have happened to they extent they did, had people not felt such a deep sense of outrage and betrayal.” (Cian Molloy)