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Bloody Sunday inquiry was worth it

 The Big Issue in Scotland 09 July 2019

After almost forty years in search of justice, the families of those killed during Bloody Sunday received an unreserved apology from Prime Minister David Cameron. The Bloody Sunday enquiry took twelve years to complete at a cost of £200million, but as radical lawyer Michael Mansfield says, “the reason that Bloody Sunday needed a unique inquiry was that it was agents of the state that did this.” (1061 Words) - By Michael Mansfield QC

I represent the families of some of those who were killed on Bloody Sunday and they are more than satisfied that they've been vindicated after 38 years. They've known the truth - namely that their family, friends, loved ones were totally innocent - from the beginning. What they wanted was a recognition of that truth and an admission by the British authorities.

The first inquiry (the 1972 Widgery Report, compiled in the wake of the event) was a whitewash and the British judiciary in the form of the Lord Chief Justice did not recognise the truth. For the second report the soldiers themselves persevered in what was a false story, as Saville pointed out. So whilst the British authorities and the justice system did, in the end, recognise this truth, the soldiers themselves have not.

A significant moment for the families came when David Cameron stood up in the House of Commons - his statement was extremely clear and unequivocal like the report. He didn't mince his words, he didn't pull any punches and I think the families were extremely impressed by the fact that a Tory prime minister - and you have to remember that it was a Tory prime minister at the time of Bloody Sunday - was prepared to not only concede and make admissions that had arisen out of Saville but had also made an apology. That was not expected. It's been a long time coming but, nevertheless, they feel every minute and every penny has been worth it.

The historical context has to be remembered. This is why it did take the time. Saville was set a daunting task. It was established in January 1998, only a few months before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The Saville inquiry was seen as a necessary part of the jigsaw towards building peace for the future.

Saville and the panel had to look back to 1972. In the intervening 30 years, a lot had been written, a lot had been said. There were films, books on the subject - he had to look at all those, he couldn't ignore them. That was an amazing trawl to do. That's even before you get to examining the evidence to come out of witnesses. Widgery overlooked the witnesses. This was a march that had a minimum of 15,000 people, perhaps as many as 30,000. Many of those people were witnesses. Almost none of them were really considered by Widgery. All of those people who wanted to contribute had to be considered.

In addition Saville and his panel had to look back at least 30 years before 1972. You don't suddenly get 15,000 to 30,000 people on the street participating in a banned march in protest about the civil rights situation. These people were not terrorists, they were people who were saying: we have had enough of how we are being treated. Internment had been brought in the year before.

He had then to look at the history of the politics of Northern Ireland at Stormont and Westminster; the military policy pursued in sending in the army in 1969; and the history of the parachute regiment.

So once you see the size of the remit he had to face, it was massive, far bigger than any other public inquiry. And it was performing a crucial role in contributing to the future of Northern Ireland. The phrase I always use, from Martin Luther King, is: "There is no peace without justice".

None of the families that I represent are clamouring for prosecution of the soldiers. On the other hand, the nature of the unlawful killing was so bad that they obviously feel the director of public prosecutions in Northern Ireland should look very carefully at whether the time and money already spent is enough as a counter balance. It's a very difficult proportionality argument that the director will have to consider. They're not asking for prosecution but they are saying if, for the benefit of the state and the benefit of the future, the director thinks it should be done, then he better get on with it.

The unlawful killing is bad enough, it's the lying - the invented stories that the soldiers have maintained from day one - that exercises them more. They feel the director should look even more carefully at whether they should be prosecuted for perjury.

I think the families have a point here. One soldier did admit his responsibility. Soldier F, when I was cross-examining him, finally conceded he was the soldier responsible for the death of Barney McGuigan, one of the people I was representing. The others persisted in the stories they had first told. If they were now to say, all right, we made a terrible mistake or worse and yes we have told untruths about that day, I think that would clear the air. The families are particularly exercised about the fact that soldiers have persisted in this lie for 38 years.

The original lie tarred the families with the terrorist brush. In the second inquiry: they said, ok, those people who died may have been innocent but we still maintain we were shooting terrorists. The question I raised was, if that was the case where were the other people you shot dead then? They have no answer to that. This was a real crime committed on the day and that has never been admitted.

The reason that Bloody Sunday needed a unique inquiry was that it was agents of the state that did this. The police are there to investigate civil disorder and civil murder, committed by sectarian or paramilitary organisations. You don't have a public inquiry of this kind every time the IRA or the UDA or whoever it is kills somebody.

Nonetheless, there are many people in Northern Ireland that feel they have been left out of this process and I do think they need some form of truth and reconciliation. A standing commission, as there was in South Africa, should now be established so people can come out of the woodwork and finally say, 'I made a mistake' or 'I've killed people and it was wrong and I admit it now', with a promise of immunity if you come and tell the truth. That applies to all sides - you wash your hands in public and that is it. Then people will finally feel they can rest in peace.


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Originally published by The Big Issue Scotland. ©