Britain to take second look at Bloody Sunday Blair hopes new evidence will shed light on killing of 14 N. Ireland Catholics

January 30, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Reopening one of the most painful episodes of the Northern Irish conflict, British Prime Minister Tony Blair ordered a new inquiry yesterday into killings on a day 26 years ago that became known as Bloody Sunday.

On Jan. 30, 1972, in Londonderry, British soldiers opened fire for 20 minutes on Roman Catholic demonstrators, killing 13 men outright and wounding 13 more, one of whom later died.

The hail of gunfire and the televised images of death and horror cut right through Northern Ireland. It was one of the bloodiest days of the modern terrorist troubles that have claimed more than 3,200 lives.

Blair's dramatic intervention, on the eve of the 26th anniversary of the shootings, was designed to set the historical record straight on an incident that still inflames Northern Ireland's minority Catholic population. The announcement was also seen by many as a way to keep Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, in all-party peace talks.

"Bloody Sunday was a tragic day for all concerned," Blair said in a solemn statement to the House of Commons. "We must all wish it had never happened. Our concern now is simply to establish the truth, and close this painful chapter once and for all."

Set against the background of thousands of other killings, the 14 deaths in Londonderry still merited attention, Blair acknowledged.

"Bloody Sunday was different because, where the state's own au- thorities are concerned, we must be as sure as we can of the truth, precisely because we do pride ourselves on our democracy and our respect for the law, and on the professionalism and dedication of our security forces," the prime minister said.

Relatives of the dead campaigned for years for the inquiry, claiming the soldiers from Britain's Parachute Regiment opened fire on unarmed civil rights demonstrators during a march through Londonderry's Bogside district.

A previous government investigation, headed by Lord Widgery, was completed 11 weeks after the shootings. That report concluded that the soldiers were returning the IRA's fire and that there was a suspicion that some of those shot had earlier been firing weapons or handling bombs.

No criminal charges were ever filed over the incident. And no government apologies were ever made. In 1992, then-British Prime Minister John Major described the victims as innocent.

New information about the incident has come to light in recent years, including eyewitness accounts, ballistic material and medical evidence.

The Irish government also released a dossier of fresh material on the case yesterday and claimed Widgery's report was flawed, inaccurate and partisan.

In his statement, Blair said, "We believe that the weight of material now available is such that these events require re-examination."

Relatives of those killed welcomed news of the inquiry.

"We clearly hope that it will have the potential to establish the truth of what happened that day and begin the inevitable healing process and closure," said a statement issued on behalf of the families.

Tony Doherty, a relative of one victim, said the inquiry "represents for me hopefully the beginning of the end of a tragedy which has now lasted 26 years."

While most politicians gave cautious approval to Blair's initiative, David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, Northern Ireland's main Protestant party, said, "reopening old wounds like this is likely to do more harm than good."

Sir Edward Heath, who was prime minister at the time of the shootings, said he hoped that the issue could finally be laid to rest. But he added, "It is a hope."

No time limit is set for the inquiry, which is to be headed by one of Britain's most experienced judges, Lord Saville of Newdigate. The panel is expected to include two judges from the British Commonwealth.

The panel could also consider questions of immunity for those giving evidence.

Blair said the inquiry "should be allowed the time necessary to cover all the evidence now available thoroughly and completely."

He said the aim is not to "accuse individuals or institutions or invite fresh recriminations but to establish the truth about what happened on that day, so far as that can be achieved at 26 years' distance."

In another development yesterday, a breakaway pro-British Protestant gang at the center of Northern Ireland's resurgent bloodshed vowed to stop attacking "the ordinary Catholic community," the Associated Press reported.

But the outlawed Loyalist Volunteer Force's pledge stopped far short of a cease-fire.

Its statement to Belfast news media emphasized that attacks on "legitimate [Catholic] targets" would continue. These included members of the IRA or of the Irish National Liberation Army, an IRA splinter group.

Pub Date: 1/30/98

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