Bloody Sunday Inquiry in Northern Ireland

views updated

Bloody Sunday Inquiry in Northern Ireland

The Bloody Sunday inquiry in Northern Ireland examined the events surrounding the killing and wounding of Catholic civil rights protesters by British soldiers on January 30, 1972. The violence that day formed the latest episode of a decades-long resistance by Catholics against Protestants supported by the British government. The turbulent atmosphere demanded an impartial investigation. The refusal of the investigators to consider all forensic evidence led many Catholics to conclude that they could not obtain justice from the British government.

The Northern Ireland city of Derry, known to Protestants as Londonderry, was one of the centers of the Catholic civil rights movement. In the winter of 1972, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) informed British authorities that it intended to stage a protest march in Derry. Scheduled for Sunday, January 30, the march protested against the policy of the internment without trial instituted the previous year.

A crowd estimated to be between 10,00025,000 strong turned out on the sunny January day. The atmosphere was relaxed and jovial, but the history of sudden violence in the region prompted the British government to expect trouble. The 1st Battalion of the British Parachute Regiment was assigned to conduct scoop-up operations against rioters. The regiment, trained to shoot to kill when confronted with a threat to life or personal safety, had the reputation of being among the toughest in the British Army. To later critics, this particular regiment had supposedly been chosen specifically to kill Catholics.

Initially, the marchers, many of whom were children with their parents, seemed intent on avoiding a direct confrontation with the army. When the march reached army barricades, the protesters turned and walked away. At this point, the army proceeded through one barricade in a convoy of ten vehicles, while soldiers walked through another barricade. The protesters began to jeer and throw stones. The soldiers responded, as was typical in past erupting protests, with spray from water cannons and rubber bullets. Much of the crowd dispersed.

The commander in charge of the British forces, defying a specific instruction not to conduct a running battle with Catholic protesters, deployed a unit to arrest and disperse the remaining rioters. In the space of about ten minutes, thirteen civilians were shot dead and another thirteen were wounded. No guns were recovered from any of the victims. Four nail bombs were recovered on one body in circumstances that suggested that they could have been planted. Forensic tests conducted on all of the deceased proved negative for handling bombs or carrying explosive residue. Five of the dead also tested negative for firearms handling with the tests on the remaining suspects proving inconclusive.

The British government appointed an inquiry commission on January 31, headed by the Lord Chief Justice of England, Baron John Widgery. The tribunal conducted seventeen public sessions between February 21 and March 14, 1972, in which it heard 117 witnesses. Three further sessions were held from March 16 to March 20 to hear closing speeches. The tribunal's report, issued on April 10, 1972, blamed those who had organized the illegal march for creating a highly dangerous situation in which a clash between the demonstrators and the British forces was almost inevitable. Catholics condemned the report as a biased and unabashed attempt to protect the army against any claims of serious wrongdoing.

The problems with the Widgery Inquiry began with Lord Widgery. As a former officer in the British Army, he had an interest in maintaining the reputation of the army. Widgery did not interview the wounded that were still hospitalized, and he refused to accept over 700 eyewitness statements made to NICRA on the grounds that the statements were an attempt to embarrass him. Widgery also refused to consider some evidence damaging to the army because it did not satisfy the technical rules governing the admission of evidence in a court of law, although the inquiry was not a court of law. He did not visit the scene of any of the shootings and did not commission diagrams of the shootings.

The evidence that Widgery did accept included over two hundred statements and a large number of photographs. The soldiers stated that they had been attacked by gunfire, nail bombs, acid bombs, gasoline bombs, and various other missiles. No photographs showed gunmen or bombers. Civilians and journalists claimed that the soldiers fired at unarmed civilians.

Given the tense political situation in Northern Ireland, it is unlikely that the Widgery inquiry would have satisfied everyone. However, Widgery's refusal to consider all forensic evidence injured Northern Ireland Catholic faith in the British justice system. The release of the Widgery report was marked by rioting and a jump in the membership of the Irish Republican Army.

see also Explosives; Firearms; Gunshot residue; Trace evidence.