29 January 1998
House of Commons Official Report
Parliamentary Debates (Hansard)
With permission, Madam Speaker, I will make a statement on the events
in Northern Ireland on 30 January 1972, which has become known as Bloody
The facts that are undisputed are well known. On 30 January 1972, during
a disturbance in Londonderry following a civil rights march, shots were
fired by the British Army. Thirteen people were killed and another 13
were wounded, one of whom subsequently died. The day after the incident,
the then Prime Minister set up a public inquiry under the then Lord Chief
Justice, Lord Widgery.
Lord Widgery produced a report within 11 weeks of the day. His conclusions
included the following: that shots had been fired at the soldiers before
they started the firing that led to the casualties; that, for the most
part, the soldiers acted as they did because they thought their standing
orders justified it; and that although there was no proof that any of
the deceased had been shot while handling a firearm or bomb, there was
a strong suspicion that some had been firing weapons or handling bombs
in the course of the afternoon.
The time scale within which Lord Widgery produced his report meant that
he was not able to consider all the evidence that might have been available.
For example, he did not receive any evidence from the wounded who were
still in hospital, and he did not consider individually substantial numbers
of eye-witness accounts provided to his inquiry in the early part of March
Since the report was published, much new material has come to light about
the events of that day. That material includes new eye-witness accounts,
new interpretation of ballistic material and new medical evidence.
In 1992, the then Prime Minister said in a letter to the Hon. Member
for Foyle (Mr. Hume), who has campaigned tirelessly on the issue, that
those shot should be regarded as innocent of any allegation that they
were shot while handling firearms or explosives. I reaffirm that today.
Last year, the families of those killed provided the previous Government
with a new dossier on the events of Bloody Sunday. The Irish Government
also sent this Government a detailed assessment that analysed the new
material and Lord Widgery's findings in the light of all the material
I want to place on the record our strongest admiration for the way in
which our security forces have responded over the years to terrorism in
Northern Ireland. They set an example to the world of restraint combined
with effectiveness, given the dangerous circumstances in which they are
called on to operate. Young men and women daily risk their lives protecting
the lives of others and upholding the rule of law, carrying out the task
that we have laid upon them. Lessons have, of course, been learnt over
many years -in some cases, painful lessons. But the support of the Government
and the House for our armed forces has been and remains unshakeable.
There have been many victims of violence in Northern Ireland before and
since Bloody Sunday. More than 3,000 people, civilians as well as soldiers,
police and prison officers, have lost their lives in the past 26 years.
It may be asked why we should pay such attention to one event. We do not
forget or ignore all the other attacks, all the innocent deaths, all the
victims of bloody terrorism.
Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, a former permanent secretary in the Northern
Ireland Office, is currently considering a suitable way in which to commemorate
the victims of violence. In particular, the sacrifice of those many members
of the security forces, including the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who lost
their lives doing their duty, will never be forgotten by this Government,
just as it was not forgotten by the previous Government. The pain of those
left behind is no less than the pain of the relatives of the victims of
Bloody Sunday was different because, where the state's own authorities
are concerned, we must be as sure as we can of the truth, precisely because
we pride ourselves on our democracy and respect for the law, and on the
professionalism and dedication of our security forces.
This has been a very difficult issue. I have re-read Lord Widgery's report
and looked at the new material. I have consulted my colleagues most closely
concerned. We have considered very carefully whether it is appropriate
now to have a fresh inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday. I should
emphasise that such a new inquiry can be justified only if an objective
examination of the material now available gives grounds for believing
that the events of that day should be looked at afresh, and the conclusions
of Lord Widgery re-examined.
I have been strongly advised, and I believe, that there are indeed grounds
for such a further inquiry. We believe that the weight of material now
available is such that the events require re-examination. We believe that
the only course that will lead to public confidence in the results of
any further investigation is to set up a full-scale judicial inquiry into
We have therefore decided to set up an inquiry under the Tribunal of
Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. The inquiry will have the power to call witnesses
and obtain production of papers. As required by the Act, a resolution
will be needed to set up the inquiry. That resolution will be tabled later
today in my name, in the following terms:
|"That it is expedient that a Tribunal be established for inquiring
into a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely the events
on Sunday, 30 January 1972 which led to loss of life in connection
with the procession in Londonderry on that day, taking account of
any new information relevant to events on that day."
Lord Saville of Newdigate, a Law Lord, has agreed to chair a tribunal
of three. The other two members are likely to be from the Commonwealth.
It is not possible to say now exactly how long the inquiry will take,
but it should be allowed the time necessary to cover thoroughly and completely
all the evidence now available. It is for the tribunal to decide how far
its proceedings will be open, but the Act requires them to be held in
public unless there are special countervailing considerations.
The hearings are likely to be partly here and partly in Northern Ireland,
but, again, that is largely for the tribunal. Questions of immunity from
prosecution for those giving evidence to the inquiry will be for the tribunal
to consider in individual cases, and to refer to my right Hon. and learned
Friend the Attorney-General as necessary. The inquiry will report its
conclusions to my right Hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern
Ireland, and our intention is that they will be made public.
Let me make it clear that the aim of the inquiry is not to accuse individuals
or institutions, or to 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. It will not be easy, and we are all well aware
that there were particularly difficult circumstances in Northern Ireland
at that time.
Bloody Sunday was a tragic day for all concerned. We must all wish that
it had never happened. Our concern now is simply to establish the truth,
and to close this painful chapter once and for all. Like the Hon. Member
for Foyle, members of the families of the victims have conducted a long
campaign to that end. I have heard some of their remarks over recent years
and have been struck by their dignity. Most do not want recrimination;
they do not want revenge; but they want the truth.
I believe that it is in everyone's interests that the truth be established
and told. That is also the way forward to the necessary reconciliation
that will be such an important part of building a secure future for the
people of Northern Ireland. I ask Hon. Members of all parties to support
our proposal for this inquiry.