Bloody Sunday: Report that will not withstand scrutiny

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The Independent Online
The Widgery report into Bloody Sunday has not weathered the years well. David McKittrick, Ireland correspondent, says that, read again with the hindsight of more than a quarter of a century, it is clear that it will not stand up to the re-examination.

Even considered in isolation from the Irish government's line-by-line forensic dissection, the report is unimpressive and unconvincing. It reads as a defence submission rather than an attempt to bring out the facts: any sense of open and honest inquiry is missing.

To begin with, the report is remarkably brief. Another judge, Lord Scarman, took more than two years to produce a 250-page report, together with a separate volume of appendices, on disturbances in Belfast and elsewhere in 1969. Widgery, by contrast, took 11 weeks to deliver an almost cursory 38 pages. His treatment of the individual casualties occupies only seven pages, while one of those killed merits only five sentences. He attempts no precise reconstruction of each killing.

A striking feature of the report is his readiness, indeed, eagerness to accept the statements of the soldiers involved rather than the evidence of non-military witnesses.

The military case was that soldiers came under heavy gunfire and nail- bomb attack, firing back only when justified in doing so. This was contradicted by almost all the non-military evidence, which pointed to unprovoked military aggression and unjustified killings.

Widgery said paratroops "gave their evidence with confidence and without hesitation or prevarication and withstood a rigorous cross-examination ..." He concluded: "In general the accounts given by the soldiers of the circumstances in which they fired and the reasons why they did so were in, my opinion, truthful."

As the Irish government points out, however, this picture of military conformity and reliability has been brought into serious question by the recent revelations that almost every soldier who opened fire had made quite different initial statements immediately after the event.

Law professor Dermot Walsh, who has been able to compare the early statements with the polished versions offered to Widgery, concluded they had been materially altered. He added: "In many instances the effect of the changes was to convert what had originally amounted to an unlawful or reckless shooting to a more justifiable one."

It is now known that Widgery had access to these early and often damning statements but made no reference to them, presumably because they would have completely undermined his judgment that the military evidence was consistent and truthful.

Furthermore, the existence of the early statements was not disclosed to counsel for the next-of-kin, who would clearly have been in a position to conduct much more searching cross-examinations of the soldiers had the inconsistencies in statements been made known.

A second major source of evidence was also devalued and downgraded by Widgery. Although more than 500 eye-witness statements, collected by the National Council of Civil Liberties and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, were presented to the judge, he appears to have read only 15 of them.

The Irish government argues that a major body of evidence directly contradicting the testimony of the implicated soldiers was effectively ignored.

The judge's disposition to reject allegations of military misbehaviour is evident in his approach to the case of one victim, Gerald Donaghy.

After his death troops announced they had found four nail-bombs in his pockets. It emerged at the hearings, however, that the youth had been wearing tight denim jeans and a jacket, while a nail-bomb, in Widgery's words, "looks very much like half a brick".

It also emerged that the youth had previously been examined by doctors and others who noticed no nail-bombs. One of these was an army doctor who examined him twice, once to confirm he was dead and then again to explore the nature of his wounds, but reported no nail-bombs.

Widgery concluded that on the balance of probabilities the devices had been in Donaghy's pockets throughout.

He added: "The alternative explanation of a plant is mere speculation."

Dublin's case against Widgery concludes: "The victims suffered a second injustice, this time at the hands of Lord Widgery, who sought to taint them with responsibility for their own deaths in order to exonerate, even at that great moral cost, those he found it inexpedient to blame."