Three senior judges rejected an appeal by Lord Saville, who is heading the inquiry, against a High Court decision last month which had said the soldiers could keep their identities secret. Lord Woolf, Master of the Rolls, said: "Examining the facts as a whole, we do not consider that any decision was possible other than to grant anonymity to the soldiers."
The ruling overturned an original decision by Lord Saville to identify the men, mostly former paratroopers, at the hearings. The former soldiers claimed that naming them would expose them and their families to the threat of terrorist revenge attacks.
Yesterday, the relatives of the Bloody Sunday victims greeted the ruling with dismay. "It is still very early in the day and, while there is disappointment and a little anger, we are determined to see this through," said Mickey McKinney, whose brother Willie was among those shot dead.
Des Doherty, solicitor for the family of another victim, Bernard McGuigan, said that there was "great disappointment" at the decision.
Craig McCartney, a member of the families' legal team, said: "Put yourself in the position of the families. If you had a loved one shot on Bloody Sunday by a British paratrooper, would you think it was good enough, 27 years later, to hear that he was killed by a letter of the alphabet?"
Mitchel McLaughlin, the chairman of Sinn Fein, accused the British establishment of trying to "evade responsibility for what happened on that tragic day".
However, George Kay, a former British Army sergeant, Rhodesian Special Forces warrant officer and campaigner for the paratroopers, said: "We have won the battle. Not just for the paras but for the whole of the armed forces. This could have happened to any of them. I'm jumping with joy and you'd better believe it. I feel like crying."
Campaigner and retired paratrooper Ricky Clitheroe said: "We are over the moon for the sake of all forces. Anyone in the line of duty must never be named. We are sorry that any parents ever lost families in conflict. Tony Blair tried to shame us and now we are going to shame Tony Blair."
The inquiry, which confirmed that it would not appeal to the House of Lords, has been delayed until next March because of the legal dispute. A decision on whether the former soldiers' evidence will have to be given in Londonderry or at another venue is still to be made.
In a 21-page judgment, Lord Woolf, Lord Justice Walker and Lord Justice Tuckey unanimously agreed that the appeal should be dismissed. They said the soldiers had enjoyed peaceful anonymity for 27 years and warned that "it is inevitable that the holding of the tribunal, with soldiers giving evidence, will re-kindle the flames of anger which have been smouldering for so long".
The judges stressed that they were confining their conclusions about anonymity to soldiers said to have actually fired shots on Bloody Sunday.
George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, said: "I am pleased by the judgment. It will provide a crucial measure of protection for the soldiers most at risk from terrorist reprisals. I hope it will now enable the inquiry to press on with its prime task of finding out the truth about Bloody Sunday. Establishing the truth about that day is in everyone's interest."
Andrew Mackay, the Tory spokesman on Northern Ireland, also welcomed the decision, saying that the soldiers would have been in "mortal danger" had they been identified.Reuse content