Slow road to the truth of Bloody Sunday

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THE RANKS of paratroops who did the damage in London- derry on Bloody Sunday are long gone from the city, replaced by serried groups of lawyers picking over every detail of how 14 people died there.

Mottled battledresses have given way to expensive suits in the Guildhall. The Paras who were there in January 1972 would be astonished by today's city, the face of which has been transformed by large swaths of modern housing and an array of new factories.

The overcrowded high-density flats that stood on the killing fields of 1972 have been swept away and replaced by civilised new homes. But in their midst stands the memorial to the Bloody Sunday dead, a reminder that memories last far longer than dwellings.

Lord Saville of Newdigate's tribunal of inquiry, which sits a couple of hundred yards away from the obelisk, yesterday presented a picture of unswerving determination to get to the bottom of what happened 27 years ago. The tribunal's counsel spoke more often of "finding the truth", rather than establishing facts.

Lord Saville, a law lord, has already taken a radically different approach to that used by Lord Widgery in 1972. The Lord Chief Justice of the time had his report ready in two and a half months; its text ran to just 39 pages; some of the deaths rated just one paragraph each. He went for speed rather than thoroughness.

Not so the Saville tribunal, which has already been in existence for a year and a half and is expected to last as long again. Although it has already cost more than pounds 10m, witnesses will not be giving evidence before the end of next March.

Part of the slow progress, it was explained yesterday, is due to legal challenges on important procedural matters such as the granting of anonymity to soldiers. Much of the delay, however, comes from the sheer weight of material.

In a huge trawl for documentary evidence the tribunal has already amassed 60,000 pages, more than 5,000 photographs and 36 hours of videotape.

The Ministry of Defence was unable to say which soldiers had been in Londonderry on Bloody Sunday, originally supplying a list of 3,300 personnel who might have been there. This has now been narrowed down considerably, but tracing many ex-soldiers has posed huge problems since some are in places as far-flung as Qatar and Papua New Guinea.

Six hundred and eighty people have been interviewed. Recording statements from them has usually taken more than five hours for each man, while many interviews have lasted several days. They have traced more than 1,000 soldiers and are still looking for 260 more.

In addition, the tribunal has commissioned a range of detailed reports on every conceivable aspect of Bloody Sunday, including pathology and ballistics, firearms and explosives residue, weapons sounds and injuries. Vast amounts of material have been put on CD-Rom and distributed to all concerned while a virtual reality version of 1972 Londonderry has been created.

Every person and agency involved has been asked for all evidence and documentary material, then each has been asked to give a written assurance that they have passed over everything of relevance. Lord Saville yesterday closely questioned counsel for the Ministry of Defence on why the department had not yet furnished such an assurance, and said he wanted it no later than tomorrow.

With so much material to be worked through the eventual conclusion of the tribunal can only be guessed at. But at the moment, at what may be the half-way stage in the inquiry, no one is accusing the tribunal of lacking thoroughness.