The historic inquiry into the Bloody Sunday killings, one of the most violent, emotive and painful episodes of recent British history, began yesterday with a promise that the truth shall be sought whatever the political consequences.
Lord Saville of Newdigate's inquiry, the biggest in Britain, has already reopened old wounds and rekindled bitter memories in seeking to answer how and why 13 civilians were shot dead by paratroopers on the streets of Londonderry.
Many prominent Unionists and senior army officers see the tribunal, 28 years after the event, as an act of betrayal and a sop to republicans. An inquiry by Lord Widgery soon after the shooting on January 30, 1972, exonerated the British army from any blame.
Some republicans claim that this hearing, too, will end in a whitewash. But the Counsel for the inquiry, Christopher Clarke QC, insisted at the opening session in Londonderry: "What happened - whatever the truth of the matter - was a tragedy, the pain for which many have endured down the passage of years. The tribunal's task is to discover as far as humanly possible in the circumstances, the truth.
"It is the truth as people see it. Not the truth as people would like it to be, but the truth, pure and simple, painful or unacceptable to whoever that truth may be."
There was also some thinly veiled criticism of the Widgery Report. Mr Clarke said it now seemed clear that the speed with which the report was compiled had "contributed to the Widgery Tribunal's inability to establish the complete truth" about Bloody Sunday. He added: "To the families of the dead and the wounded, the Widgery Report was to further offense and resentment which continues to this day."
The Saville inquiry, determined that Lord Saville should not be accused of a cover-up, has already spent £15m in two years of gathering evidence. By the time it reaches its findings in another two years, the cost will be around £100m. So far it has traced 97 per cent of the targeted 2,110 witnesses, finding them "on every continent with the exception of Antarctica", said Mr Clarke.
To sift through this mountain of evidence, the Guildhall in Londonderry has been turned into one of the most high-tech courts in the world. Yesterday it was filled with television screens and equipment for the sound system. Among the innovations is a virtual reality model of the Bogside the way it was on that fateful day.
Lord Saville and his two fellow judges, Sir Edward Somers from New Zealand and William Hoyt from Canada, began the inquiry at 10.30am yesterday. In front them sat some 70 lawyers, among them some of the most imminent QCs in the land - Lord Gifford, Edmund Lawson, and the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Allan Green. Also there was Michael Mansfield without whom high-profile human rights cases nowadays seem incomplete.
Friends and relations of those killed on Bloody Sunday sat on one side of the Guildhall. Unlike the rest of the court, not one of them rose when the judges entered. This after all is "Free Derry".
Mr Clarke detailed the background of the troubles. Spiralling violence was countered by the internment of more than 700 people without trial. The civil rights march on Bloody Sunday, illegal though peaceful, was in protest against that.
As Mr Clarke spoke the television screens flashed up documents, many of them hitherto undisclosed, some marked "secret" or "restricted".
The tribunal heard about growing frustration over "no-go" areas in Londonderry on the part of politicians. A hitherto undisclosed document showed General Michael Carver, then chief of defence staff, advised the prime minister at the time, Edward Heath, three months before Bloody Sunday, that drastic action should be taken.
Gen Carver advised that terrorist suspects and leaders of organised gangs of hooligans should be confronted on their own ground and the "no-go" areas should be taken back.
There were details of how the then Northern Ireland Prime Minister, the Unionist Brian Faulkner, insisted on internment against the wishes of general officer commanding in Ulster, General Sir Harry Tuzo and the then chief of defence staff, Michael Carver. In his deposition to the inquiry, Sir Edward described how Mr Faulkner had pressed for internment to save his position and fought against direct rule.
Among the other names chronicled was Martin McGuinness, who was present at yesterday's hearing. He has been asked by the tribunal to give evidence, but has not done so. He said yesterday he was consulting his legal advisors. Asked if he was worried about his own past emerging at the hearing, the Sinn Fein negotiator responded: "I have got nothing to hide. The young people in Derry fought against the injustice imposed by the British army, and I admit I played a part. But since, I have played a very constructive part in trying to get a peace process, a political process to get underway."
Standing watching was 42-year-old Linda Roddy. Herbrother, William Nash, was killed aged 19 on Bloody Sunday and their father Alexander, then 52, was shot trying to help his fallen son. Ms Roddy said: "I just want this inquiry to say publicly that my brother and my father were not gunmen or bombers. They were not even involved in any politics."
Speaking quietly, she said that not only were the family not involved in any way with the IRA, but two other brothers, Eddie and Paddy, were actually serving in he British army at the time. "But after those killings they both left... There's a lot of people who still do not know the reality what happened here on Bloody Sunday, if that is established, we shall be satisfied."Reuse content