Steve Richards: The real purpose of public inquiries

There is a deceptive purity about them, the formality, the questioning of witnesses, the evidence-based conclusions. But the context of these acts is always multilayered

Even after the magnificently authoritative investigation into Bloody Sunday I remain an inquiry-sceptic. We have too many inquiries and nearly all of them fail to illuminate. Some of them add to the haziness. Others reach the wrong conclusions and, later, there has to be an inquiry into the original inquiry. Nearly always they are called for motives that are impure. There are few high-profile inquiries that come about because a government has decided it would be fascinating, important and healthy for a definitive investigation to be called.

A renewed hunger for the truth was not the motive behind Tony Blair's decision to hold the Saville inquiry into what happened on Bloody Sunday. He did so in January 1998 in order to unlock the peace process that had reached another nightmarish obstacle. If a fresh investigation into the bombing in Warrington might have got the peace process back on track, Blair would have summoned a Lord to look into it. Instead, an inquiry about another past event to be delivered in the far-off future was instigated in order to have an immediate impact on the present. I do not blame him for having complex motives. Calling an inquiry helped to clear the way.

There is a deceptive purity about inquiries, the formality, the extensive questioning of every witness and, sometimes, the evidence-based conclusions. But the context of these acts of seeming objectivity is always multilayered. Inquiries are held to get a government out of a hole or because a government has no choice but to hold one and even then it tries to exert control. The original inquiry into Bloody Sunday, completed by Lord Widgery in the space of three months in 1972, largely exonerated the soldiers from blame. No doubt the government had assumed, and hoped, when it appointed the Lord Chief Justice to embark on a superficial, speedy investigation that such a conclusion would be reached. Imagine if Tuesday's report had landed on the volcanic politics of Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. Somehow or other the landing would not have happened.

Alternatively, the government would have called another inquiry. John Major used to announce one most days of the week as he struggled to remain in power, tormented by external events often beyond his control. Did the Conservative government illegally export arms to Iraq? Help! Let's kick the story into the long grass. The subsequent Scott inquiry reported in a way that was highly dramatic, with Robin Cook and Ming Campbell, the opposition foreign affairs spokesmen at the time, locked in a room to read the findings for an hour or so before debating them in the Commons. Cook delivered such a brilliant speech that Tony Blair sent him a note saying it was the best he had heard in the Commons since becoming an MP. I can remember all of that, but the precise findings of Scott escape me for the moment. They were critical of the government, but in a way that was by no means fatal. Major carried on for another two years.

Major was able to dictate the terms of the Scott inquiry. Tony Blair was similarly powerful enough to announce the Hutton inquiry and establish that the remit was limited to the death of Dr David Kelly. The narrow range meant that, from the beginning, Hutton was never going to be as devastating as the government's critics had hoped and assumed. Hutton was not going to accuse Blair or Alastair Campbell of murdering Kelly, although there are still a few deranged conspiracy lovers who wished he had. Blair later cited Hutton as a reason for having no more inquiries into the war in Iraq, but Hutton had not been asked to investigate the conflict.

Inquiries often become fig leafs in precisely this way. "Look we've had the Scott/Hutton inquiry there is nothing more to say." This is a familiar declaration even when an inquiry has been critical. The Franks investigation into the Falklands War contained a mountain of criticisms but the conclusion cleared the Thatcher government of direct culpability and that was the end of the matter.

Sometimes inquiries distort in the opposite way. The current Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War, simply by sitting in public, has created the impression that there are more hidden scandals that will be dramatically exposed. During the inquiry's questioning of Blair last year, BBC News 24 ran the headline, "Breaking News – Blair Defends Decision To Go To War". This was not a dramatic revelation. So far, nothing new has emerged from Chilcot, but his conclusions will be leapt upon even though they will be based on existing, publicly known information.

In some ways the Chilcot inquiry is one of the few over which the government lost control. Gordon Brown did not want the hearings to be held in public but was then too weak as Prime Minister to impose his will. It was a sign of how powerless Brown had become. He was a great fan of holding inquiries when he had already decided what the outcome should be.

In other respects, Chilcot fits the pattern. Brown did not call the investigation in search of fresh illumination. He was in trouble with his backbenchers and sought approval from anti-war newspapers. With misplaced optimism he hoped the announcement of an inquiry would give him a bit of a boost. The problem was that he then had to hold it. In this regard inquiries are similar to referendums. The offer of a referendum helps a leader. The prospect of holding one can become a nightmare. David Cameron sealed his deal with Nick Clegg when he offered a referendum on the voting system. Their subsequent cosy relationship will be tested when the plebiscite is actually called. Blair made great headway by offering referendums on everything from the euro to electoral reform for the Commons. He never held them. There were times when Brown wished he had never held the Chilcot inquiry.

The Saville inquiry outlasted the prime ministerial tenure of Blair, who commissioned it. This is not unusual. Chilcot will report long after Brown's departure. Brown knew Chilcot's conclusions would not be reached until the election was safely out of the way.

Saville is unusual in the clarity and unqualified nature of its judgements. There are no get-out clauses for the soldiers who were guilty and there is unequivocal vindication for those originally accused. No one can accuse Saville of rushing to judgement. The exhaustive research combined with the damning verdicts shrink the decades that divide Bloody Sunday from the verdict. They have a power in spite of the gap. The army is held to account. Pitch perfect, David Cameron apologised with dignity in the Commons. Those who thought they would get away with it have not done so. The sequence is a vindication of the expedient decision to revisit Bloody Sunday.

An inquiry-sceptic can cheer when history is revisited, authoritatively revised and bleak truth is established. And yet even in this case the moment of catharsis brings its own problem, with other victims wondering why their unresolved cases are not being formally investigated too.

There lies the final twist. Inquiries quite often fuel crises when they are called to address them. I hope that does not happen in Northern Ireland, but inquires, or the context in which they are set up, are never as stoically objective and innocent as they seem.