The Ministry of Defence has indicated that soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday are likely to appeal against a decision that they should give evidence in person to the Londonderry tribunal investigating the incident.
After considering detailed arguments, the three judges making up the tribunal ruled yesterday that members of the Parachute Regiment and other units involved should travel to Londonderry rather than present their evidence in Britain.
In an unusually emphatic ruling, the judges said the chances of the inquiry restoring public confidence "would be very seriously diminished if not destroyed" by holding a major part of the inquiry "far away and across the Irish Sea".
The decision was welcomed by the families of the casualties of Bloody Sunday, when 14 civilians were killed by paratroopers in Derry in 1972. It was criticised, however, by former Parachute Regiment commander Lieutenant-General Sir Napier Crookenden, who said it was disgraceful, grossly unfair and would endanger soldiers' lives.
The soldiers are expected to challenge the ruling in the courts, where several other decisions of the tribunal have already been appealed. A tribunal decision not to grant anonymity to soldiers was successfully challenged.
Around 250 military witnesses are to be called to give evidence at the long-running inquiry, which is headed by Lord Saville of Newdigate. Lawyers acting for soldiers fought to have the hearings transferred to Britain when the men testify next year, arguing that their lives could be at risk. In its ruling, the tribunal acknowledged that the security agencies believed the risk to military witnesses would be higher in Northern Ireland than in Britain, but concluded that the troops could still be adequately protected by security forces for tribunal appearances in the city.
The judges added: "We are satisfied, on the basis of the security advice that we have received, that the security authorities in Northern Ireland can provide a level of protection sufficient to avoid any such risk.
"Neither the MoD nor the RUC have advised us that, notwithstanding the security precautions that they could and would put in place, the level of risk would be so high that it could be described as real and immediate or in terms to the same or similar effect."
John Kelly, whose brother Michael was among the dead, said: "The families believe it is a right and justifiable ruling. For lawyers to argue there would be a threat to life is complete and utter rubbish. We have always said witnesses, including soldiers, should come without fear of threat or whatever."
Tory MP Gerald Howarth, whose Aldershot constituency is home to several of the soldiers involved, condemned the decision. He said: "Although the authorities say that they can do all that can be reasonably expected to avoid a real and immediate risk to life, that is not a hundred per cent guarantee and it refers only to the immediate risk."
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