Paul Bew: The Bloody Sunday Inquiry ... Was It Worth It?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Lord Bew is professor of Irish Politics at Queen's University, Belfast, and was a historical adviser to the Saville Inquiry from 1998 to 2001.]

After 12 long years, and at a cost approaching £200 million, the Bloody Sunday inquiry into the killing of 14 civilians in Londonderry will tomorrow report its findings in a document 5,000 pages long. The shootings, by the British Army on January 30, 1972, happened during a civil rights march which had been banned: all marches in Northern Ireland had been forbidden in an attempt to lower the mounting tensions.

It is astonishing to think that when the tribunal, chaired by Lord Saville, began its work in 1998, David Cameron was not even in Parliament. Now, 38 years after the event itself, Bloody Sunday has come back to haunt another British prime minister.

To say that there is a lack of enthusiasm in Westminster for the report is an understatement. No politician has looked forward to it. When Peter Mandelson resigned as Northern Ireland Secretary, he wryly remarked that his one consolation was that he would not be at the Dispatch Box when the Bloody Sunday inquiry reported.

Tomorrow, Lord Saville is expected to unleash pressure for the prosecution of former soldiers for unlawful killing – just days after Mr Cameron told our troops in Afghanistan that the Army deserved a place of honour at the centre of British life. It is worth remembering that the same British Army lost more soldiers in Ireland between 1971 and 1975 than it has in Afghanistan in the last four years.

So how can this exercise possibly have taken so long and cost so much? Some argue that the Ministry of Defence was dragging its feet – and there was certainly a lack of enthusiasm for it among the top brass. One internal email said: "The Bloody Sunday inquiry are after records (if any) of what happened to the Bloody Sunday weaponse_SLps on Tuesday the Battle of Hastings inquiry will want to find the longbow which put Harold's
eye out!"

The biggest problem was that the forensic evidence relied upon by the original Widgery Tribunal, set up after the shootings, was discredited by the new inquiry.

Lord Saville's remit covered not just Bloody Sunday as a single episode, but each individual killing and wounding, of which there were 27. Every case had to be examined individually to establish whether the killing or wounding had been unlawful or in self-defence. This involved taking evidence from all the surviving eyewitnesses and re-examining a mountain of forensic data.

Arguably, none of this need ever have happened. The promise of a renewed inquiry was conceded by Tony Blair in order to secure a deal with Sinn Fein during the peace process in the late 1990s. But Martin McGuinness, the former IRA chief and now the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, subsequently told Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair's chief of staff, that a simple apology would have sufficed. After all, John Major, the previous Tory prime minister, had already formally accepted on the British government's behalf that those killed were innocent.

It is easy to treat the Saville Inquiry as an almost inexplicably pointless exercise, a mistake in judgment by a newly elected prime minister. But the decision to set it up was rooted in the politics of the peace process. It came just after the British and Irish governments had published proposals that appeared to tilt the negotiations for what would become the Good Friday Agreement away from Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein towards David Trimble and the Ulster Unionists.

The decision to go ahead with the inquiry gave Mr Adams some useful cover when he was facing fierce criticism from within the republican movement. And it did not hurt that some Labour politicians thought a new tribunal might produce embarrassing revelations about the Conservative government in power at the time.

The trouble, now, lies in the ignored question: what exactly does nationalist Ireland want by way of atonement for Bloody Sunday?..

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