Steve Richards: The real purpose of public inquiries

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[Steve Richards is a columnist at the Independent.]

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...

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