Blair Should Just Have Apologied for Bloody Sunday ... The Endless Investigation of the Facts Is Fruitless

Roundup: Talking About History

Kevin Toolis, in the London Times (11-27-04):

How many words does it take to say sorry?

In 1998, as the newly-born Irish peace process began, Tony Blair bowed to Irish republican demands and ordered a new investigation into the events of Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in January 1972, when British paratroops shot dead 13 protesters during a civil rights march.

At the time I supported the creation of such an inquiry. Naively, it seemed to be the right thing to do. After all Bloody Sunday was a historical fountainhead, a key event in Ulster's descent into madness.

What happened so long ago on a cold winter Sunday morning during a civil rights march in Londonderry was a crime of some sort. And the British State had compounded that wrong by employing Lord Widgery, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, to whitewash the actions of its paratroops. Infamously, the Widgery tribunal contrived and contorted the evidence to absolve the wrongdoers and blame the victims.

But the carefully qualified English legalese never fooled the Irish. A Dublin mob burnt down the British Embassy in revenge. Northern Catholics queued up to join a resurgent Provisional IRA, and two months later the gerrymandered Protestant Stormont regime collapsed for ever in ruin.

In 1998 revisiting that historical wrong, and truthfully rejudging the legal failures of the Widgery tribunal, seemed like a necessary step in the nascent Irish peace process. But six years later, after 16 million words have been spoken, 30 million words in documents, 921 witnesses and £155 million in lawyers' fees, I am no longer sure.

Instead of swiftly revisiting the past and delivering a verdict, Lord Saville of Newdigate's interminable inquiry has become a 21st-century re-enactment of Dickens's chancery, where fruitless suitors wait for a final verdict on their inheritance, not realising that the legal cost of the proceedings has eroded the value of their estates to a pittance.

Lord Saville is not dealing with money but with something far harder to corral - confused, conflicting memories of events three decades old. Was it Soldier L who shot first or Soldier B? And what did Soldier C see from his vantage point that Soldier D could not amid the milling, stone-throwing crowd? Everyone from Edward Heath, the Prime Minister, to Martin McGuinness, the IRA leader, and a stream of disguised witnesses from MI6 to the moribund Official IRA, has chipped in his contradictory testimony.

Nowhere else can the deaths of 13 ordinary citizens, 30 years ago, have been scrutinised in such forensic detail.

But apart from making some lawyers very rich what will result in the end? ...

Mr Blair was foolish to reopen the past and reinvestigate just one tiny portion of Ulster's tragedy. It would have been wiser, and certainly far cheaper, to have stood up in the House of Commons in 1998 and to have said sorry on behalf of the British State.

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