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23 July 1998 Edition

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Bloody Sunday Inquiry: spectre of Widgery

By Martha McClelland

As the preliminary hearings for the Bloody Sunday Inquiry opened this week to set terms and conditions, the spectre of Widgery haunted it.

Relatives have threatened to boycott the Inquiry unless the British government if crucial issues of legal representation and immunity are resolved. Initial arrangements for legal representation announced by the Tribunal, headed by Lord Saville, proposes to provide one senior counsel and two junior counsel. This is essentially what the Widgery Tribunal provided, and severely curtails relatives' right to representation.

The families, who are entitled to full legal representation, announced they will not hand over 400 collected statements to the Saville Inquiry until they are satisfied that they will get a fair and impartial hearing, with the resources necessary to ensure the full truth will be uncovered.

Relatives seek six senior and six junior counsel - roughly one quarter of what they are entitled to by law.

Another key issue is immunity. Relatives want an assurance that blanket immunity from prosecution will not be offered to British soldiers giving evidence. Taking refuge in the technicalities of legal jargon, a lengthy discussion about the possibility of givng the soldiers ``anonymity.'' This may give the soldiers effective immunity; if that is so relatives will reject it.

Contempt for the Inquiry is already evident from other British government branches. Ministry of Defense counsel Edwin Glasgow, QC, stunned the Tribunal by revealing that only ten British soldiers have come forward so far and that he had not felt it was his place to go looking for them. The Inquiry instructed the MoD to locate those soldiers who had given evidence to Widgery - about 40. In total, about 168 soldiers made statements to the MoD at the time. Counsel for the Treasury Department topped this by saying they were ``unable to trace'' most of the British soldiers present because `there was no comprehensive record of those on the ground that day.'

Contacting the soldiers was even more difficult. Mr Ian Burnet QC said that a small number of present addresses were being withheld from the Inquiry for technical reasons. Soldiers receiving pensions were on file with the Pension Department but under the Data Protection Act details could not be obtained without permission. Saville interrupted to ask if the Pension Department had asked these individuals if they were prepared to release their addresses to the Inquiry. Burnet replied that this had not been done. Lord Somers of the Inquiry Tribunal asked if it were not possible to trace the soldiers from regimental payroll lists, but Burnet claimed no such lists were available.

Chairman of the Bloody Sunday Justice campaign, Michael McKinney, said, ``This does nothing to help build confidence on the part of the relatives. I hope that it is not an indication that, while known officers have come forward, the rank and file have taken a collective decision not to participate.''

Saville, visibly astounded by the brazen attitude of MoD and Treasury counsels, said the Inquiry wanted to hear from all soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday, and not just those 168 who had made statements or given evidence. Although the MoD has supplied the tribunal with the last known addresses of 103 soldiers involved that day, many of the addresses are over 20 years out of date. Saville, branding the MoD's efforts ``a failure'', said the Inquiry would employ staff to search for these soldiers themselves.

Saville impressive - but trust has to be built


Watching Saville work was at times impressive. Not a second of the Inquiry's time was wasted. He was prepared to confront the MoD, and left one in no doubt that he knew they were lying to him. He immediately issued a subpoena to get addresses of soldiers from the Pension Department - a shot across the bows of the MoD. He has an incisive mind, able to grasp and sum up complex details and concepts clearly and quickly.

Yet the question of trust remains. Throughout the proceedings, Saville and his team stressed that this Inquiry was not to be an adversarial contest but inquisitional one. This is one reason why less legal representation was needed than, for example, in a court proceeding, Saville suggested.

In stark contrast, the vast work facing the Inquiry is suggested by the over 30,000 pages of evidence and statements, 1,000 photographs and substantial television footage already received by Saville's team. This mountain of evidence does not yet include the originals of the statements made to the NICRA in 1972, nor the 400 statements and other material collected by legal firm Madden and Finucane, representing the families. .

One wonders if Saville genuinely does not understand the realities of law and ``justice'' as practised in these Six Counties, or if he is unwilling to do so.

With the decision expected Friday on crucial legal issues such as representation and immunity, Don Mullan, spokesperson for the Justice Campaign, commented, ``Saville and the Inquiry must understand that trust is still very much an issue here. Derry and the whole of Ireland were very much abused by the Widgery Tribunal. If Saville thinks he can reassure us with words, he must realise that we have seen time and again the iron fist hidden in the velvet glove. Deeds, not words, will earn trust. History would never forgiven us if we settled for anything less.''
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