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16 January 2003 Edition

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Heath's selective memory

The Bloody Sunday Inquiry

BY FERN LANE


     
Heath also defended Lord Widgery, saying that allegations that Widgery was not, and could not have been, impartial "were made by people who for whatever reason wished to discredit and cast doubt on the findings of the inquiry"
Amid tight security, the 86-year-old former British prime minister, Edward Heath, was ushered into the witness box in Central Hall, Westminster, to finally give evidence to the Bloody Sunday inquiry.

Like many other witnesses on the British side, he found his frequent lapses of memory very useful in avoiding answering difficult questions about his role in the events, particularly regarding government policy on the use of force in the Six Counties.

In his statement to the inquiry, Heath said that he had "no personal knowledge" of the events of Bloody Sunday and that he had "nothing I could add to the findings in the Report of Lord Widgery's Inquiry". On 30 January itself, he told the inquiry, he was engaged in meeting with his sailing crew discussing a forthcoming event and it was only later in the evening that he heard of what had happened in Derry. "To me, it was totally unexpected," he said. Heath claimed he had no prior knowledge of the decision to deploy the Parachute Regiment.

He also gave evidence that he was unaware of the events at Magilligan Island the previous weekend. He denied Colin Wallace's suggestion to the inquiry that British Army HQ in the Six Counties was subsequently told by the No 10 press office that such pictures must never appear on television again as they suggested that the army was not in control. Heath said that he had not had any knowledge of General Ford's proposal to General Harry Tuzo that the army shoot "selected ringleaders of the Derry Young Hooligans" nor of his suggestion that British Army rifles be modified for the task "until I saw this document during the course of this Inquiry" and that he had never discussed Ford's views with Tuzo or anyone else.

However, the inquiry was shown a letter written by Heath to the Sunday Times newspaper in December 2001, in which Heath said of Ford's proposal that General Harry Tuzo, GOC Northern Ireland "did not agree with the suggestion and took no further action on it".

Christopher Clarke QC, Counsel to the Inquiry, asked Heath how, given his claim that he had not talked to Tuzo about the proposal, "did you come to know or to assert that he did not agree with the suggestion?"

"I think by that time it had become fairly general knowledge," replied Heath. "What had become fairly general knowledge?" asked Clarke. "Oh, the whole incident," said Heath, somewhat obliquely.

Heath denied that his government had sanctioned the shooting of civilians on Bloody Sunday. "The tragic deaths in Londonderry outraged the Catholic community, increased support for the IRA and destroyed the prospect of a political initiative," he said. "It is therefore absurd to suggest that HMG intended or was prepared to risk the events which occurred."

However, the inquiry heard that in October 1971, Heath instructed the British Army to carry out an assessment of the measures they would propose "if they were instructed that the primary goal was to bring terrorism to an end at the earliest moment, without regard to the inconvenience to the civilian population". The minutes of the Cabinet Committee on Northern Ireland, GEN 47, of 6 October 1971 record Heath as saying that the first priority should be to defeat the "gunmen" by military means and that the government "would have to accept whatever political penalties were inevitable". In his statement, Heath says that he does not know now to what political penalties he was referring.

He was questioned by Clarke on Lord Hailsham's view that, under ancient statute, British soldiers were entitled to shoot civilians who obstructed them. For once, Heath's memory appeared to be in perfect working order. He told the inquiry that Hailsham "exploded in very Quinton-like way and said that we must realise that we could take this action, in fact we were under an obligation to take this action.

"Nobody took any notice and it was only much later on that this was raised again, in fact 30 years later on. So that at the time people just said, 'Well, that was Quinton'í and we got on with it and certainly as a government, of which I was Prime Minister, we took no notice at all."

Despite Heath's claims that Hailsham's proposal was dismissed outright, Lord Carver, the head of the British Army, nevertheless seemed to believe at the time that he was being asked to seriously consider the idea. Carver told Channel 4 in 1994: "It was being suggested that it was perfectly legal for the army to shoot somebody, whether or not they thought that they were being shot at. Because anybody who obstructed or got in the way of the armed forces of the queen was, by that very act, the queen's enemy, and this was being put forward by a legal luminary in the cabinet. And I said to the prime minister that I could not, under any circumstances, order a British, or allow a British soldier to be ordered to do such a thing, because it would not be lawful."

Carver recalled that Heath had told him that "his legal advisors suggested to him that it was all right, and I said, well, you are not bound by what they say. What I am bound by is my own judgement of whether or not the act of the soldier concerned would be legal, because it is the Courts that decide in the end, not the Attorney General or the Lord Chancellor."

Heath was also questioned by Channel 4 in 1994 on Lord Carver's claim and on that occasion did not did not dismiss the claim quite as perfunctorily as he did to the inquiry. On that occasion he said: "I do not think that it is true, but again one would have to check it up."

In his statement, Heath also defended Lord Widgery, saying that allegations that Widgery was not, and could not have been, impartial "were made by people who for whatever reason wished to discredit and cast doubt on the findings of the inquiry". Anyone who knew Widgery, he continued, "would confirm his integrity was beyond doubt of question. His report showed that he conducted his inquiry with strict and impartial determination". Widgery, he said, was not "given a 'steer' by me - In any case he was not the sort of man who would accept a 'steer', even if one was offered".

The reason he had told Widgery to remember that the British government was involved in a propaganda as well as a military war, said Heath, was not to influence him but merely to make him aware that "the inquiry would attract media attention and publicity and he would find himself in the middle of it".

Edward Heath is scheduled to give evidence to inquiry for a further two weeks and is expected to face firm cross-examination by the families' legal representatives.
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