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27 March 2003 Edition

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Wilford takes the stand

The Bloody Sunday Inquiry

BY FERN LANE

 

Colonel Derek Wilford, the former commander of 1 Para on Bloody Sunday began giving his evidence to the Bloody Sunday inquiry on Wednesday and, as expected, defended the actions the soldiers under his command which led to the deaths of 14 people and the wounding of 14 more.

In the presence of a large number of the families of the dead and injured, Wilford, now aged 69, told the inquiry: "I believe my men were fired upon and they returned fire within the rules of engagement. Nothing I witnessed that day caused me to believe that my men acted other than in a professional way." He said that he did not believe the evidence of one former soldier who has already told the inquiry that the Paras committed "shameful and disgraceful" acts.

Under questioning by Christopher Clark QC for the inquiry, Wilford refuted the comments he made to a Channel 4 documentary about Bloody Sunday. In the programme, he recalled that, during a briefing, "I asked ... the question which in fact for a long time has worried me. I said 'What happens if there is shooting?' To which I got a very sparse reply to the effect that 'Oh, well, we will deal with that when it comes'. It is my greatest regret that I did not actually pursue that question and say 'Right, you know, what do you want us to do if we are shot at'?"

Wilford insisted to the inquiry that the exchange had never taken place at all, saying that he could not "account at all" for why he had made the claim.

He also backd away from comments he made during the course of another documentary, Secret History: Bloody Sunday, during which he was recorded as saying of the same briefing:

"I was disturbed because I felt that [8] brigade, and the people in that brigade - that is the soldiers and the RUC, who were up there in Londonderry - were not at all happy about what we were being asked to do. I just felt that there was a pacifist sort of attitude, but this perhaps was born of something which I was not aware of, you know. Right from the very beginning I felt that that they did not want to do what they were being asked to do.

"Our thoughts were quite different, of course, you see, because we had been brought up on the Belfast policy, and the Belfast policy was one of not sitting there and being Aunt Sallies, but to go out and to dominate the area to ensure in fact that we were in control and that we did not hand control over to the IRA."

However, under questioning, Wilford said that he could neither remember making these comments, nor could he remember having such thoughts prior to Bloody Sunday.

Of Bloody Sunday, Wilford told the inquiry that when his men entered the Bogside on 30 January 1972 "they conducted an arrest operation until such time as they came under hostile fire. At no time did they engage in a running battle."

He claimed that as he followed his men through Barrier 12 he heard incoming fire, and as he continued he heard "two or three" more shots which he felt "were personal in the sense that they were aimed at me".

Wilford also told the inquiry that, during a subsequent television interview, he had criticised the fact that he received no orders "from above" during this stage. Now that he had had a chance to "refresh" his memory, however, it was clear to him that further orders were unnecessary.

"I had conducted the arrest operation," he said. "There were no more arrests to be made and that was the end of the matter. I therefore withdrew my men."

Wilford is expected to give evidence for several more days.

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