7 June 2001 Edition

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Bloody Sunday soldiers claim Derry is too dangerous

BY FERN LANE

The Ministry of Defence's continuing efforts to ensure that British soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday will not have to attend the inquiry in person were this week described on Monday by Lord Anthony Gifford QC, counsel for the family of James Wray, as deriving ``from a wish not to be discomfited or embarrassed by having to account for their actions before the very people who most suffered from them''.

During a legal submission by lawyers for the soldiers regarding the possible designated venue for the hearing of their evidence, it was claimed that Derry is the most dangerous environment into which they could be sent. The lawyers were arguing that the inquiry should be moved to London for the testimony of military witnesses, a suggestion to which the victimsâ family are strongly opposed. A further suggestion that the soldiers give evidence through a video link was also rejected by the families.

In a heavily censured communication passed on to the inquiry, the MoD claimed that the threat from dissident republican groups was grounds enough to keep the soliders out of the ``hostile'' atmosphere of Derry. In his submission, David Lloyd Jones QC, counsel for many of the soldiers, also cited as an example of this `hostility' the fact that ``there have been occasions when questions by counsel for the soldiers have been greeted by laughter from the public gallery''. He also submitted that to oblige the military witnesses to attend the Guildhall in Derry would be unfair, not only because of the threat from dissidents but also because of the ``intimidating environment'' and the ``practical prejudice'' that they would encounter, a consideration that does not seem to have been extended to either the victims' families or other civilian witnesses in giving evidence.

Gerard Elias QC, also acting for many former soldiers, submitted that many of his clients were ``now in their 50s and 60s; many, if not most, with families and extended families. They are what might reasonably be called everyday people'', although why this in itself should be a reason for their not appearing in person was not made apparent. Mr Elias was also obliged to acknowledge that MoD laywers ``accept entirely'' and ``do not need to be persuaded about it'' that ``the families would do all that they could to ensure that no harm came to any soldier who came to Derry. It is not the families who pose the threat; it is not the reasonable majority who pose the threat''.

On behalf of a number of the victims' families, Michael Lavery QC dismissed the soliders' claims of a threat from dissidents, telling the inquiry they had been grossly exaggerated by those ``who can only be described as the comrades in arms of the soldiers''. Whilst he welcomed the comments of Mr Elias with regard to the families, he did add that ``I am not at all sure, unfortunately, to what extent these sentiments are shared by all of the components in the coalition that support the army''.

This latest row comes after Lord Saville ruled last Friday that security ``summaries'' on witnesses provided by the MoD and MI5 are to be admitted by the inquiry. In his ruling, the inquiry chairman said that uncorroborated information provided by informers would be allowed, although only if it ``throws any light either on the plans made by any paramilitary organisation for Bloody Sunday or on the actual events of the day''. He added that such information would be made available only to the counsel for the inquiry, saying that if a particular witness or witnesses joined the IRA subsequent to Bloody Sunday it would be considered ``irrelevant''.

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