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Bloody Sunday

3.30 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): With permission, Madam Speaker, I will make a statement on the events in Northern Ireland on 30 January 1972, which has become known as Bloody Sunday.

The facts that are undisputed are well known.On 30 January 1972, during a disturbance in Londonderry following a civil rights march, shots were fired by the British Army. Thirteen people were killed and another 13 were wounded, one of whom subsequently died. The day after the incident, the then Prime Minister set up a public inquiry under the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery.

Lord Widgery produced a report within 11 weeks of the day. His conclusions included the following: that shots had been fired at the soldiers before they started the firing that led to the casualties; that, for the most part, the soldiers acted as they did because they thought their standing orders justified it; and that although there was no proof that any of the deceased had been shot while handling a firearm or bomb, there was a strong suspicion that some had been firing weapons or handling bombs in the course of the afternoon.

The time scale within which Lord Widgery produced his report meant that he was not able to consider all the evidence that might have been available. For example, he did not receive any evidence from the wounded who were still in hospital, and he did not consider individually substantial numbers of eye-witness accounts provided to his inquiry in the early part of March 1972.

Since the report was published, much new material has come to light about the events of that day. That material includes new eye-witness accounts, new interpretation of ballistic material and new medical evidence.

In 1992, the then Prime Minister said in a letter to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), who has campaigned tirelessly on the issue, that those shot should be regarded as innocent of any allegation that they were shot while handling firearms or explosives. I reaffirm that today.

Last year, the families of those killed provided the previous Government with a new dossier on the events of Bloody Sunday. The Irish Government also sent this Government a detailed assessment that analysed the new material and Lord Widgery's findings in the light of all the material available.

I want to place on the record our strongest admiration for the way in which our security forces have responded over the years to terrorism in Northern Ireland. They set an example to the world of restraint combined with effectiveness, given the dangerous circumstances in which they are called on to operate. Young men and women daily risk their lives protecting the lives of others and upholding the rule of law, carrying out the task that we have laid upon them. Lessons have, of course, been learned over many years--in some cases, painful lessons. But the support of the Government and the House for our armed forces has been and remains unshakeable.

There have been many victims of violence in Northern Ireland before and since Bloody Sunday. More than 3,000 people, civilians as well as soldiers, police and prison officers, have lost their lives in the past 26 years. It may

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be asked why we should pay such attention to one event. We do not forget or ignore all the other attacks, all the innocent deaths, all the victims of bloody terrorism.

Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, a former permanent secretary in the Northern Ireland Office, is currently considering a suitable way in which to commemorate the victims of violence. In particular, the sacrifice of those many members of the security forces, including the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who lost their lives doing their duty, will never be forgotten by this Government, just as it was not forgotten by the previous Government. The pain of those left behind is no less than the pain of the relatives of the victims of Bloody Sunday.

Bloody Sunday was different because, where the state's own authorities are concerned, we must be as sure as we can of the truth, precisely because we pride ourselves on our democracy and respect for the law, and on the professionalism and dedication of our security forces.

This has been a very difficult issue. I have re-read Lord Widgery's report and looked at the new material. I have consulted my colleagues most closely concerned. We have considered very carefully whether it is appropriate now to have a fresh inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday. I should emphasise that such a new inquiry can be justified only if an objective examination of the material now available gives grounds for believing that the events of that day should be looked at afresh, and the conclusions of Lord Widgery re-examined.

I have been strongly advised, and I believe, that there are indeed grounds for such a further inquiry. We believe that the weight of material now available is such that the events require re-examination. We believe that the only course that will lead to public confidence in the results of any further investigation is to set up a full-scale judicial inquiry into Bloody Sunday.

We have therefore decided to set up an inquiry under the Tribunal of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. The inquiry will have the power to call witnesses and obtain production of papers. As required by the Act, a resolution will be needed to set up the inquiry. That resolution will be tabled later today in my name, in the following terms:

Lord Saville of Newdigate, a Law Lord, has agreed to chair a tribunal of three. The other two members are likely to be from the Commonwealth.

It is not possible to say now exactly how long the inquiry will take, but it should be allowed the time necessary to cover thoroughly and completely all the evidence now available. It is for the tribunal to decide how far its proceedings will be open, but the Act requires them to be held in public unless there are special countervailing considerations.

The hearings are likely to be partly here and partly in Northern Ireland, but, again, that is largely for the tribunal. Questions of immunity from prosecution for those giving evidence to the inquiry will be for the tribunal to consider in individual cases, and to refer to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General as necessary. The inquiry will report its conclusions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and our intention is that they will be made public.

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Let me make it clear that the aim of the inquiry is not to accuse individuals or institutions, or to invite fresh recriminations, but to establish the truth about what happened on that day, so far as that can be achieved at 26 years' distance. It will not be easy, and we are all well aware that there were particularly difficult circumstances in Northern Ireland at that time.

Bloody Sunday was a tragic day for all concerned. We must all wish that it had never happened. Our concern now is simply to establish the truth, and to close this painful chapter once and for all. Like the hon. Member for Foyle, members of the families of the victims have conducted a long campaign to that end. I have heard some of their remarks over recent years and have been struck by their dignity. Most do not want recrimination; they do not want revenge; but they want the truth.

I believe that it is in everyone's interests that the truth be established and told. That is also the way forward to the necessary reconciliation that will be such an important part of building a secure future for the people of Northern Ireland. I ask hon. Members of all parties to support our proposal for this inquiry.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): I thank the Prime Minister for his statement, and for giving more than the usual notice of it. On behalf of the Opposition, may I echo what he has said about the work of our security forces, who have so consistently shown great courage and professionalism, often in the face of extreme danger or provocation?

I believe that it was right for my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), when he was Prime Minister, to say that those who died on Bloody Sunday were innocent victims of the troubles, and the Prime Minister has today reaffirmed the statement of my right hon. Friend.

Is the Prime Minister aware that we welcome the fact that the extensive press speculation in recent weeks that he was planning to make an immediate apology turns out to have been misinformed? Indeed, it would have been bizarre for the Prime Minister to make an apology in advance of any inquiry. As the Prime Minister has reminded us, more than 3,000 people have died in the present troubles, most of them at the hands of ruthless terrorists. Does he agree that, when it comes to discussing apologies, it would be both right and helpful to our hopes for peace to have an apology or to see some sign of contrition from terrorist murderers on both sides of the sectarian divide?

On behalf of the Opposition, may I say that we are naturally sceptical about reopening an inquiry which was conducted 25 years ago, especially since previous Governments have already carefully examined new evidence submitted to them? However, if the Prime Minister is personally satisfied--on the basis of the strong advice he has received--that genuine, fresh and compelling evidence has now been submitted which is significant enough to warrant the reopening of the inquiry, we shall accept his judgment.

Finally, does the Prime Minister agree that the members of the tribunal and all of us here--especially those of us who have never served in the armed forces--should be very careful indeed when trying to second-guess with

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hindsight, and from the comfort of the House, the actions of a 19-year-old soldier under fire on the streets of Londonderry 26 years ago?

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