Tony Blair announces a second Bloody Sunday inquiry (1998)

In January 1998 the British prime minister, Tony Blair, addressed the House of Commons to announce a second inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday, 1972:

“The facts that are undisputed are well known. On January 30th 1972, during a disturbance in Londonderry following a civil rights march, shots were fired by the British Army. 13 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. He produced a report within 11 weeks of the day. His conclusions included these: that shots had been fired at the soldiers before they started the firing which led to the casualties; that for the most part the soldiers acted as they did because they thought their standing orders required it; and that whilst there was no proof that any of the deceased had been shot whilst 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 which 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 his report was published, much new material has come to light about the events of that day. This material includes new eye-witness accounts, new ballistic material and new medical evidence…

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 the Government a detailed assessment which analysed the new material and Lord Widgery’s findings in the light of all material available.

I want to place on 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 a task which 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 this 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, policemen and prison officers, have lost their lives in the last 26 years. It may be asked why we should pay such attention to one event. Madam Speaker, 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 Northern Ireland, is currently looking at a suitable way to commemorate the victims of violence. In particular, the sacrifice of those many members of the security forces, including the RUC, who lost their lives doing their duty will never be forgotten by this Government, just as they were not forgotten by the last Government. The pain of those left behind is no less than the pain of the relatives of the victims of Bloody Sunday.

But 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 do pride ourselves on our democracy and our respect for the law, and on the professionalism and dedication of our security forces…

I should emphasise that such a new Inquiry can only be justified 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 that there are indeed grounds for such a further Inquiry. We believe that the weight of material now available is such that these events require re-examination. We believe that the only course which will lead to there being public confidence in the results of any further investigation is for a full-scale judicial inquiry into Bloody Sunday to be set up…

It is not possible to say now exactly how long the Inquiry will take but it should be allowed the time necessary to cover all the evidence now available thoroughly and completely. 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 this 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 the Attorney General as necessary. It will report its conclusions to my RHF the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Our intention is that they will be made public.

Madam Speaker, let me make clear that the aim of the Inquiry is not to accuse individuals or institutions or 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. This 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 it had never happened. Our concern now is simply to establish the truth, and close this painful chapter once and for all…”