Deaglán de Bréadún
Before the publicity surrounding the report of the Saville Inquiry dies down, it is worth considering the differences with the original Widgery Tribunal report on the Bloody Sunday shootings which has now been fairly comprehensively rejected.
Set up on February 1st, 1972, the day after Bloody Sunday, the Tribunal was chaired by Lord Widgery (1911-81) who was then Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.
The Widgery Report was issued on April 10th, 1972, but its main conclusions were immediately condemned by Irish nationalist opinion at home and overseas as “Widgery whitewash” and their stance has now been largely vindicated by the Saville Report.
The most controversial aspect of the Widgery Report was his statement that “a strong suspicion” existed that some of the dead or wounded “had been firing weapons or handling bombs in the course of the afternoon”.
Conceding that none of the dead or wounded had been “proved” to have been handling a firearm or bomb at the time they were shot, Widgery added that, “Some are wholly acquitted of complicity in such action; but there is a strong suspicion that some others had been firing weapons or handling bombs in the course of the afternoon and that yet others had been closely supporting them.”
Lord Widgery, who served in Britain’s Royal Artillery during the second World War, contended that the paratroopers “came under fire” after they appeared in Rossville Street, “and the soldiers turned to engage their assailants”.
He added: “There is no reason to suppose that the soldiers would have
opened fire if they had not been fired upon first.”
Although he conceded that some of the firing by the soldiers “bordered on the reckless”, Widgery nevertheless asserted that they had all acted in accordance with the “Yellow Card” standing orders provided to them.
“Each soldier was his own judge of whether he had identified a gunman. Their training made them aggressive and quick in decision and some showed more restraint in opening fire than others.
“At one end of the scale some soldiers showed a high degree of responsibility; at the other, notably in Glenfada Park, firing bordered on the reckless. These distinctions reflect differences in the character and temperament of the soldiers concerned.”
He also insisted that there was “no general breakdown in discipline” and that, for the most part, “the soldiers acted as they did because they thought their orders required it”.
“The individual soldier ought not to have to bear the burden of deciding whether to open fire in confusion such as prevailed on 30 January. In the conditions prevailing in Northern Ireland, however, this is often inescapable.”
However, Saville is at one with Widgery in the latter’s conclusion that, “The intention of the senior Army officers to use 1 Para as an arrest force and not for other offensive purposes was sincere.”
Unlike Saville, however, Widgery castigates the organisers of the march, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, stating that, “There would have been no deaths in Londonderry on 30 January if those who organised the illegal march had not thereby created a highly dangerous situation in which a clash between demonstrators and the security forces was almost inevitable.”
Supporting the British Army decision to reject the advice of RUC commander Frank Langan, Widgery writes: “The decision to contain the march within the Bogside and Creggan had been opposed by the Chief Superintendent of Police in Londonderry but was fully justified by events and was successfully carried out.”
A mild criticism of the military operation could be implied from Widgery’s remark that, “If the Army had persisted in its ‘low key’ attitude and had not launched a large scale operation to arrest hooligans the day might have passed off without serious incident.”
He also writes that one of the military commanders may have underestimated the “hazard to civilians” in an arrest operation carried out “in circumstances in which the troops were likely to come under fire”.
Later, in March, 1976, Lord Widgery dismissed the first appeal by the
Birmingham Six in respect of the Birmingham pub bombings; their
convictions were eventually overturned in 1991.