Allegations point to Widgery cover-up

 

RECENT revelations about Bloody Sunday contained in the account given by the paratrooper commonly referred to as Soldier A present a version of events totally at odds with that offered by the Report on the Widgery Tribunal of Inquiry.

The source of the conflict can be traced to Soldier A's allegations that his original statement was torn up by "Crown Iawyers on Lord Widgery's team" and replaced by their own version. If his account is true, the implications are devastating, not just for the reliability of the Widgery findings but also for the integrity of the whole inquiry. Soldier A is effectively alleging a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice by those at the heart of the inquiry.

This is unprecedented in the context of such an inquiry. Yet my own research suggests that it is credible.

Last summer the original statements made the soldiers who fired shots on Bloody Sunday were released. These statements, made on the night of Bloody Sunday to the Military Police, contained each soldier's account of the circumstances in which he fired.

A comparison of the original statements with their later versions given to the Widgery Inquiry reveals significant discrepancies. Almost invariably, these discrepancies are the result of rewriting parts of the original statements to protect the soldiers from the risk of serious criminal charges.

The nature of the changes strongly suggests they were made with the benefit of legal expertise. For example, in his original statement Soldier V described shooting dead a youth who had just thrown a petrol bomb. But in his evidence to the tribunal this had changed to shooting a youth about to throw a lighted petrol bomb. In the latter the shooting might be justifiable while in the former a charge of murder might be appropriate.

Doctoring the soldiers' evidence is a gross attempt to pervert the course of justice. The seriousness of the matter is compounded by the fact that the Widgery tribunal chose to rely on the self-serving testimony of the soldiers' evidence in preference to an overwhelming body of conflicting evidence from independent journalists and other civilian witnesses.

EVEN material physical evidence was set to one side where it did not tally with the soldiers' accounts. The tribunal was satisfied that the full truth of what happened could be deduced from the soldiers' evidence. In the light of the serious and material discrepancies between the soldiers' original statements and the sanitised versions, it must follow that the tribunal's findings are irretrievably discredited.

They are based on flawed evidence. At the very least, Soldier A's recent revelations provide stark confirmation of this.

The material released last summer does not disclose the source of the legal advice responsible for sanitising the soldiers' original statements. But Soldier A's revelations suggest it was none other than the Treasury Solicitors This is a body of professional lawyers employed by the state primarily to provide legal advice to government departments. Despite the conflict of interest, they were appointed to the tribunal.

Yet the very suggestion that they, or any lawyers appointed to serve a tribunal, would doctor evidence is so scandalous that it is virtually inconceivable It is tantamount to claiming the tribunal was a sham designed to give the appearance of an independent inquiry when in fact it was engaged in a cynical exercise of clearing the British army and government.

The enormity of this claim is highlighted by the fact the tribunal had the powers and status of the High Court and was chaired by the Lord Chief Justice. Again my own research lends some credence to the notion that the inquiry may not have been as even-handed as it ought to have been.

Even before its composition was announced the British government was at work steering the inquiry in a favourable direction. At a meeting between the British Prime Minister, the Lord Chancellor and Lord Widgery, the Prime Minister, cautioned Lord Widgery to bear in mind that ". . . we were in Northern Ireland fighting not only a military war but a propaganda war."

The Chancellor's contribution was to suggest the Treasury Solicitor and the Cabinet Office provide the secretariat to the tribunal. That represents an obvious and serious conflict of interest.

SUPPORT for the argument that the tribunal was influenced by the British government can be found in Lord Widgery's professed faith in the soldiers' testimony. This faith rings particularly hollow in the light of the discrepancies between that testimony and the soldiers' original statements:.

Further evidence of a predisposition in favour of the army is provided by the fact that the tribunal secretary attempted to influence Lord Widgery's interpretation of the evidence and conclusions at the private deliberation stage.

The secretary even went so far as to draft key parts of the conclusion in a manner distinctly favourable to the army.

The substance of the allegations concerning the British army's actions can be described as presenting the greatest challenge to the foundations of democracy and the rule of law in modern British history.

The task of the Widgery inquiry was to rise to that challenge by conducting a rigorous, fearless and independent investigation and restoring public confidence in the institutions of state.

In the light of all the evidence it would be fanciful to claim that it has discharged these obligations. A more realistic conclusion would be that the inquiry has become so discredited that it is compounding the deep sense of injustice evoked by the events of Bloody Sunday.

Prof Dermot Walsh of the University of Limerick is the author of The Bloody Sunday Tribunal of Inquiry: A Resounding Defeat for Truth, Justice and the Rule of Law.