Bloody Sunday: When and Why Apologies Work

Interesting to read about British discussions in 1997 about an apology for Bloody Sunday.  Northern Ireland Secretary of State Mo Mowlam wanted a review but only one such that “no soldier or other crown servant should be placed in jeopardy of legal action by whatever the reviewer might find or by what might flow from his findings”.  

As the Irish Times reports, “the restricted files released in Belfast show there was considerable debate within the UK government during 1997 over whether a fresh inquiry was necessary, or if a more limited review and apology might suffice.”[1]  The Defence Secretary, George Robertson, was concerned either that a review without legal consequence could not be guaranteed since a decision to prosecute lay with the AG, or that such a review would be of little interest to the Bloody Sunday relatives.  “A heartfelt apology should, in my view, be the Government’s last word on the subject.”

Here’s why an apology would not have worked in 1997 but was appropriate and fitting in 2010.

An apology in 1997 would have been an attempt to head off the pressure for a new inquiry into the 1972 killing of 14 people in Derry by the British Army (the Paras).  Pressure to revisit the killings increased dramatically with Don Mullan’s Eyewitness Bloody Sunday. With forensic skill and detective work, Don worked through the contemporaneous statements ignored by Widgery.  Over 500 statements had been collected by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and the National Council for Civil Liberties.[2] His account directly challenged the official British version contained in the report of the Widgery Inquiry.

Widgery, the Lord Chief Justice of Britain, had conducted a public inquiry under the gold-standard Tribunal of Inquiries Act 1921.  With undue haste, it took him only a month.  Yet his conclusions echoed through the years.  In exonerating the soldiers and blaming the victims with false accusations that they were armed, Widgery became synonymous in Ireland with a white wash. The Widgery Report was dismissed, including by the Irish Government.

The events of Bloody Sunday and the Widgery Report exacerbated the conflict, strengthened the Provisional IRA, cast the British Army into the role of aggressor, and robbed nationalists of any belief that the rule of law or justice was available to them under British rule. 

Yet however much nationalists would denigrate the Widgery Report, it was the official British version of events by the Lord Chief Justice, the officer at the very apex of the British legal system.  This is what the long campaign of the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign was up against. If there was ever to be a new inquiry, the Widgery Report would have to be set aside. By 1997 the case against Widgery was reaching a climax.

The publication of Mullan’s Eyewitness Bloody Sunday prompted renewed calls for another inquiry and the campaign of the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign got a fresh impetus. In addition to Don’s work, others like Professor Dermot Walsh of the University of Limerick had analysed the statements by soldiers to the Military Police and Treasury Solicitors, detailing their many discrepancies and alterations.  New ballistic evidence emerged, reinforcing the questions raised back in 1972 by Samuel Dash. Channel Four News broadcast new interviews with soldiers on duty that day that challenged the Widgery version of events. We discovered 101 statements by eyewitnesses collected by Irish Government officials.  Investigative reporting by the Sunday Business Post added to the growing body of evidence that the Widgery was indeed a white wash, at the very least an incomplete and distorted account of events. 

Parliamentary Questions were tabled in the Dáil.  In drafting responses, I suggested and the Department of the Taoiseach (Paul McGarry) agreed, that the ‘new material’ presented by Don Mullan would be assessed.  Initially I had no idea how to do this.  A colleague and friend, Gerry Corr, was intrigued.  “You are summoning beasts from the deep” he said, “What will you do if they come?” (Gerry became a life-long friend with a highly distinguished diplomatic career and one of the Department’s great speech writers. He had worked as a traveler in Anglo-Irish Division during some of the worst years of the conflict.)

So I went back to the source and read the Widgery Report.  It was a rich repository of material about the events of that infamous day.  It was plain to see where Widgery had to distort the narrative to validate pre-determined conclusions.  The rationale for ignoring eyewitness statements that conflicted with Widgery’s mission to exculpate of the soldiers was clear. The new material from all its various sources did not need to be proven factually or legally correct. Rather it could be collated and aimed directly at Widgery’s claims, paragraph by paragraph.  The Widgery Report could be hoist on its own petard. The draft Assessment was finished with great editorial and research support from colleagues in Anglo-Irish Division, and Gerry Cribben and Wally Kirwan in the Department of the Taoiseach.

However to my mind, the real test of the Assessment’s merit was the judgement of the Director General of Anglo-Irish Division at the time, Sean Ó hUigínn.  Sean played a pivotal role in the peace process, a supreme intellect at work navigating the way forward in the crucial transition from conflict to ceasefires.  He had been the architect of the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, working closely with the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, another driving force in the peace process. After Sean had read the draft, I was summoned to his office.  He was leafing through the document and lay it on the coffee table as I sat down. As long as there were no glaring errors in it, he approved text.  Relief. In his view, the new material fatally undermined and discredited the Widgery Report. More than that, Sean subsequently added concluding paragraphs that resounded with the high principles of justice at stake.  His indictment was eloquent and excoriating: 

“There have been many atrocities in Northern Ireland since Bloody Sunday.  Other innocent victims have suffered grievously at various hands. The victims of Bloody Sunday met their fate at the hands of those whose duty it was to respect as well as to uphold the rule of law.  However, what sets this case apart from other tragedies which might rival it in bloodshed, is not the identity of those killing and killed, or even the horrendous circumstances of the day.  It is rather that the victims of Bloody Sunday suffered a second injustice, this time at the hands of Lord Widgery, the pivotal trustee of the rule of law, who  sought to taint them with responsibility for their own deaths in order to exonerate, even at great moral cost, those he found it inexpedient to blame.”[3]

Under Sean’s seal of approval, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern conveyed the Assessment to the newly elected British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.  I understand that he underlined in the strongest possible terms the import of how Blair would respond and of the significance of overturning the historic wrong of Bloody Sunday.  Blair could have little doubt that such a powerful gesture would reinforce the momentum toward peace and reconciliation.

The intention was to publish the Assessment eventually so that even if the British Government refused a new inquiry, the Irish Government would table in effect an alternative narrative. It was a great example of the collective talent and teamwork that the Irish system was able to bring to the peace process.

Legend has it that Blair gave the Assessment to his wife Cherie to read with her legal eye.  She had just taken silk, become a Queen’s Counsel.  I like to think that that might be true. Imagine the scene as, possibly armed with a legal pad of her notes, she tells Tony that he can’t stand over Widgery.

It was quite a moment then in January 1998 as, across the floor of the House of Commons, Blair faced Ted Heath, the Prime Minister who had established the Widgery Inquiry over twenty-five years earlier.  Blair announced a new inquiry: “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.”

The Inquiry would take twelve years and cost £200 million. Yet in that brave decision Blair sent a profound message that he meant business about a new form of engagement in Northern Ireland. 

Prime Minister David Cameron’s apology in 2010 was meaningful precisely because it was based on the conclusions of the Saville Inquiry. “What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong……Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces and for that, on behalf of the government, indeed, on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry.”

An apology in 1997 would have done little to substantively correct the double injustice of the victims, murdered and then blamed for their own deaths.  Thanks to the Saville Inquiry, the victims of Bloody Sunday had their innocence not just declared but proven.  The wrongs of Bloody Sunday were laid at the door of the British Army. And through the long years of the Saville Inquiry, there was much truth recovery that in future years will be invaluable for future assessments of what happened that day and why.



31 December 2022


[2] Eyewitness Bloody Sunday, 25th Anniversary edition, p 23.

[3] Bloody Sunday and the Report of the Widgery Tribunal, The Irish Government’s Assessment of the New Material, p


1 Comment

Filed under Anglo-Irish, Ireland

One response to “Bloody Sunday: When and Why Apologies Work

  1. Nora Pat Marshall

    Many, many thanks for giving us this important background to the peace process. I feel very honoured to know you and doubly happy about my Irish citizenship!

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