HC Deb 29 January 1998 vol 305 cc501-17 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 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: That it is expedient that a Tribunal be established for inquiring into a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely the events on Sunday, 30 January 1972 which led to loss of life in connection with the procession in Londonderry on that day, taking account of any new information relevant to events on that day. 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.

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 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?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I agree with all those points and particularly with what the right hon. Gentleman said in respect of the difficulties facing young soldiers in those circumstances, and in respect of the actions of ruthless terrorists over a number of years. The fact that there is to be an inquiry should not in any shape or form be taken as an indication of any diminution of our total condemnation of those terrorist acts and our belief that those who are responsible for them should show the remorse, apology and contrition necessary. I agree with that entirely.

In answer to the right hon. Gentleman's point, of course there are difficulties with reopening an inquiry after this length of time, but I am personally satisfied that it is the right thing to do. In the circumstances—although there can be all sorts of debate about whether the balance of advantage politically lies in this or that direction—if the evidence is there and is compelling, and I believe it is, it should be done.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle)

May I express my very deep appreciation to the Prime Minister for his statement? He is very right when he underlines the terrible tragedy that that day was. I know something about it, having been the only public representative on those streets on that day. It is therefore right and proper—this is an objective that no reasonable person should oppose or could oppose—that the full truth be established about what happened on that day.

May I also thank the Prime Minister for his recognition of the enormous dignity of the families of the victims of that day in their pursuit of that objective—the truth? Let us now hope that the steps he is putting in place will finally produce the full truth and be a major part of the healing process in our divided community.

The Prime Minister

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. His work in campaigning for this is especially worthy of remark, as he is one of the people who have always believed in a peaceful solution to the problems of Northern Ireland.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I am sorry to have to say to the Prime Minister that I think that the hope expressed by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) that this will be part of the healing process is likely to be misplaced. Opening old wounds like this is likely to do more harm than good.

The basic facts of the situation are known and not open to dispute. An arrest operation went wrong. The arrest operation was directed at rioters engaged in sustained rioting after an illegal republican parade. It was a pity to hear the mealy-mouthed language that the Prime Minister used about that.

I also have to point out to the Prime Minister that mistakes by the security forces have happened frequently over the years. There have been many cases where the security forces have fired on and killed innocent civilians. There have also been cases where the security forces have fired on and killed other members of the security forces. When such mistakes occur, the fault lies less with the men who have been placed in difficult circumstances than with those who have created them.

We are in favour of the truth, too. We would like the truth to come out about many things. There will be widespread scepticism about new witnesses. There will also be questions about selectivity in dealing with this incident and not others.

We have heard that the Irish Prime Minister has pressed for the inquiry. Will our Prime Minister ask him to look into the actions of his party when it connived at the creation, funding and arming of the Provisional IRA? Does the Prime Minister realise that there will be those who will use this inquiry to denigrate our armed forces? The relatives may not seek revenge, but others do.

Finally, I thank the Prime Minister for his reference to the victims of terrorism and, in particular, for his reference to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Does he agree that it is a pity that the Northern Ireland Office removed the reference to the security forces from the terms of reference of the Bloomfield inquiry into victims?

The Prime Minister

May I say to the right hon. Gentleman, in respect of the circumstances, that one of the difficulties is that it cannot be said—to deal directly with his point—that this is a situation in which those who were killed were engaged in illegal activity. It cannot be said, because the Widgery report itself—this is one of the reasons why I think it is important that we reconsider what happened—makes it clear in respect of many of those who were shot and killed that there is no suggestion that they were acting illegally. I went through the report myself in a great deal of detail.

In respect of the four people who were killed in the Glenfada Park flats, let me quote from Lord Widgery's conclusions on evidence. He says: the balance of probability suggests that at the time when these four men were shot the group of civilians was not acting aggressively and that the shots were fired without justification. That is actually in the Widgery report. This is not a set of circumstances in which one can say that there is a necessary correlation between any illegal activity that day and the people who were killed. That is one of the reasons why it is important to consider the evidence.

In respect of what the right hon. Gentleman said about terrorists and the actions of terrorists, I entirely agree, but we do not need an inquiry into Warrenpoint, Enniskillen, Hyde park and Warrington. We know who was responsible. Those were appalling acts of savagery and violence, and we condemn them. The people responsible for them should be punished to the full extent of the law.

What is important, however, is that we make sure that, in respect of matters where there has been fresh evidence given and where we have considered that carefully and come to the conclusion that that evidence genuinely warrants looking at these matters again, it would be wrong, no matter what the inconvenience or the political advantage in pushing it away, not to act according to the evidence. That is what I did, and I ask the right hon. Gentleman to accept that I did that on the basis of a serious examination of the report, the new evidence that had been submitted and a careful analysis of where it might lead. I believe that the best way of dealing with the matter is to have a proper objective reconsideration, without any preconditions as to what the outcome may be, so that the truth can be established and told.

Sir Edward Heath (Old Bexley and Sidcup)

I thank the Prime Minister for telling me last night that he was going to make his announcement today. I do not think that it is appropriate at this stage to carry on discussions and arguments about what in fact happened; for that, we must now await the new report.

On the right hon. Gentleman's remark that Lord Widgery produced his report quickly, I would say only that that was the demand of the House of Commons. The event took place on the Sunday; the Home Secretary announced on the Monday that the commission would be set up; and I announced the commission here on the Tuesday. The general demand was that the matter should be dealt with speedily, because members of the forces change rapidly and the House also wanted the quickest possible answers to the questions. That is the explanation.

I shall readily agree to the commission seeing any of our papers, if it so wishes. The Widgery commission saw the greater number of them—whatever it asked for, it saw. However, if there are still others that the new commission wants to see, I shall readily agree.

The Prime Minister concluded by expressing the hope that this commission will see the end of the matter. I sincerely share that hope—but it is a hope.

The Prime Minister

I do not dissent from any of that—it is a hope. I entirely agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about the circumstances in which Lord Widgery was asked to perform his task, although that obviously had certain consequences, which I also described in my statement, as to the evaluation of the evidence. In respect of what he said about his own co-operation, I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

The proposal that the Prime Minister has made has the support of my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself. I do not believe that he is being mealy-mouthed; this is a courageous decision, not least because some of the conclusions may be painful and even disturbing. I commend his remarks about the young men and women of the security services: I and many other hon. Members have seen their qualities at first hand, and anyone who has done so could not but be impressed by their maturity and bravery.

Does the Prime Minister agree that the inquiry should not become part of the peace process or a substitute for it, but should be seen as a confidence-building measure to assist the progress of that process? Does he further agree that to try to arrive at the truth after 25 years is a Herculean and probably unprecedented task, and that the tribunal will therefore require all the help it can get? Rather than deal with the question of immunity on the basis of individual cases, would it not be right to establish in principle and in advance that those who give evidence freely and frankly before the tribunal will be given immunity from subsequent civil or criminal proceedings?

The Prime Minister

On the last point, there are rules set out in the 1921 Act in respect of that matter, and it is open to the tribunal to request immunity, which the Attorney-General would be able to give. It is also the right of any people appearing in front of the tribunal not to give evidence that incriminates themselves. We certainly do not see this as an exercise in recrimination—the more help that we are given in establishing the truth, the better, so I shall certainly take on board the hon. and learned Gentleman's point.

It is true that there is a 26-year time gap, but much of the process will consist of evaluating evidence that is already there and can be re-evaluated, together with the new evidence that has now been passed on to us. As for its not being part of the peace process or peace talks, that is absolutely right—it stands on its own in the end. There are arguments both ways politically and we have given careful consideration to the issues, but I hope that the House will accept from me that the decision was made because, having gone through the Widgery tribunal, having looked at all the evidence and also at some of the findings of fact made by Widgery and finally having looked at the conclusions, it seemed to me absolutely clear on the evidence that there was material that demanded fresh reconsideration. That is especially true given that it had already, in a sense, been accepted by the British Government, in the 1992 statement, that those who were killed were innocent of any illegal intent.

Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan)

I am not entirely sure whether my right hon. Friend is aware that seven of his Back-Bench Members of Parliament were in Northern Ireland on Monday and Tuesday; as secretary of the departmental Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, I was happy to arrange that visit.

Our final round of talks on Tuesday afternoon, in the guildhall in Derry, was with the families and the victims of Bloody Sunday. I am sure that I speak on behalf of all my colleagues who were there, on behalf of the families of Bloody Sunday and on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), when I say that we thank my right hon. Friend for his statement today.

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for his support

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

Does the Prime Minister agree that Bloody Sunday should also be seen as the tragic climax of a sequence of events that started some time before January 1972, and that many people and organisations helped to shape those events? Will the inquiry's terms of reference enable the tribunal to consider relevant background factors before 30 January?

The Prime Minister

The tribunal's inquiry is into the events of the actual day itself, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, of course, it is right for us to consider—no doubt it is something that the tribunal will have in mind when it comes to consider what happened on that day—the events that led up to it. There had been an extraordinary amount of violence, and many killings and murders had been carried out by terrorist organisations—in particular, the IRA. Of course all these things helped shape the context in which the events of that day took place. None the less, the tribunal will focus specifically on the events of that day and on the responses that were made, which is right and proper, but I have no doubt at all that it will have in mind the context in which those events happened.

Mr. Peter Temple—Morris (Leominster)

The Prime Minister is to be commended for this decision, and he deserves the full support of the House for it. Is he all too well aware that certain historical events in Ireland—often very sad events—have polarised and symbolised the opinion of many of the Irish towards the British, and that we must get over those to secure the peace? Does he further agree that this is not about retribution or recrimination, but about implementing the even-handed treatment of all the people of Northern Ireland, without which we cannot secure the peace that they deserve?

The Prime Minister

That is right. Of course there are many polarised views. When we are presented with conflicting claims—some people calling for an inquiry; some people saying that it is not the right thing to do—the only way out of that situation is to examine the evidence and see whether it is justified on its merits. I believe, for the reasons that I have given, that it is.

It has not been a difficult decision. Indeed, I have been very closely personally involved with that decision; that is one of the reasons why I made today's statement myself. I have no doubt at all that, on the evidence, it is the right decision.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

The Prime Minister has made it clear why Bloody Sunday is entirely different from the Bloody Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays that Ulster has endured; he said that it is different because the state's own authorities were concerned in it. If that is so, on the other side, the state's own authorities—the Dublin authorities and leading members of the Dublin Government—were involved in bringing about the Provisional IRA, and many of the terrorist acts that the Prime Minister is condemning were done by the Provisional IRA. Indeed, a member of the talks process today, who sits there presiding over his own party—Gerry Adams—was responsible for the terrible calamity of Bloody Friday in Belfast.

Therefore, as the Irish Government have joined in pushing for this inquiry, I would ask the Prime Minister to join now in pushing for an inquiry to look into the state's involvement, in the south, in producing the IRA, which has done such terrible deeds.

The Prime Minister

First, of course we received representations from the Irish Government, but the decision was our decision, and it was taken on the basis of the evidence. Secondly, in relation to the Provisional IRA and the events in which it was involved, the hon. Gentleman mentioned Bloody Friday, in which, some six months after the events of Bloody Sunday, 11 people were killed and 130 injured in Belfast. We know who was responsible for that and we can condemn them. We do not need an inquiry to condemn it; we know who was responsible. The Provisional IRA was responsible, and we condemn it.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

My constituency is not far from Birmingham, where so many innocent people were murdered in November 1974. Is there not all the difference in the world between a Government in a democracy, who should always make sure that the rule of law is upheld, and terrorist organisations that, by their very existence, defy the rule of law? That is the answer to those on the Opposition Benches who speak of all the victims of violence. The important difference is between those who might have been terribly wrong, as quite likely they were on Bloody Sunday, and the victims of terrorist violence, which we have always condemned in the House.

I hope that the time will come when, as my right hon. Friend mentioned, there will be a memorial to all the victims of violence. We have a memorial in Birmingham to those whom I mentioned. Let all the victims be remembered.

The Prime Minister

I agree. All the victims should be remembered. I agree also with my hon. Friend's initial point, that we do not operate according to the standards of terrorist organisations. We operate according to the standards of the rule of law. That is why it is important always, in any circumstances where doubts are raised, that we lay those doubts to rest.

Let me make it clear once again: this is an inquiry into the facts, not a prejudgment of the facts. We shall inquire into what happened on that day. It is one of the best answers of democracy to the terrorists to say that when allegations are made against us, we are prepared to look at them. We have nothing to fear from a proper inquiry. We are prepared to uphold the rule of law. Terrorist organisations do not do that, which is precisely why they are terrorists and why we support the rule of law. If that distinction can be made, it is the distinction between the path of democracy and the path of violence.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

I know from my 10 years' experience as a Law Officer in Northern Ireland and from the opportunity for discussion with people of good will on both sides that there is a genuine residue of anxiety not only about the events of that day, but about the inquiry that had to follow so swiftly. Lord Widgery is held in great regard, but there remain anxieties about that inquiry.

I believe that the Prime Minister is right to set up a fresh inquiry, but would he re-emphasise to the House that the armed forces are always placed in the most difficult position; that the object of the inquiry must be to get at the truth, not to go for recrimination and not to go for prosecution; and that any request by the tribunal to the Attorney-General for immunity could properly be considered sympathetically?

The Prime Minister

I agree with all of that. It is not for me to make the Attorney-General's decisions for him, but I know that he will give the matter proper consideration when requests for immunity are made. I agree entirely with the right hon. and learned Gentleman about the difficult position in which the armed forces are placed. That is why I went out of my way in my statement to put on the record our support and admiration for the work that they do.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman's comment about the genuine residue of anxiety is right—in part, for the reason that I gave earlier. There has been much debate about the Widgery conclusions, but, even in relation to the Widgery tribunal's findings of fact, it is clear that, in respect of many of those who were killed that day, there is no suggestion that they were involved in unlawful activity. That is why there is a residue of anxiety. People ask whether, if it is accepted that innocent people were killed, it is not right to establish the truth of what happened.

I agree with those who said earlier that we should not prejudge the outcome. We have set up the inquiry under a highly respected Law Lord, an extremely able man. There will be two good people with him. That tribunal of three will genuinely inquire into the facts. It will be for them to establish the facts, which I am sure they will do impartially.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I was a member of the delegation of Labour Members who visited Derry on Tuesday of this week when we met some of the relatives of the victims of Bloody Sunday who have been campaigning for justice for more than a quarter of a century and who put forward a strong case for some form of international independent inquiry?

Is my right hon. Friend also aware that some of the representatives of the Unionist community whom we met expressed no objections whatever to such an inquiry and, therefore, it is important that the inquiry is seen to be a search for truth and justice, which surely is in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland, whatever their political or religious beliefs?

The Prime Minister

Yes, it should be a search for truth, and I believe that many in the Unionist community will understand why it is necessary to have this inquiry. However, what those in the Unionist community will want us to do—which is why it is so important that we do so in the House—is to express our abhorrence at all the killings that there have been in Northern Ireland and our condemnation of the terrorists who engaged in those killings. That is a necessary part of reassuring them that this is not something that is done for one community or the other community; it is something done genuinely to get at the truth of what happened.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

Is the Prime Minister aware that I am somewhat disappointed that, having read the Widgery report, he did not set out very plainly to the House the background of the events? The Widgery report says that between August and February in that area nearly 3,000 shots were fired at the security forces and 456 nail bombs were thrown at them; that there were 225 explosions, mainly in commercial premises which belonged to Protestants, the end result of which was that they have largely disappeared from the west bank of the Foyle; that there was heavy and sustained rioting on that day; that the illegal march was part of the on-going effort made to overthrow the Government of Northern Ireland which the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), carried out three weeks later; and that the soldiers were there to uphold the rule of law, which, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said, all democracies should uphold.

Will the Prime Minister give us a clear understanding that the tribunal will not only consider the evidence that has been produced by the Irish Government and people in Londonderry, but will consider and seek out all other evidence that was available at that time and not examined, because some of it might shed a somewhat different light on the events that the right hon. Gentleman has explained to the House today?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that the tribunal will consider all relevant evidence, as it should do. In respect of the background of the events, I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I said that earlier myself. Of course the background to the events was as he described, but the plain fact of the matter is, as I also pointed out earlier, that it is not in dispute that, even on the basis of the Widgery report, at least some of those who were killed were killed wrongly. Therefore, it is important to try to establish the truth.

The background will no doubt be part of the consideration that is given by the tribunal to what happened on that day. None the less, it is important, in circumstances where it is a matter of common ground that innocent people were killed on that day, that the truth is properly established. In the end, that is best for both sides of the community.

Mr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I offer my sincere compliments to my right hon. Friend on his remarkable decision to set up the tribunal. There is now an opportunity, perhaps a final opportunity, to uncover the truth of that awful day and bring this dreadful affair to an end. It would be appropriate if many of the sittings were held in Belfast. I also emphasise, if it needs to be emphasised, that Labour Members hold our armed services in high regard. Some of us have even served with the British Army.

The Prime Minister

I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend said at the end. The tribunal sittings will be a matter for the tribunal itself. In respect of the process, it is natural—I think that the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), the former Prime Minister, implied this—that there are of course risks in such an undertaking as holding this inquiry; there are bound to be. The process will be difficult and painful at times—that is clear as well. What is plain to me is that the problems, the wounds, have not disappeared over 26 years. They are still there. The best chance to heal them is to have a proper reconsideration and to try to get at the truth once and for all.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

I represent the home base of one of the most distinguished regiments in the British Army, the Parachute Regiment. Just a few weeks ago, the 1st battalion of the Parachute Regiment returned to Aldershot from yet another tour in Northern Ireland, which it carried out with great distinction and great sensitivity.

Is the Prime Minister aware that this is a two-sided business; that there were indeed casualties on that tragic day in 1972, but that, since 1969, no fewer than 43 members of the Parachute Regiment have lost their lives in trying to uphold the peace in this country, in these islands, and that six civilians and one Roman Catholic padre were killed in Aldershot, outside the officers mess, in a despicable retaliatory action by men whom he condemns but who will not be called to account by the inquiry that he is to set up?

The Prime Minister made great play of his and his Government's support and admiration for our armed forces, and I believe that to be sincere. I believe that he does recognise the particular difficulties faced by young men in having to make split-second decisions, but does he not recognise that his decision today in some sense threatens to put counter-terrorist operations at risk if the front-line soldier feels that he does not have the support of his political master, whose orders he carries out?—[Interruption.] These are questions which deserve answers. I represent men who are serving in Northern Ireland—[HoN. MEMBERS: "We all do."]—as do right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, and those men deserve an answer. The IRA will not be called to account in the inquiry that the Prime Minister will set up.

I conclude by reminding the Prime Minister: These tragic events belong in the past."—[0fficial Report, 19 April 1972; Vol. 835, c. 521.] Those are not my words but those of his predecessor, now Lord Callaghan.

The Prime Minister

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Whether these events should be revisited and whether it would have any effect on the way in which the armed forces operate on the ground weighed heavily with us. I agree entirely that they have to know that they have the support of their political masters, and they have it 100 per cent., but it would be a disservice to them to believe that they should have anything to fear from an inquiry that establishes the truth, where people accept that people were killed in circumstances in which they should not have been killed. Far from undermining support for our armed services, I believe that, by setting up the tribunal of inquiry under a highly respected Law Lord and establishing it in such a way that it can get at the truth, we underline the fact that, unlike the terrorists, we do not have anything to fear from inquiries into the truth.

The hon. Gentleman said that the IRA will not be called to account. Yes, they will be called to account. We do not need a tribunal to call them to account—we call them to account now. We call them to account every single time that any one of us speaks on these issues. We condemn absolutely and unequivocally what they have done and the terrorist murders that they have carried out.

Labour Members as well as Conservative Members have had constituents who were killed, murdered, in random acts of terrorism. That has happened on both sides of the community. We have seen in the past few weeks terrorists who have gone to a taxi rank and shot the taxi driver just on the basis that he happened to be a Catholic. All those people deserve our condemnation. It is precisely to show why we set higher standards than the terrorists that we say that it is right to have this inquiry.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

The seeds of the inquiry were contained in letters sent from the previous Prime Minister to my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), saying that the victims were innocent, and, prior to that, in letters to the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) and myself, saying that they were not guilty. In those circumstances, an inquiry was on the cards.

I was also with the group that met the families of the victims of Bloody Sunday in Deny on Tuesday. They said that there were two things that they did not want: first, they did not want an apology, because that would cut across and perhaps substitute for an investigation; and, secondly, that the inquiry should not be dealt with as a quid pro quo or a confidence-building measure but should take place entirely on the ground that it is the correct and just thing to do. I very much welcome my right hon. Friend's statement.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend has a proud record of raising issues in relation to Northern Ireland in a particularly impartial and constructive way. I agree with both the points that he made. First, it would have been quite wrong if an apology cut across the investigation, and, secondly, the inquiry should be based on the evidence. It is based on the evidence, because, in a sense, that is why the matter has not gone away over 26 years. It might have gone away had the evidence been less clear, but it has not gone away precisely because the evidence is clear. There are matters that must be investigated and looked at.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

The new dialogue group has been asking for at least a partial reopening of Widgery. May I give unqualified support to the Prime Minister's decision, to his statement and to his answers to questions? I am sorry both that people died in Derry that day and that thousands have died in the years since. There is nothing that the Provisional IRA can do to make people in Great Britain want to split the Union, but we should warn the disloyalists who are killing Catholics after the murder of Billy Wright that they test the unity of the Kingdom far more.

The Prime Minister

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for what we have said. I agree that those who carry out appalling killings in the name of loyalty to the United Kingdom commit a profound act of disloyalty to the United Kingdom, and they will not affect the Government's judgments in any way.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and the assurances that he gave. They are a further demonstration that he and his Government, including the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, want to do everything possible to bring fairness, justice and the truth to the Province of Northern Ireland. Will he assure us that there will be no sidetracking of evidence, but no one will be intimidated against giving evidence, and that we shall obtain the truth, which will be published and presented to Parliament?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I can give those assurances. Certainly, the evidence will be properly considered and the results given to the House

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I sat through the debate to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), the former Prime Minister, referred, on 1 February 1972, and heard how earnestly hon. Members on both sides of the House desired to establish the truth—the then Minister of State for Defence, Lord Balniel; Robin Chichester-Clark; the Home Secretary; Merlyn Rees, now Lord Rees; and Harold Wilson. Lord Widgery produced an exemplary report, which was remarkable for its clarity and objectivity. May I say to the Prime Minister that we need to look resolutely forward to secure reconciliation? The wounds run too deep. May I say candidly that reinvestigating these matters will just exacerbate the pain, sorrow and grief, and lead to further alienation of loyal people in Northern Ireland, who look to their Government to secure and protect their birthright and inheritance?

The Prime Minister

First, I do not cast any aspersions on the decisions that were made at that time. Many hon. Members have given graphic descriptions of the circumstances in which those decisions were taken. In the end, it is a matter of judgment. We must make a judgment on whether it is possible to look forward without having sufficiently looked back and sorted out the problems that history has left us. My judgment is that we will not be able to move on to the next chapter until this chapter is properly closed.

I understand why the hon. Gentleman may disagree with that judgment. It is a fine judgment to make, but I came to it on the evidence. This issue will not go away. The residue of anxiety and grievance will not disappear while the evidence remains so clear that it is necessary to reconsider and re-evaluate what happened on that day. I do not doubt that that will be painful in many circumstances, but it is always better to search out and reach for the truth than to decide that it is too painful to get at and we should move on.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement, and for establishing the inquiry. Will he assure the House that all Government and military departments will give their full co-operation, that the evidence that was ignored by the Widgery tribunal will be made available to the inquiry, and that witnesses, from whatever quarter, who require financial support for legal representation at the inquiry, will receive it?

All of us who want peace in the Six Counties recognise that it has to be based on honesty and truth. The inquiry will help to give an awful lot of people confidence that the Government are serious about the search for peace in Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister

The Ministry of Defence will advise any of those serving at the time who give evidence to the tribunal, and will ensure that they are looked after properly. Other questions of representation will be for the tribunal to decide.

A lot of evidence will be examined afresh, although it is also fair to say that some of that evidence will be re-evaluated; it was available at the time.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

The Prime Minister has told the House that a judicial inquiry is needed because he wants to get at the truth, which he said was particularly important as an arm of the state was involved. Is he aware that another event—one that did not occur 26 years ago when someone else was Prime Minister—occurred in HMP Maze not much more than 26 days ago while he was Prime Minister? A man under the controlled custody and care of the state was murdered. A civil service-type inquiry is being held into that incident. Why can we not have a full-blown, judicial, public inquiry into those events, especially in view of the fact that a number of innocent people have been killed as a result?

The Prime Minister

There is already a perfectly well-established procedure for inquiring into such events. Two inquiries are already under way: one by the RUC and the other by the person specifically appointed to look into incidents in prisons. We have made it clear that we shall inform people of the results of those inquiries, and I am satisfied that that is the best way to deal with the matter.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

I assure the Prime Minister that my question implies no criticism either of the decision to reopen the inquiry or of the two eminent Commonwealth judges who are to sit with Lord Saville. Will he explain why he has decided to have two Commonwealth judges, as opposed to three United Kingdom judges?

The Prime Minister

Because it is important to make it absolutely clear that the inquiry will not only be impartial but will be seen to be impartial. Those appointments give the best chance of credibility. We have considered the matter carefully. We believe that it is right to have a senior British Law Lord, and that it will assist the inquiry to have two Commonwealth judges, who come from outside our jurisdiction but are familiar with its rules, sitting alongside him. That has been broadly welcomed across the spectrum.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Almost every hon. Member will agree with much of what the Prime Minister has said. I certainly do, and I do not doubt his good intentions. Does he accept that, since the Widgery report in 1972, the operational conditions of the Army and the security forces have changed dramatically, with the introduction of the yellow card and more stringent regulations? Because of that, two guardsmen, Fisher and Wright, are now languishing in gaol because they believed that they were doing their duty—mistakenly, as it happened.

Does the Prime Minister accept that, apart from the families of the deceased, with whom we all sympathise, the people who will gain the most satisfaction from his announcement may easily be—I regret to say—the IRA and Sinn Fein? As the Prime Minister rightly pointed out, they were responsible for Warrenpoint and Enniskillen, but he recently met their representatives at No. 10 Downing street.

Finally, will the Prime Minister accept my assurance that, whatever he may believe, the announcement of an inquiry will make it more rather than less difficult for the security forces on the streets of Northern Ireland to carry out their task?

The Prime Minister

I do not agree with that. If I had thought that, it would have been a very strong reason for not having an inquiry. I have to say that I think the single best weapon in the hands of those who are on the extreme side would that they could say, "They are not having an inquiry even when the evidence demanded it, because they are afraid of having one." I think that the greatest benefit of being seen to be unafraid to establish the truth in an inquiry will go to the democrats, who are able to say, "We are the people who recognise that we do things in a different way from terrorists, and when allegations are made about the way in which we have done things, we are prepared to have them investigated, and investigated properly."

As for the way in which the regulations have changed since 1972, yes, they have changed considerably. In respect of the case of Messrs Fisher and Wright, leave was granted in the High Court on Monday to seek a judicial review of the Secretary of State's decision. I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to comment further while legal proceedings are in train, but the hon. Gentleman will have heard the response that I gave an hon. Member yesterday.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Will the Prime Minister welcome the support that his initiative has received from many parties in the House, including the Liberal Democrats? Will he confirm that the intention is not to carry out a witch hunt, but to hold an inquiry that is seen to be absolutely independent? Lastly, does he agree that the intention is not to build a monument to anguish, but to dismantle one, so that we can lay to rest the 26 years of uncertainty that many have experienced—and, perhaps, find it a little easier to look forward to a more peaceful future rather than back to a troubled past?

The Prime Minister

I agree with that entirely.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Will the Prime Minister comment on one problem that will clearly arise from what he has said today?

I think that it is common ground between us that there is a strand within the Republican movement—it is probably a majority strand, although I accept that it is not a unanimous strand—that has not been seeking an inquiry for all these years, but seeking a verdict. The verdict that those people have been looking for is that a British army of occupation murdered peaceable people in the street.

I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that people in that frame of mind will not be satisfied by any form of inquiry that does not give them the verdict that they seek. While I do not for a moment minimise the difficulty of the decision that the right hon. Gentleman felt that he had to make, there is a sense in which what he has done today, far from laying the matter to rest, means that it will stay there in perpetuity.

There are those who would believe—and I think that they would believe it without criticising the Prime Minister for the decision that he has made—that the interests of the innocent people of Northern Ireland, and of the British Army that has protected them with such conspicuous courage, would have been better served if the House had said collectively, "A judicial inquiry was set up by a democratic Parliament, and we should have the confidence in our own institutions to stand by that original verdict."

The Prime Minister

We should stand by it entirely, unless there is evidence to suggest that it should be reconsidered. It would be contrary to the spirit of what the hon. Gentleman has said if, having evaluated that evidence, weighed it, looked at it and decided that it merited a reconsideration of the events of that day and of the original tribunal of inquiry, I refused to allow that.

As for the suggestion that people may want a type of verdict that convicts the "British army of occupation" and all the rest of it, and they are not going to get it, and that will be a problem for them, I am not setting up the inquiry for those people. I am setting up the inquiry because the relatives of those who died that day have the right to expect us, their Government—the British Government—to try to establish the truth of the events of that day. I am interested in their interests, their concerns and their sense of grievance, not in the sense of grievance of people who have engaged in terrorist acts.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

May I ask the Prime Minister whether he can assure the House that, before his decision, he neither sought nor received any expression of opinion on the matter from any member of the Clinton Administration?

The Prime Minister

I have not personally, no, although I think that their views on it are pretty well known—as are the views of the Irish Government. They are perfectly entitled to their views. I took the decision based on the evidence.

Madam Speaker

I think that that is it. Thank you very much, Prime Minister.