HL Deb 19 April 1972 vol 330 cc99-104

4.27 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission I should like now to repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. The Statement reads as follows:

"My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has formally presented to Parliament the Report of the Lord Chief Justice into the events of Sunday, January 30, 1972, at Londonderry. Copies of the Report are now available in the Vote Office"—

in our case, my Lords, in the Printed Paper Office.

"The Government accept Lord Widgery's findings. All shades of opinion sincerely concerned with the truth must feel indebted to him for his objective and painstaking analysis of events.

"The Lord Chief Justice finds that:

There would have been no deaths in Londonderry if those who organised the march had not thereby created a highly dangerous situation in which a clash between demonstrators and the security forces was almost inevitable.

The decision to contain the march was fully justified by events and was successfully carried out.

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. The dangers of an arrest operation carried out in the prevalent circumstances might have been underestimated by the Commander 8 Brigade, but he sought to minimise the risks by withholding the order to launch the arrest operation until, as he believed, the rioters and marchers were adequately separated. As Lord Widgery observes, he took his decision in good faith on the information available. Furthermore, Lord Widgery describes the dangerous violence to which the troops were exposed. He observes that the future threat to law and order posed by the hardcore of hooligans in Londonderry made the arrest of some of them a legitimate security objective.

The intention of the senior Army officers to use the Parachute Battalion as an arrest force and not for other offensive purposes was sincere. Allegations to the contrary are dismissed as unsupported by any shred of evidence.

Proper orders were given for the arrest operation. The Commanding Officer of the Parachute Battalion did not exceed his orders.

There is no reason to suppose that the soldiers engaged in the arrest operation would have opened fire if they had not been fired upon first.

Soldiers who identified armed gunmen fired upon them in accordance with the Standing Orders in the Yellow Card. Each soldier had to exercise his own judgment which reflected differences of individual character and temperament. 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. But I should point out that the soldiers' own lives were at risk—as indeed the world must recognise that they have been and still are during a great part of their time in Northern Ireland.

"Lord Widgery goes on to say that further restrictions on opening fire would inhibit the soldier from taking proper steps for his own safety and that of his comrades and unduly hamper the engagement of gunmen.

"None of the dead and wounded is proved to have been shot whilst handling a firearm or bomb. Some are wholly acquitted from 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 finally concludes that the individual soldier ought not to have to bear the burden of deciding whether to open fire in confusion such as prevailed on January 30. Unfortunately, he adds, in the circumtances prevailing in Northern Ireland, this burden of decision is often inescapable.

"The Government deeply regret that there were any casualties, whatever the individual circumstances.

"Situations such as that which occurred in Londonderry can only be avoided by ending the law breaking and violence which are responsible for the continuing loss of life among the Security Forces and the public in Londonderry and throughout the Province, and by a return to legality, reconciliation and reason. I hope I may have the support of the House in a renewed appeal for a combined effort to prevent any repetition of circumstances such as led to this tragedy."

4.32 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, and certainly I am sure the entire House echoes his expression of sympathy for the casualties and supports him, or the Prime Minister, in their appeal for an ending of violence and law breaking, which inevitably brings about this sort of situation. We are also grateful to Lord Widgery for undertaking very quickly what must have been an extremely difficult task. If there are defects in the Report I am sure it is not Lord Widgery's fault. It is exceedingly difficult to pass judgment. I had a little difficulty, listening to the noble Lord, in that interspersed in the, no doubt scrupulously accurate, summary of Lord Widgery's Report were certain comments or expressions of what I understand to be Government opinion. I do not disagree with those, but we shall need to look at Lord Widgery's Report.

In a sense, and in fact we hope, this is past history. The Government have taken certain steps, for which they had overwhelming support in Parliament, in regard to responsibility for security in Northern Ireland, and although I should certainly not wish to pass judgment on the difficult question that Lord Widgery poses as to whether it was right to carry out this snatch operation, I would entirely agree, that the Commander did whatever he did in the best interests, according to his best judgment. In this sort of circumstance innocent lives do occasionally get put at risk and I do not doubt that some did innocently suffer on this occasion. It is the safety of the nonviolent citizens that the Army are always so strenuously trying to preserve, and if, inadvertently, they endanger them, it is of course due to the action of those who have driven the Army into taking those steps. I think there is little more to say, short of further debate. I have no question to ask the noble Lord. I again repeat that I hope that this tragic incident will belong to the past and that the Government, like the rest of us, will have learned what lessons there are to learn from Lord Widgery's conclusions.


My Lords, I should like to follow the noble Lord, the Leader of the Opposition, in those remarks. First of all, I would commend the Lord Chief Justice on the speed with which he has completed this Report. We shall read it with the greatest interest, and hope that it will lead to a better understanding of the real difficulties which occur in situations of this sort in which everyone has responsibility, and there is particularly the intolerable burden which is placed upon a military force in making the right decision in a situation where they are dealing with civil disturbance and hooliganism. We certainly endorse the appeal for a combined effort to prevent any repetitition of the circumstances which led to this tragedy.


My Lords, I am grateful for what both the noble Lords have said. Indeed, I endorse what they say, and hope very much that this is an incident to be forgotten now and that with the lessons we have learned we shall have a more peaceful time in Northern Ireland. I would just say this. I think we must be very careful, when reading this Report and considering what happened on that afternoon, to recollect that these decisions and these events took place in what in point of fact was a battle. It has not been a fault of anybody in your Lordships' House, but it is very easy to sit down some months afterwards in the comfort of this Chamber and apportion blame. We must be very careful not to do that, and I am grateful to your Lordships that you have not done so.


My Lords, I want to be very careful not to say anything which is going to exacerbate the violence in Northern Ireland. May I say, as one who gave evidence to the Tribunal, that I appreciate the fairness and consideration which was shown by Lord Widgery as its Chairman, and I also recognise the quite extraordinary rapidity with which he has been able to produce this Report. The one question I want to ask is this. As the noble Lord knows, I was taking part in an absolutely legal gathering, and it was at that legal gathering that the firing took place all around. Can the Minister say whether Lord Widgery, in his Report, makes any reference to those events, and whether those events are included in his description that some firing was reckless? If so, will a proper proportion be given to that criticism in his Report as well as to the affirmation that the British Army as a whole acted—which I accept—with reasonable behaviour?


My Lords, perhaps the first thing one ought to say, as I said at the time, is how very glad I was that the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, was not in any way injured on that occasion and is here to bombard your Lordships with his usual searching questions. I think the noble Lord really ought to read the Widgery Report, and I believe that he will be satisfied that his evidence of the events which occurred around him has been taken into account. I mentioned in the Statement that I made to the House that one of the issues on which Lord Widgery comments is the adequate separation of the rioters and the marchers—I know the noble Lord himself was not a marcher because he was not breaking the law—who eventually went to the meeting. I think Lord Widgery feels that there was not adequate separation between them when the arrest operation was made. I believe that the noble Lord will find that his part in the afternoon is very adequately dealt with in the Report.