HL Deb 29 January 1998 vol 585 cc330-40

3.37 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Richard)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister on the events in Northern Ireland on 30th January 1972, which has become known as Bloody Sunday. The Statement is as follows:

"The facts that are undisputed are well-known. On 30th 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.

"He produced a report within 11 weeks of the day. His conclusions included these: that shots had been fired at the soldiers before they started the firing which led to the casualties; that for the most part the soldiers acted as they did because they thought their standing orders required it; and that while 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 timescale within which Lord Widgery produced his report meant that he was not able to consider all the evidence which 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 his report was published, much new material has come to light about the events of that day. This material includes new eye-witness accounts, new ballistic material, and new medical evidence.

"In 1992 the then Prime Minister said in a letter to the honourable Member for Foyle, who has campaigned tirelessly on this 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 the Government a detailed assessment which analysed the new material and Lord Widgery's findings in the light of all material available.

"I want to place on 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 upon to operate. Young men and women daily risk their lives protecting the lives of others and upholding the rule of law, carrying out a task which 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 this 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, policemen 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 Northern Ireland, is currently looking at a suitable way to commemorate the victims of violence. In particular, the sacrifice of those many members of the security forces, including the RUC, who lost their lives doing their duty will never be forgotten by this Government, just as they were not forgotten by the last government. The pain of those left behind is no less than the pain of the relatives of the victims of Bloody Sunday.

"But 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 do pride ourselves on our democracy and our respect for the law, and on the professionalism and dedication of our security forces.

"This is a very difficult issue. I have reread Lord Widgery's report myself and looked at the new material. I have consulted with 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 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. We believe that the only course which will lead to there being public confidence in the results of any further investigation is for a full-scale judicial inquiry into Bloody Sunday to be set up.

"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 required to set up the inquiry. The resolution will be tabled later today in my name, and will be 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. "The noble and learned Lord, 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 all the evidence now available thoroughly and completely. 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 this 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 the Attorney-General as necessary. It will report its conclusions to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. 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 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. This 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 it had never happened. Our concern now is simply to establish the truth, and close this painful chapter once and for all.

"Members of the families of the victims, like the honourable Member for Foyle, have conducted a long campaign to this 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 do want the truth. I believe that it is in the interests of everyone that the truth is established, and told. It is also the way forward to the necessary reconciliation which will be such an important part of building a secure future for the people of Northern Ireland. I ask all sides of the House to support our proposal for this inquiry."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.46 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement and for his courtesy in giving me advance notice of it. On behalf of the Opposition, I can say that if genuine and fresh evidence has now been submitted, evidence which the Law Officers advise is significant enough to warrant an inquiry, we shall accept the Prime Minister's judgment that an inquiry should take place.

Inevitably, as was clear from the tone of part of the Statement, there is a danger that a changed conclusion could be seen as an indictment of Lord Widgery. Will the Leader of the House confirm that the inquiry will be conscious of that danger? Can the noble Lord say when he will be in a position to announce the names of the other two members of the inquiry?

As far as immunity from prosecution is concerned, the Statement acknowledged that the families of the dead do not necessarily want prosecutions. Can the noble Lord say whether that wish will be taken into account when the report is available to the Government?

I welcome the fact that the Government agree with my right honourable friend the Member for Huntingdon, Mr. Major, when he was Prime Minister, when he said that those who died on Bloody Sunday were innocent victims of the Troubles.

Is the noble Lord aware that we on this side of the House welcome the decision, contrary to much speculation before the delivery of the Statement, not to make an apology before the inquiry reports?

Would the noble Lord agree that those of us who have never served in the Armed Forces should be very careful indeed before trying to second-guess, with the benefit of 25 years' hindsight, the actions of a 19 year-old soldier under fire on the streets of Londonderry?

Does the noble Lord accept that the Provisional IRA and, indeed, many other terrorist organisations in all parts of the world regularly try to provoke ill-considered reaction from young soldiers, and that those of us who have for many years studied terrorism and have had a very close association on both sides of terrorist wars in the past 30 years are well aware that that is a perfectly usual ploy among terrorist organisations? Can the noble Lord assure the House that the inquiry will take that matter into account as well?

I should like to associate this side of the House with the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord about our Armed Forces. Will he go further and agree with me that no other army in the world could have shown such a degree of discipline in Northern Ireland, in all ranks, as the British Army has since 1969? After all, myths are potent in all politics. Perhaps in Irish politics myths are more potent than in most places. Does the noble Lord agree that the inquiry should guard against the dangers of its conclusions being used as a weapon by one side against the majority in the Province?

As the Statement makes clear, more than 3,000 people have died in the present troubles, most of them at the hands of terrorists. Does the noble Lord agree that in our hope for peace it would be both right and helpful to have an apology, or at the very least some sign of contrition, from those terrorist gangs and their apologists for all the havoc that they have initiated in pursuit of their political aims—political aims that we in this country tend to try to pursue through peaceful means?

3.52 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, from these Benches I also thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made by the Prime Minister in another place. When dealing with Northern Ireland it is an axiom that it is far better to dwell on the future than rake over the problems of the past, but this is a clear exception to that. I welcome the balanced, fair and extremely careful Statement made by the Prime Minister to which it is very difficult to take exception. My hope, which has been confirmed by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, is that it will command the broad support of the House in all quarters.

The Statement sets out very clearly why there is new evidence to be assessed. I do not take that in any way as a reflection on the report of Lord Widgery so long ago at the end of an inquiry lasting 11 weeks. There is a widespread perception, right or wrong, that events went wrong on 30th January 1972. While that perception persists it is a factor which makes reconciliation in Northern Ireland more difficult.

I also pay tribute to what our Armed Forces have done in Northern Ireland in very difficult circumstances over so many years. I am sure that whatever the outcome of the inquiry there will be no disposition to start a witch hunt. In particular, the reference to soldiers aged 19 is wholly appropriate. From my experience of visits made many years ago I was very impressed by the extraordinary restraint shown by young men in very difficult circumstances where their lives and the lives of their colleagues were at stake. We must now wait for the outcome of this inquiry. I welcome the form that it will take and hope that it will put this matter finally to rest.

In those circumstances I should like to ask the Leader of the House only one question. I am sure all noble Lords agree that in accordance with the requirements of the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 the report should be freely available and that evidence should be taken in public as far as possible. However we all know that there is an especial problem relating to the protection of witnesses in Northern Ireland, and I shall be grateful if the noble Lord can give the House an assurance on that particular count.

3.55 p.m.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I am grateful for the remarks of both the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Liberal Democrats.

I say at the outset that this is not a criticism of Lord Widgery. He was faced with a request from the Prime Minister of the day to conduct an urgent inquiry into this matter. I believe that the request was made the day after Bloody Sunday. He sat for 11 weeks and on the evidence available to him came up with a report. I re-read it yesterday. It is the kind of report that one would expect from the Lord Chief Justice, as he then was. It is very careful and analytical. The fact may be that he did not have access to all of the evidence, for which no conceivable blame can be laid at Lord Widgery's door. Your Lordships will have noted that the basis for this fresh inquiry is that there is new evidence which was not available to Lord Widgery and that in the view of the Government it is right that it should be considered by a fresh tribunal.

The noble Viscount asked me when the other members of the tribunal would be appointed. We felt that given the importance of this matter we should report to Parliament before confirming the appointment of the other two members, especially as their appointment would involve consultation with other governments. I cannot give a firm date. I can only say to the House that having launched the inquiry we are anxious that it should sail as soon as possible. I echo the remarks of the noble Viscount about the behaviour of the British Army in Northern Ireland. I was very briefly a Minister at the Ministry of Defence in 1969–70 and had an opportunity to visit the British Army. Those who saw the way it did its job could not fail to have been impressed. I echo many of the sentiments expressed by the noble Viscount. He invited me to say that no other country in the world could have done better. My instinct is to agree with that proposition, although perhaps I would not be as comprehensively firm as he has been.

I was asked about the public nature of the tribunal. The Act requires that the tribunal should as far as possible sit in public. That is our expectation. However, the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, recognises that there are special circumstances in Northern Ireland. We hope that the inquiry will sit in public as much as it possibly can, but that is essentially a matter for the tribunal itself. The Statement makes clear that the report will be made public. The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, invites me to repeat that, and I do so.

One other point emerges from the remarks of the noble Viscount. This process is totally separate from the peace process. It would be very dangerous to import consideration as to what is happening in the peace process into this tribunal, or vice versa. It seems to me that they are entirely separate. We have taken this step because we believe that there is new evidence that should be considered. In some ways the proposition is fairly basic and I hope that the House will support it.

3.58 p.m.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, everyone must agree that the confused events of 30 years ago in Londonderry were horrible and deeply tragic, like so many events in and connected with Northern Ireland both before and since. Can the noble Lord inform the House whether a tribunal of inquiry established under the Act of 1921 has ever been asked to investigate events as long ago as this? What is the longest period of delay, interval or lapse of time with which any such tribunal has been asked to cope? Can the noble Lord foresee that, 26 years on, there is probably a grave risk of injustice to individuals who will be compelled, by the tribunal's remarkable inquisitorial powers under the Act, to attempt to defend themselves as best they may against allegations that they will no longer be able to counter because of the enormous lapse of time, which I believe to be unprecedented?

Lord Richard

My Lords, I have no idea whether this is the longest gap between an event and the setting up of a tribunal to investigate it. I shall endeavour to ascertain the information and make it available to the noble and learned Lord. On the second point, I do not believe that this process carries a grave risk of injustice, to use the words of the noble and learned Lord. There is a feeling that the truth has not come out and there is also a feeling, certainly on this side of the House, that it is time that it did. I do not know of any other sensible and rational way to resolve that problem other than to do what the Government propose.

Viscount Slim

My Lords, may I ask the Leader of the House whether the appointment of the committee of judges was a purely political decision, taken by politicians, or whether the military advice of the Chief of the Defence Staff was sought in this matter?

Very often history shows that such inquiries can lead to castigation of the military to appease the political motives of a government or political party of the time. I have some experience in such matters and I think that hindsight 20 or 30 years later is a very dangerous thing with which to judge.

Many noble Lords have great military experience at this level, but in the other place I regret to say that there are those with no experience of military operations like this and therefore a hue and cry would ensue and the military could be most unfairly damaged.

I have no complaint about the setting up of this inquiry, but I ask the noble Leader of the House to ensure that this matter is handled very carefully.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I do not dissent from the noble Lord's remarks: of course the matter has to be sensitively, appropriately and delicately handled, and that is precisely why we have appointed a Law Lord to chair the tribunal. I would have thought that his objectivity and experience are unimpeachable.

I was disappointed to hear the noble Lord accuse this Government of setting up the inquiry for political motives. I can only tell the noble Lord that that is not so; it is being set up to look at new evidence. If the matter was looked at in private and a conclusion then announced, I can imagine the reaction from one side or the other whatever conclusion was reached. If it is conducted in public everyone will know that the matter has been properly looked at and examined. I am sure that the noble and learned Lord who will chair the tribunal will be very conscious of the fact that it should not turn into a pillory of one group of people or another.

In regard to the people who gave advice to the Government, I regret that it is one of those realms of government policy which, even after the Freedom of Information Act is passed, will of necessity have to remain hidden.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend's Statement and the reference he made to the conduct of our services. My worst moment as a Member of the other place was persuading a lady, who is now dead, not to have the coffin of her 19 year-old son, who was in the Parachute Regiment, opened. Will the noble Lord accept that regret could well be expressed from all quarters?

Lord Richard

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his words.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, if the conduct, competence or judgment of a member of the Armed Forces is liable to be impugned—and this does happen in these inquiries—will he be able to be legally represented? I ask the question because some problems arose during the Scott Inquiry which greatly upset my noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon.

Lord Richard

My Lords, the answer is yes. It is a matter for the tribunal. During the Widgery Tribunal, certain interested groups, for example, families, had proper legal representation. The power exists for the tribunal to allow that.

Lord Hurd of Westmore

My Lords, will the Leader of the House accept that one of the most important parts of his answer today was the assurance that this process, resulting from the Prime Minister's Statement, is quite separate from the peace process? We have all heard and read in recent days that such a statement would be made, perhaps accompanied by an apology—there has not been and I welcome that—and how helpful it would be to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the peace process. Can the noble Lord repeat his assurance? Is it not most important that history should not be used as a tool or pawn in a political or diplomatic process, however important that process may be?

Lord Richard

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord. This process is totally separate from the peace process and should remain so. An inquiry which will inevitably take some months to come to a conclusion can only have a peripheral effect upon the discussions that are taking place.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, I would like to express my gratitude to the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made in another place by his right honourable friend. I have heard the noble Lord say that this matter must be treated separately from the peace process.

There has been a growing view, not just on one side of the community in Northern Ireland but right across the community, that many things happened on that day that were unsatisfactory, not least that young soldiers were put into a policing situation for which they were not trained.

In every conflict there are events that take on a significance beyond their own because they appear to stand for all sorts of things. There have been many incidents over the last years where inquiries might be necessary, particularly in the case of terrorist atrocities where apologies are more than due. We should not delude ourselves at this time, when we are struggling with the difficulty of finding a settlement and reconciling as many of our people as we can, that recognition of this matter should be addressed properly and legally; but it is also a constructive demonstration of the concern in this country to make things right for the future and to do things in a proper way, for we cannot change the past.

Lord Richard

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with deep personal feeling and commitment. His knowledge of events in Northern Ireland is considerable. I am glad that he sees the announcement of this tribunal as something that may bring the parties together, which is clearly one of the hopes of the Government.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, does my noble friend recollect that last year at the request of the then Lord Chancellor the Council on Tribunals tendered advice as to the future conduct of ministerial inquiries? Can he assure noble Lords that that advice will be very much in the minds of those who have the conduct of this inquiry'?

In regard to what transpired on Bloody Sunday, will the noble Lord agree that the greatest contribution most of us can make is to exercise self-restraint in what we say?

Lord Richard

My Lords, I hear what my noble and learned friend has said. I hope that the memorandum will be very much in the minds of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Saville, and the other members of the inquiry because I have to confess that they are not very much in my mind at this particular moment. I will have to look to see whether there is anything in that memorandum which contradicts or amplifies anything I have said this afternoon and, if there is, I will contact my noble and learned friend.

Lord Elton

My Lords, would the noble Lord have as much difficulty as I would in recollecting in precise and forswearable terms any events on any day in 1972 in which he took part which were of importance? Are there not going to be two orders of evidence presented to this inquiry: evidence which rests on records made at or near the time, and evidence which rests on recollection at the time of the inquiry?

I have the greatest respect for the legal profession, but I should have no confidence in my recollections of any such event at such a distance in time. It seems to me therefore not at all impossible that there will be no definitive conclusion of the inquiry, and all that it will be able to produce will be a balance of probabilities. In those circumstances, will the noble Lord assure us that thought is already being given to how the Government will react to the findings when they are made known, because that will be nearly as important as the findings themselves?

Lord Richard

My Lords, I do not believe that at this stage the Government are giving a great deal of thought—certainly I am not—as to how we shall present the findings of an inquiry that we have just set up. We have not yet passed the necessary resolution in Parliament to do so. The noble Lord is right in the sense that we do not know the precise nature of the evidence that will be put before the tribunal; we do not know how that evidence will stand up to being tested; we do not know how much of it will be recollection which may be flawed; and I do not know how much will be contemporaneous documentary evidence. All sorts of issues have to be considered. The question is not what the inquiry will look like when it finishes, but whether it is worth starting the process. The Government have concluded that they should.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I have to ask the noble Lord, with some cynicism, whether he agrees that this may be yet another tactical error in the Government's recent handling of Northern Ireland affairs. The admission that the noble Lord has just made that the Government have not yet thought about how they will handle this sensitive, delicate, and, as the noble Lord has admitted, unknown material that will be put before the inquiry is frightening. Does the noble Lord agree that as this is a public inquiry, Dublin and the IRA will take the evidence piece by piece and use it as presented, against the better results that might be achieved by Her Majesty's Government in their negotiations for peace? Does the noble Lord accept and understand that many people in Northern Ireland, as was stated in the press that I read this morning, will put down the fact that there is to be an inquiry to pressure from Dublin? I consider this to be a serious tactical error. I ask the Government to consider seriously how they will handle the evidence and the conclusions, because I believe that serious problems will arise.

Lord Richard

My Lords, of course we will consider how best to handle the matter. All I was doing a few moments ago was telling the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that it is premature to consider now how we will handle the findings of an inquiry that we have only just set up. Noble Lords opposite shake their heads. I do not know—they may know better than I—what the findings of this inquiry will be. It will no doubt come to a conclusion when it has considered the evidence. When it comes to a conclusion, it will no doubt communicate that conclusion to the Government and to the world. It is at that stage that the handling of the findings becomes important.

As to the sensitivity of the process, I emphasise that of course the Government are conscious of the sensitivity of the issue. We are having the inquiry because it is such a sensitive issue. The only sensible and sensitive way to deal with the matter is to set up a tribunal of inquiry in the terms that I have expressed this afternoon. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, thinks that we have made a major error of judgment. I do not.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, when does the Leader of the House envisage that the inquiry will make its report, and when will the report be published? Does he think that it will be before or after the planned conclusion of the peace process, which I believe is at the beginning of May, because it could have an effect on the peace process?

Lord Richard

My Lords, I cannot give any date for the conclusion of this inquiry. It is very much a matter for the chairman and the members of the tribunal. I had better leave it there. It is almost impossible to tell until the process is launched.