The Long Road to Justice for the Victims of "Bloody Sunday" | Harper's Magazine

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The Long Road to Justice for the Victims of “Bloody Sunday”


On the bright and sunny Sunday afternoon of January 30, 1972, British paratroopers, using high-velocity self-loading rifles, fired at a number of civilians in the Bogside area of Londonderry, killing 13 and wounding another 13. There are few parallels in English history to such an event involving British soldiers and British civilians. Parliament immediately adopted a resolution calling for an inquiry, and the Lord Chief Justice of England, the Right Honorable Lord Widgery, was appointed to preside. The Tribunal, which sat in the County Hall at Coleraine, a small town 30 miles from Londonderry, commenced hearing testimony on February 21 and continued until March 14. During this time 17 sessions were held, at which 114 witnesses gave evidence subject to cross examination. Thereafter three further sessions took place in the Royal Courts of Justice in London at which closing arguments of counsel were heard. On April 10, 1972, the Lord Chief Justice submitted his Report of the Tribunal. This Report was made public on April 18, 1972. It was a complete and utterly outlandish whitewash.

Over the following twenty-five years, journalists, lawyers, and human-rights investigators demolished Lord Widgery’s report—and, for posterity’s sake, his reputation as a fair-minded judge. By 1998, the British government was forced to acknowledge that the Widgery report was a mockery of critical investigation. Lord Saville was appointed to review the incident ab initio. Today, the Saville inquiry has released its long awaited conclusions. As anticipated, it has almost completely reversed the Widgery report. All the victims were exonerated; none of the killings was found to have been justified. The way has now been opened for prosecutions of those who used unwarranted lethal force that day in 1972. The Saville report took an extraordinary amount of time to wind to its conclusions, but this time the effort was solid.

I believe the Saville report would not have been possible without the heroic efforts of my friend, Samuel Dash, whose independent review, published as Justice Denied, did more to undermine the credibility of Lord Widgery’s inquiry than any other single effort. Unfortunately, Sam died in 2004, so he did not live to see the vindication of his work. Dash was an exceptionally qualified investigator, a trial lawyer with considerable prosecutorial experience, and a consummate scholar. He also approached the prickly issues in Northern Ireland with no bias for or against any of the participants. His sole concern was that the truth should be revealed and guarded against the all-consuming political process. Sam Dash’s work showed what forensic human-rights work can do, and the British government’s final and formal acceptance of truths that have long been apparent to dispassionate observers is a tribute to him and his commitment to fairness. It also provides evidence that justice diligently pursued may grind in a way that seems intolerably slow, but sometimes this passage of time serves a purpose: now, thirty-eight years on, the people of Britain and Ireland are prepared to accept and act on the truth.

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