History

Lord Chief Justice Lord Widgery who headed the inquiry into the Bloody Sunday shootings

Aftermath of Bloody Sunday and the Widgery Tribunal

14 February 1972 - 18 April 1972

In the weeks following Bloody Sunday, the nationalist community of Northern Ireland expressed its shock and outrage at the killing of 13 civilians by the British Army.


An official inquiry was announced by then British Prime Minister Edward Heath. The Widgery Tribunal took less than a month and was described as a 'whitewash' by the families of the victims and their supporters.


Photo: Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery

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Father Edward Daly leads a group of people carrying the mortally wounded Jackie Duddy, waving a white handkerchief

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More information about: Aftermath of Bloody Sunday and the Widgery Tribunal

The day after Bloody Sunday, British Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, made a statement to the House of Commons about the killing of 13 civilians by the British Army in Londonderry. He did not question the army's version of events, but did announce the setting up of an independent inquiry "into the circumstances of the march and the incidents leading up to the casualties which resulted".

The MP for mid-Ulster, Bernadette Devlin, who had witnessed the events of Bloody Sunday first hand, took exception to Maudling's statement, calling him a "murdering hypocrite" before crossing the floor of the house and striking him in the face. Interviewed by the press afterwards, Devlin was unapologetic, saying: "I'm just sorry I didn't get him by the throat".

Polarised reaction

There was a huge gulf between the reaction of the British government and the Unionist politicians of Northern Ireland, and the anger felt by the people and political representatives of Derry. It only served to further inflame the situation when it was announced that a former army brigadier, the Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Widgery, would head the tribunal into the events of Bloody Sunday, sitting alone.

In Northern Ireland, the nationalist SDLP politicians John Hume and Gerry Fitt led opposition to tribunal. At the other end of the political spectrum, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Brian Faulkner, stated his Unionist government's unwillingness to accede to nationalists' "impossible and outrageous demands" arising from Bloody Sunday. And in London, the Ministry of Defence issued its own account of events, maintaining that shots were fired at British troops first.

Mourning

The funeral of eleven of the thirteen victims of Bloody Sunday took place in St Mary's Catholic Church in the Creggan area of Derry on 2 February 1972. Inside the church, 1,500 people, including family, friends, neighbours and politicians from both sides of the Irish border, listened to a service led by Cardinal Conway, the primate of All Ireland. Many thousands more gathered outside and lined the route of the funeral cortege, while black flags hung out of windows around the areas where the shootings had taken place.

In the Republic of Ireland, a national day of mourning was declared and the Irish government withdrew its ambassador to London in protest. Anti-British sentiment ran high throughout Ireland. An angry crowd besieged the British Embassy in Dublin, eventually burning the building down.

There were also significant international protests against the killings, including demonstrations in New York and London. A further civil rights march in Newry, Northern Ireland, on Sunday 6 February 1972, attracted around 20,000 people. It took place under heavy security, but passed without major incident.

Widgery Tribunal

The Widgery Tribunal opened in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, on 14 February 1972, with Lord Widgery announcing that it would be "essentially a fact-finding exercise". He also decided that the tribunal would be limited to the hours surrounding the events of Bloody Sunday. This narrowing of the tribunal's terms of reference only served to further undermine it in nationalist eyes. The tribunal's conclusions were published on 18 April 1972, just eleven weeks after Bloody Sunday.

The Widgery Tribunal report deeply angered the nationalist community. It exonerated the British Army and placed the blame for the tragedy on the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) for organising an illegal march. It claimed there was a "strong suspicion" that some of those killed "had been firing weapons or handling bombs", a judgment that ran contrary to the available evidence.

Widgery also accepted the soldiers' accounts that they had only returned fire and had aimed at selected targets, although he did find that some of the soldiers' firing had "bordered on the reckless". But thereport did accept that many of the victims had not been armed and did not pose a threat.

Criticisms

Critics of Widgery's findings found their case strengthened the following year when Coroner Hubert O'Neill called the killings "sheer, unadulterated murder".

Then in 1974, the Ministry of Defence made 'goodwill' payments to the families of the victims, but without accepting responsibility for their deaths.

The relatives of the victims, their supporters and political representatives embarked on a long campaign for an independent inquiry that eventually came to fruition in 1998 when then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, announced that the events of Bloody Sunday would be subject to a fresh public inquiry headed by Lord Saville.