Lord Saville presiding over The Bloody Sunday Inquiry at the Guildhall in Londonderry, 13 June 2010

Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday

3 April 1998 - 15 June 2010

In 1998, then Prime Minister Tony Blair announced a fresh inquiry into the killing of 13 civilians by the British Army in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, on 30 January 1972.

The inquiry, led by Lord Saville, was the result of decades of sustained political pressure. It took 12 years to complete and entirely exonerated those who died.

Photo: Lord Saville presiding over The Bloody Sunday Inquiry at the Guildhall in Londonderry, 13 June 2010 (Brian Little / PA Wire)

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More information about: Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday

The original 1972 inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday, led by Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, was immediately dismissed as a "whitewash" by the relatives of the victims and the wider nationalist community. Thus began a long campaign for a fresh public inquiry into the events of that day.

Indeed, the official position of the British establishment quickly distanced itself from the conclusions drawn by Widgery. The following year, the 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.

In 1992, then British Prime Minister John Major wrote to John Hume, leader of Northern Ireland's nationalist SDLP and long-time Bloody Sunday campaigner, expressing the view that the British government had "made clear in 1974 that those who were killed on 'Bloody Sunday' should be regarded as innocent of any allegation that they were shot whilst handling firearms or explosives."

There had also been strong pressure from the Irish government, which published an assessment of new evidence relating to Bloody Sunday in June 1997.

Fresh inquiry

It was against this political backdrop that British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced in January 1998 that the events of Bloody Sunday would at last be re-examined through a new, public and independent judicial inquiry.

The Bloody Sunday Inquiry, headed by Lord Saville of Newdigate, began on 3 April 1998. In his opening speech, Lord Saville said that his duty was to seek the truth and carry out that duty "with fairness, thoroughness and impartiality". Oral hearings commenced at Londonderry’s Guildhall on 27 March 2000 with an opening statement by Sir Christopher Clarke QC, Counsel to the Inquiry. It was the longest in British legal history, not concluding until June of that year.

Dramatic Evidence

Over four-and-a-half years, the inquiry heard testimony from nearly a thousand people - more than half of them civilians. Among the most dramatic was that of Sinn Fein's chief negotiator Martin McGuinness. He confirmed in his statement to the inquiry that he was second-in-command of the IRA in Derry at the time of the Bloody Sunday shootings, the first time he had acknowledged his IRA membership. At the time, McGuinness was the serving education minister in the devolved Northern Irish government.

Giving evidence in November 2003, McGuinness denied a claim by the British agent 'Infliction' that he had fired the first shot on the day, describing the agent as "a fantasist". The inquiry nonetheless found that McGuinness was "probably armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun, and though it is possible that he fired this weapon, there is insufficient evidence to make any finding on this."

The inquiry also considered fresh evidence calling into question the leadership of the British Army in Northern Ireland. Classified papers drawn up three months before Bloody Sunday by the head of the British Army, General Michael Carver, raised the prospect of an operation to "root out the terrorists" in so-called 'no-go' areas of Derry.

A memo from General Robert Ford, the army commander in Northern Ireland, stated: "I am coming to the conclusion that the minimum force necessary to achieve a restoration of law and order is to shoot selected ring leaders amongst the DYH (Derry Young Hooligans), after clear warnings have been issued."


The Report of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry was delivered at the Guildhall in Derry on 15 June 2010.

Lord Saville concluded that "firing by soldiers of 1 Para on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury. What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the Army and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed. Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland."

The inquiry was estimated to have cost around £200 million. It sat for 444 days and took evidence from more than 900 witnesses. Following the report, British Prime Minister David Cameron made a statement to Parliament, saying that "what happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable".

For the families of the victims of Bloody Sunday, the Saville Inquiry had finally vindicated those who were killed and the report was hailed as a victory for their campaign.