Not bloody likely

Paul Foot

‘If today,’ writes Eamonn McCann, ‘the Lord Chief Justice were appointed as a one-person tribunal to inquire into a major political problem affecting Ireland, there would be a rattle of empty laughter throughout the land.’ That, he says, is a ‘measure of how far the British judiciary has fallen in esteem over the last twenty years’. There was absolutely no laughter twenty years ago when Lord Chief Justice Widgery was appointed to investigate the killings by the British Army of 13 demonstrators on the streets of Derry on Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972. Most people in Derry probably regarded the appointment of the very top judge as a sign of respect. They were impatient with sceptical references to the fact that Widgery was a former Army officer, not to say a Freemason, that he arrived in Derry in an Army helicopter and stayed in Army barracks. He was, to all appearances, a kindly old gentleman, well-versed in the law, listening courteously to the civilian witnesses who flocked to tell him their story. The analysis and narrative in this, Eamonn McCann’s second book, is interweaved with interviews with relatives of the Bloody Sunday dead. But the book’s central thrust is a clinical and almost embarrassing demolition of Lord Justice Widgery’s report.

Widgery’s central conclusion was that the soldiers opened fire on the demonstrators after being fired on themselves. He arrives at that conclusion by the ancient judicial device of believing the soldiers and disbelieving the civilian witnesses. Some of the results are remarkable. In the Rossville flats courtyard, where soldiers, according to Widgery, came under fire, not a single soldier was hit. The large vehicle which drove them to the courtyard wasn’t hit either. Jack Duddy, 17, was shot in the back as he ran away from his killer. Lord Widgery says that the bullet which got him was probably meant for someone else. But the soldier who fired the shot expressly told the inquiry that he shot the man he aimed at, and watched him fall. Patrick Doherty was shot in the back as he crawled away on his hands and knees. The bullet entered his buttock and went straight through his heart. Someone had filmed the young man’s death, so there was no doubt about what he was doing. Widgery concluded that the bullet which got him must have been intended for someone else. The likelihood, suggested by the evidence and by what happened everywhere else, that Doherty had been shot in the back deliberately was not even considered by Lord Widgery.

The dying Gerald Donaghey, one of four unarmed men gunned down as they tried to avoid the soldiers’ fire in Glenfada Park, was carried into a house. In a sustained effort to find out who he was, all his pockets were carefully inspected. There was nothing in them. Neither the doctor, nor the people who lived in the house, nor even the reporter from the Belfast Telegraph who was sheltering there, saw anything on the body. Donaghey, still alive, was carried to a car and rushed off to hospital. The car was stopped by soldiers. Donaghey was hauled out and taken to an Army medical centre, where he was pronounced dead. A reporter from the Times was then summoned to look at the body, which by then had a huge nail-bomb sticking out grotesquely from a jeans pocket. A police photographer took a picture of it – clear evidence that at least one dead man was armed to the teeth. Even Lord Widgery had to accept that the young man wasn’t carrying the bomb when he was killed. So how did it get there? Could it have been planted by the Army? Out of the question, concluded the Lord Chief Justice. Or, in his own words: ‘The alternative explanation of a plant is pure speculation.’

McCann demolishes the Widgery report most effectively when he compares its own evidence with its conclusions. He counts the shots fired by the Army which Widgery himself considered unjustified – like those in Glenfada Park, delightfully described by Widgery as ‘bordering on the reckless’; or the 12 shots fired by Soldier S in the Rossville flats (‘unjustifiably dangerous for people round about’). On Widgery’s own reckoning, 61 of the 108 shots ought not to have been fired. Yet Widgery concluded that the soldiers fired only at identified gunmen and nail-bombers.

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