Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam hoped a fresh review could be held in 1997 into Bloody Sunday on the understanding that it would not lead to criminal charges against any of the soldiers involved in the fatal shootings in Derry in 1972.
Declassified files released this week show Mowlam wanted to set up a review with “the overriding limitation that no soldier or other crown servant should be placed in jeopardy of legal action by whatever the reviewer might find or by what might flow from his findings”.
The Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday was established in 1998. However, the restricted files released in Belfast show there was considerable debate within the UK government during 1997 over whether a fresh inquiry was necessary, or if a more limited review and apology might suffice.
In a letter dated June 16th, 1997, Mowlam tells her colleague the defence secretary George Robertson “it will not be possible to deliver an absolute guarantee on that override”, as it would be up to the attorney general to decide if fresh charges against soldiers over Bloody Sunday would be in the public interest, but adds that the terms of the review she was proposing “ought to provide some reassurance”.
However, Robertson was not convinced, wondering “what political value we should gain from setting up a review to try to satisfy a grievance and then announcing that the review will effectively have no teeth, as the nationalist community would see it”.
Instead, the defence secretary favoured an “apology as an alternative, provided that, as you suggest, it expresses regret rather than ascribes blame. A heartfelt apology should, in my view, be the Government’s last word on the subject.”
Mowlam had attached a draft statement to her letter suggesting the kind of apology the government might make. This contained the sentence, “I do not believe that the soldiers who fired the shots went there intending murder. But clearly it was wrong that people demonstrating for their civil rights were killed. I am sorry that it happened.”
Robertson was concerned this paragraph went too far, saying he found it “one sided and the phrase ‘(not) intending murder’ could be taken as implying that murder nevertheless took place — a suggestion that we should surely avoid since it is bound to provoke demands that the soldiers be put on trial. Given the risks borne and sacrifices made by the Army in Northern Ireland during the past twenty eight years, I am sure we should not contemplate wording of this kind”.
The files reflect continuing pressure from nationalist representatives such as John Hume, the Irish government and influential Irish-Americans for a full inquiry rather than an apology. A telegram from the UK ambassador to the United States, Christopher Meyer, dated December 1997, notes that “Irish America — especially the Hill lobby — expect us to go beyond an apology. Ruling out a review would go down badly.”
The documents indicate that, initially, Tony Blair shared his defence secretary’s opposition to a fresh inquiry into Bloody Sunday. But as the government examined evidence provided by the Irish government and pressure mounted from the relatives of those shot dead by the Parachute regiment, the terms of the argument changed.
In January 1998, in a draft letter to the prime minister, Mowlam said “we will continue to face pressure — quite possibly increased pressure — for an inquiry rather than bringing a degree of closure to this issue which was our objective”.
Succeeding draft statements of a Bloody Sunday apology contain different wording, including different poetic quotations. An early version citing the English poet’s John Donne’s words “every man’s death diminishes me” is replaced by the American Maya Angelou’s “history, despite its wrench and pain cannot be unlived: but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
In one memo, a civil servant asks if a quotation from an Irish poet would be more appropriate and undertakes to do a bit of research on possible alternatives.
Blair’s statement to the House of Commons later that month setting up the Saville inquiry ultimately contained neither an apology nor a poetic quotation. It was only after its report was published in 2010 that then prime minister David Cameron issued an apology on behalf of the state.