'Bloody Sunday' probe hears last witness

Saturday, February 14, 2004

LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland -- A mammoth investigation into the "Bloody Sunday" British army massacre of protesters 32 years ago heard testimony Friday from its 919th and final witness, the city's former IRA commander. But the English, Australian and Canadian judges overseeing the Bloody Sunday Inquiry face at least another year of sifting through mountains of evidence before publishing their conclusions about the Jan. 30, 1972, killings in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Paratroopers that day stormed through barricades erected by the Irish Republican Army and shot to death 13 Catholics who had been protesting against Britain's detention of IRA suspects without trial. The killings fueled a generation of Catholic bitterness toward the British.

Since the British government-authorized inquiry began hearing testimony in 2000, survivors and relatives of the Bloody Sunday dead have gathered often at the 17th-century Guildhall to hear witnesses recall their memories of the predominantly Catholic city's fateful day.

Many also traveled to London last year, when the tribunal heard former soldiers who opened fire that day describe their actions as a justifiable response to IRA gunfire. Hundreds of witnesses bitterly dispute that version of events.

In Friday's closing testimony, the city's former IRA commander said the group had kept its small weapons cache in storage on Bloody Sunday.

"It would have been crazy to think of taking on the army," said the IRA veteran who, like the former British soldiers, was allowed to testify without being identified by name. He was referred to as "Provisional IRA 24."

The English chairman of the fact-finding probe, former London appelate judge Lord Saville, has already described the findings of the original 1972 probe into Bloody Sunday -- which exonerated the soldiers and ruled that some of the dead may have been armed -- as not credible.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has also said the government does not believe any of the dead were carrying weapons.

Saville concluded Friday's session by announcing he didn't intend to try to prosecute any witnesses -- including journalists and Sinn Fein party deputy leader Martin McGuinness -- who had refused to reveal the identities of IRA members or other sources during testimony. They could have faced contempt proceedings and possible fines or jail sentences.

Saville, who has won praise from even the most anti-British locals as fair and determined, said the tribunal would reconvene June 7 to hear summaries from rival legal teams representing the victims' families and the soldiers, then return Oct. 7 to hear a summary from the tribunal's own team of lawyers.

He and his fellow judges, William Hoyt of Canada and John Toohey of Australia, plan to begin writing conclusions in late 2004 and deliver their report to the British government in mid-2005.

Relatives who campaigned for three decades for a new inquiry said outside the Guildhall they expect Saville to vindicate the reputations of the Londonderry dead -- and to present evidence sufficient to bring murder charges against the soldiers.

"We believe this inquiry, hopefully, has done a good job and eventually Lord Saville will deliver the truth, plain and simple," said John Kelly, whose brother Michael was among the dead.

But away from the tribunal, many commentators and politicians have criticized the ballooning cost of the inquiry.

The tribunal confirmed Friday that legal teams had already been paid $125 million. Overall, the projected cost of the completed inquiry already exceeds $280 million.

"Given the lack of resources in Northern Ireland for education, health and transport, this is a scandal which must never be repeated," said Gregory Campbell, the most prominent Protestant politician in Londonderry.

On the Net:

Bloody Sunday Inquiry, http://www.bloody-sunday-inquiry.org.uk/

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