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Owen Paterson asks why the Bloody Sunday Inquiry has taken so long

Owen_paterson_mpOn 30 January 1972 in the Bogside area of Derry in Northern Ireland, a civil rights procession took place (in defiance of a Stormont ban on parades and marches). Demonstrators - protesting against internment without trial - approached a barbed wire Army barricade. A variety of missiles were hurled. Members of the Parachute Regiment opened the gates and sent armoured vehicles into the crowd.

Thirteen people were shot dead. Another person later died from their injuries. A number of others were injured. Protestors claimed that the shooting was unprovoked. The Army claimed that they responded to shots from two snipers.

The events of what is now called Bloody Sunday have been an ungoing source of immense tension. The tribunal which reported a few weeks afterwards was condemned as a whitewash. In 1998 Tony Blair established the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, also known as the Saville Inquiry after the Law Lord in charge of proceedings. Formal hearings began in 2000. There has still not been any report.

Yesterday Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson asked about this in the House of Commons:

"Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): I endorse the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) on the news that the Executive will be sitting on Thursday and on successive Thursdays until it clears the backlog. Her Majesty’s Opposition are pleased that politicians in Northern Ireland will be working for the people of Northern Ireland and using the institutions to their benefit.

On Saville, the relatives of the victims were dismayed last week to learn of a further delay to the inquiry. Many taxpayers will be astonished at the Secretary of State’s reply to me this week that the final cost will be £191 million. What powers does the Secretary of State have to bring the inquiry to a speedy conclusion?

Mr. Woodward: First, let us recognise the importance of yesterday’s historic announcement. I think that we will have an opportunity in a later question to refer to that.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s disappointment, but I say to all hon. Members that there is an important balance to be struck between maintaining an inquiry’s independence and compromising it. As Secretary of State, I of course have an interest in this matter, but I do not have the power to tell the judge to publish his report on such and such a date, precisely because it must be in the hands of an inquiry to determine when its work has come to an end.

The hon. Gentleman in effect quoted from the judge’s letter to the families, but he did not refer to the final part of that letter. I remind him that the judge pointed out that

    “it seems to the tribunal that we would justifiably be criticised if we sacrificed fairness, accuracy and thoroughness in order to save time; and we are determined not to take that course.”

Mr. Paterson: But to everyone outside the House, 10 years and £191 million seem incomprehensible. With due respect to the concept of the separation of powers, this is an inquiry and not a court case. Given the extraordinary length and cost, would the right hon. Gentleman consider legislating to fix a deadline and a limit on further expenditure?

Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but I suggest that he talks to some of his colleagues on the shadow Front Bench. When the Bill that became the Inquiries Act 2005 was going through the House, the shadow Solicitor-General was sitting where the hon. Gentleman is sitting now. He expressed concerns about the Bill’s original drafting, precisely because it

    “over-extended Ministers’ powers to interfere in an inquiry at the expense of the inquiry’s chairman, which would compromise an inquiry’s independence, effectiveness and credibility.”—[ Official Report, 6 April 2005; Vol. 432, c. 494.]"

Mr Paterson is right to raise this subject. The Saville Inquiry has taken an indefensibly long time, and is fantastically expensive. Surely that cannot be good for Northern Ireland.


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