By Eamon McCann (for the Guardian)
The Northern Ireland secretary Shaun Woodward has asked the Bloody Sunday families to trust his proposed arrangements for publication of the report of the inquiry into the killing of 13 civil rights marchers by paratroopers in Derry in 1972.
In meetings with the families, Woodward has said he intends to retain the report for up to 14 days after it is handed to his department by inquiry chairman Lord Saville. It is expected that the report, anticipated to run to 4,500 pages, will be delivered in the week beginning 22 March. The purpose of the delay, Woodward has explained, is to allow government officials to check whether Saville has inadvertently compromised national security or breached human rights provisions by, for example, revealing the identities of witnesses who had been granted anonymity and whose lives might thereby be put at risk. The families believe this is implausible.
During 434 days of hearings between March 2000 and November 2004, Saville and his colleagues, Canadian judge William Hoyt and Australian judge John Toohey, dealt with a series of submissions and challenges to rulings on issues of national security, anonymity and the right to life. In drafting their report, they will have been conscious, to put it no more highly, of their duties under these headings. The idea that they will need their homework corrected by government nominees will strike many as fanciful.
The suggested arrangement would give the government side an opportunity to comb through the text before others have sight of it, putting the families at a huge disadvantage when it comes to assimilating and analysing the findings. Whitehall spin-masters would be well at work before relatives had a chance to skim the conclusions.
Woodward has explained that the expertise needed to assess the report can be found only in the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office and the Treasury solicitors. The MoD was the employer of the soldiers who carried out the killings. The Home Office representatives would include MI5 officers. The Treasury solicitors were the instructing solicitors for the soldiers’ barristers at the hearings.
Woodward insists that all involved in this exercise can be trusted to carry out their task with forensic objectivity and that New Labour wouldn’t dream of using the arrangements to try to influence the presentation of the findings or to muffle or deflect criticism of its agencies or armed forces.
They should try telling that to Binyam Mohamed.
The week before last, the lord chief justice, the president of the Queen’s Bench Division and the master of the rolls rejected government pleas to suppress a document suggesting that MI5 officers had connived in the ill-treatment of Mohamed while he was being held at a “black site” by the CIA. The ill-treatment would have been in breach of undertakings about interrogation methods given by the British government following the scandal of the treatment of internees in Northern Ireland in 1971.
The Bloody Sunday march on 30 January 1972 had been a protest against internment. Reports of ill-treatment in the Long Kesh internment camp had been a major factor in the 10,000-strong turn-out.
In his draft judgment in the Mohamed case, Lord Neuberger, master of the rolls, was fiercely critical of MI5. The government responded by instructing lawyer Jonathan Sumption QC to write privately to Neuberger urging him to reconsider his draft. Sumption’s letter became public following the intervention of lawyers for Mohamed and for media outlets including the Guardian.
The letter warned that the judgment as it stood would be “exceptionally damaging” to MI5. On this basis, the government wanted it changed.
This was as clear a case as it is possible to imagine of a government trying by devious means to change the findings of a judge in order to conceal evidence of its security services’ wrongdoing.
The same government now wants the Bloody Sunday families to accept its bona fides with regard to Saville to the extent of agreeing that government representatives should be allowed to pore over the report in advance to check whether it includes material that they can find grounds for suggesting would be better omitted.
They have some neck.