British officials expressed “grave concerns” over sensitive documents linked to Bloody Sunday falling into the hands of lawyers acting for relatives of the dead, it has been revealed.
Fourteen innocent civilians were killed after a civil rights march was fired upon in Derry in January 1972.
Recently released files reveal officials were worried that comments recorded in British Army documents dating to the early 1970s could be “misinterpreted” if they got into the public domain or found their way to the 26 County government.
The document titled “Confidential - UK Eyes, Covering Secret” highlights concerns over providing information to the Saville Inquiry, which was announced in 1998. It was set up following the exposure of the original Widgery inquiry as a whitewash, but was itself tainted by high-level interference.
The papers had been passed by the British military to the Saville Inquiry with the warning “they still need to be reviewed for sensitivity issues”.
In the memo an official singled out human rights law firm Madden and Finucane Solicitors, which represented relatives of those killed by the British Army during the Saville Inquiry and continues to act on their behalf.
The recently released papers show that British officials had “grave concerns about the documents being made available to Madden and Finucane or any other legal representatives of the families”.
The officials at the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) also highlighted comments made by the British army’s GOC (General Officer Commanding) - who at the time was Harry Tuzo - about “controlling hooligan elements” in Derry.
Another document included a note about the number of deaths and injuries suffered by the IRA in the city and referenced the British Army’s “aims to maintain the ‘rate of attrition’”.
A further document made reference to the possibility of the Derry civil rights march developing into “rioting and even a shooting war”.
An official wrote: “The reasons I think we should be concerned would be primarily that it could be assumed that the army (whether officially or unofficially) were planning to take a heavy handed response to the civil rights parade in (Derry) and (others planned throughout the north); that (despite many years of official denial) there was some sort of unofficial government/army policy on shoot to kill”.
The official claimed that “although these points have no foundation in truth we believe that it would be extremely difficult to disprove these assumptions and most certainly if they found their way into the public domain (which is a dead certainty if Madden and Finucane get access to them) the government would have an extremely hard time trying to make a successful denial of any allegations made as a knock-on effect”.
Fearghal Shiels of Madden and Finucane Solicitors said: “The opinions voiced by senior NIO officials in this memo point to the inescapable conclusion that its immediate priority following the establishment of the inquiry was to suppress key evidence from the families and to deny them an opportunity to scrutinise documents and examine witnesses publicly.
“It wanted to prejudice the families despite their long campaign for a public inquiry by ensuring evidence would be made anything but public.
“Regrettably this mindset continues to permeate the highest levels at the NIO and current Tory government which appears determined to continue to prejudice bereaved families and their ability to find truth. They fool nobody.”