Published Friday, 11 June 2010
It was April 3 1998 and Lord Saville was formally opening the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. No one, least of all me, suspected that 12 years would pass before the Inquiry published its final report.
That opening statement was delivered in the Guildhall in Derry. The location was symbolic. It was the destination chosen by anti-internment protesters on January 30th 1972. Their march was banned by Stormont and blocked by the Army. The day ended with the 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment storming into the Bogside. They shot 27 civilians, killing 13 of them.
Few events in the dark history of Northern Ireland's Troubles have created such division, controversy, political dispute and intrigue. When Lord Saville - Baron Saville of Newdigate - entered the Guildhall there was a sense of anticipation. A sense that we were venturing into strange, new lands.
The very fact that Prime Minister Tony Blair had gone before Parliament to order a new inquiry was extraordinary. Bloody Sunday had already been investigated. A Tribunal of Inquiry under Lord Chief Justice Widgery had looked at the Bloody Sunday shootings.
But Lord Widgery's inquiry exonerated the Paratroopers' actions and suggested the Bloody Sunday dead were to blame. He said there was "a strong suspicion that some...had been firing weapons or handling bombs...and that yet others had been closely supporting them".
Lord Saville was determined this new inquiry was a fresh start - not a verdict on Widgery's flawed findings. "We are not sitting as a court of appeal from the Widgery Inquiry," he said.
Saville knew from the start that his Inquiry was playing for high stakes. The reputation of the military and political establishment would be challenged by his investigation: "It would be foolish for us to ignore the fact that there are allegations that some of those concerned in the events of Bloody Sunday were guilty of very serious offences, including murder."
But the spectre of Widgery could be felt throughout Saville's investigation. This new inquiry would not be quick and fast like Widgery. Saville would be painstaking and careful, examining not just the Bloody Sunday shootings but the events that led to them and also the wider political and military background of the early 1970s.
Widening the investigation meant this new Inquiry dragged on for years. It was further delayed by the Government repeatedly taking Saville to the High Court. The Government demanded that former soldiers and police officers remain anonymous, and that military witnesses and senior politicians should give their evidence in London - not in Derry.
For journalists, the Inquiry has been a remarkable and exhausting journey. We have seen testimony from ex-Prime Minister Edward Heath and from former head of the Army General Sir Mike Jackson.
We have listened to evidence from former IRA members including Martin McGuinness who spoke publicly for the first time about his role within the Provisional IRA.
We have seen families reduced to tears as they saw and heard for the first time the Paratroopers who killed their loved ones.
The witness stand at Saville became a "Who's Who?" of politics and the church, soldiering and terrorism.
At the heart of it all, day after day, month after month, year after year, sat the Bloody Sunday families. When Saville concluded his investigation only one parent of the 13 shot on Bloody Sunday remained alive. The remainder died waiting on their relatives to be cleared of wrong-doing.
The families adopted the motto: "Set the Truth free." But Saville's lead counsel Sir Christopher Clarke made plain that the Truth can be difficult. "The tribunal's task," he said, "is to discover as far as humanly possible in the circumstances, the truth. It is the truth as people see it. Not the truth as people would like it to be, but the truth, pure and simple, painful or unacceptable to whomsoever that truth may be."
Saville's final report may not mark the end of the Bloody Sunday crusade, but it's an important step towards leaving Bloody Sunday to history. Thirty-eight years ago those anti-internment marchers never made it to the Guildhall. But their story goes out from there on Tuesday.