- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2000

LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland A long-awaited inquiry opens today into the events of "Bloody Sunday," when a 1972 clash between British paratroopers and Catholic civil rights campaigners left 13 persons dead.

Catholics and Protestants still argue over what really happened here 28 years ago in one of the most decisive events of the Northern Ireland conflict. The new inquiry, expected to last two years, finally may provide answers.

Many of the facts are undisputed. On the afternoon of Jan. 30, 1972, thousands of Londonderry Catholics defied a police ban and marched in protest against what they considered discrimination by British-backed security forces.

When the march was blocked, rioting ensued and British paratroopers launched an operation in which 26 persons were shot, 13 of them fatally.

The last official word on "Bloody Sunday" came from a public inquiry launched just days after the event that largely exonerated the British army.

Dissatisfaction with that inquiry, combined with a vast amount of fresh evidence, led British Prime Minister Tony Blair to authorize the new inquiry two years ago.

Seeking to avoid the complaints of a cover-up that dogged the first investigation, Mark Saville, the British law lord heading the new inquiry, has proceeded cautiously.

Nearly 1,500 witnesses including soldiers, civilians, clergy, politicians and journalists could be called to testify. Transcripts of all the proceedings will be made available on the Internet.

For the wounded and relatives of those killed 28 years ago, the inquiry concludes an exhaustive campaign for a fresh look at the day's events. But some are disheartened by the terms of the probe.

British soldiers who fired on the crowd have won the right to remain anonymous and immune from any self-incriminating testimony. The British Ministry of Defense has destroyed all but three of the rifles fired that day, including two that were ordered specifically to be preserved.

"Those rifles were critical evidence," said John Kelly, whose brother Michael was killed in the blood bath. Their destruction "was a criminal act on behalf of the Ministry of Defense… .

"We will be relieved when this gets up and running, but there is a dark cloud hanging over the proceedings already," Mr. Kelly said.

The past two years have been spent gathering evidence which now includes 64 volumes of documents, thousands of photographs and hundreds of hours of videotape for what will be one of the most exhaustive exercises in British legal history.

"It has been a massive undertaking," said Lis Birrane, spokeswoman for the inquiry. "Over the past two years, vast amounts of information have been uncovered and catalogued, which considering how much time has passed was no small feat."

More than $25 million already has been spent preparing for the inquiry. Much of that went to converting Londonderry's venerable Guildhall, the venue for the inquiry, into a modern courtroom complete with sound and video equipment. To re-create some key scenes, a virtual-reality landscape of the city as it looked in 1972 has been commissioned.

But Peter Madden, whose firm, Madden and Finucane, represents the families of 10 of those killed on "Bloody Sunday," remains unsatisfied.

"I have been working on these cases for 20 years and so have a certain amount of cynicism," Mr. Madden said.

"The Ministry of Defense, the British Army, the British paratroopers are under the spotlight in this case," he said.

"If there is anything at all that would point toward their guilt, if they did something wrong on the day, I don't think they are necessarily going to hand it over gladly."

But on the eve of the inquiry, Mr. Madden was still hopeful that years of campaigning and hundreds of hours of research and testimony finally will reveal what happened on "Bloody Sunday."

"If there is a fair process, then there is a good chance at getting at the truth," he said. "We are still keeping an open mind."

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