Lord Saville: ‘It was a worthwhile thing to do’

1998... Lord Saville chairing a hearing of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry in Derry's Guildhall.
1998... Lord Saville chairing a hearing of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry in Derry's Guildhall.

To mark the fifth anniversary of the publication of the report of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, LORD SAVILLE, who chaired the tribunal, talks to the Journal’s SEAN McLAUGHLIN.

Lord Mark Saville of Newdigate, the man who chaired the longest and most expensive public inquiry in British history, has no regrets about his key role in the 12 year investigation.

“It was, I believe, a worthwhile thing to do and of great interest,” he told the ‘Journal’.

“I personally do not regret taking on the inquiry. It was the most interesting experience.”

The 79 year old - now retired from the Supreme Court and working in international commercial arbitration - says that, when asked by the Lord Chancellor to take on the job of chairing the new inquiry, he didn’t have to deliberate too long on accepting.

“It was the sort of job senior judges are sometimes asked to undertake and there was no reason for me to decline,” he reveals.

“As a senior judge, I considered that it was part of my duty to accept such an invitation.”

Asked if his decision was, in any way, swayed by a desire to redress the Widgery ‘whitewash’ of 1972, Lord Saville says: “Not at all. We were embarking on a new inquiry and, though, the evidence given to Widgery was obviously important, my job was to try to find out what had happened on Bloody Sunday - not whether the previous inquiry had got it right or wrong.”

So, was it difficult to set out with an open mind given that so much had already been said about the events of January 30, 1972?

“No. I was obviously aware that there were sharply differing views over what happened on Bloody Sunday but what was important was going to be our view of the evidence we were able to collect, not the views of others.”

Returning to 1998 and the opening of the inquiry at Derry’s Guildhall, Lord Saville acknowledges that, at that time, he never imagined that it would take up such a sizeable part of his life.

“However, as we started collecting and considering the evidence, it became obvious that a full, fair and open inquiry was going to take a very long time.”

And so it proved. In all, the Inquiry heard evidence from more than 900 people between 2000 and 2005. It took statements from 2,500 witnesses, of whom 922 were called to give direct evidence.

Asked how the day-to-day workings of chairing the inquiry impacted on his life, Lord Saville says: “As a judge, I was used to be being away from home for extended periods, so this was not a burden. The major effect on my private life was that, through the expert guidance of Patricia at Ardmore Stables, I learned to ride a horse!”

Living and working in Derry for so long has obviously had a lasting impression on Lord Saville.

“I have very fond memories of both the city and its people,” he says. “I miss the friends I made, the countryside where I walked and rode and the Beech Hill Hotel where Patsy [owner] made us feel at home.

“It would be great to visit again after what is now some ten years.”

Ten years on from the publication of the inquiry report, opinion remains divided over whether it was an essential examination of one of the most infamous events of the Northern Ireland Troubles or a waste of money.

Lord Saville is, however, happy to stand over the eventual outlay - estimated at some £195 million.

He says: “I have endeavoured to explain on numerous occassions that, in order to conduct a full, fair and open inquiry into an event like Bloody Sunday, with thousands of witnesses and highly contentious circumstances surrounding an event occurring decades earlier, it is necessary to spend a lot of time and money.

“It is simply not possible to do a proper job without the assistance of a highly skilled team prepared to do a lot of necessary and time-consuming work. People of the calibre required do not come cheap and attempts to do such an inquiry quickly and cheaply are almost bound to come to grief, resulting in a complete waste of money.”

He also insists that the Inquiry’s trailblazing technology was also an important factor.

“It was vital,” he says. “The Inquiry took a long time, but would have lasted far longer if we had not taken full advantage of Information Technology. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that, through technology, we were able to make this a truly public inquiry, with everyone able, through the Internet, to see the evidence put before the Tribunal and, for many, including the media, to watch the proceedings on CCTV outside the hearing room.”

Equally important, he says, was the input of his tribunal colleagues - William Hoyt and John Toohey: “men of the highest calibre... Their contribution was invaluable and their friendship is something I shall always treasure,” he added.

Turning to the publication of the report on June 15, 2010, Lord Saville reveals that, on the day, he was working on writing a judgement in the Supreme Court but did manage to watch some of the television coverage.

“The turnout [in Guildhall Square] was impressive and my Counsel Team, who were there, described it as a highly emotional event, which it clearly was. In my view, David Cameron struck exactly the right note, having accepted the findings of the report.”

Given the opportunity, would he do it all again?

“This would depend on the nature of the inquiry in question. But I found the Bloody Sunday Inquiry of very great interest, in the course of which I learned a great deal about Northern Ireland.”

“I would like to think people appreciated that we did our best in conducting what was a massive inquiry and in writing what was necessarily a very long report on a complex and highly contentious event... What we sought to achieve was as thorough, fair and open a report as possible... Many years of very hard work went into the report, but it is for others to judge it.”

Lord Saville also paid tribute to the families of the Bloody Sunday dead who, he said, had “conducted themselves in the most admirable way” during the inquiry hearings - particularly during some of the more harrowing evidence.

“Everyone on the Inquiry was very impressed with their demeanour,” he added.

Would he, if asked, meet with the families?

“Yes, though they will appreciate that I would not discuss the findings in the report, which were a joint effort with my colleagues, and which must stand or fall on our analysis of the evidence that we set out in the report.”

With the benefit of hindsight, does Lord Saville believe there were any particularly significant moments during the inquiry?

“There were hundreds of hearing days,” he says. “Some were more dramatic than others. But I like to think that, from early on, people began to realise that we were intent on conducting as full, fair and open inquiry as possible, with the single aim of trying to find out what really happened on Bloody Sunday.”

And his thoughts now on what happened Bloody Sunday: “As we said in the report, Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded and a catastrophe for the people in Northern Ireland.”