Bloody Sunday Times

The Daily News has covered the Irish peace referendum as aggressively as any paper in America, sending top columnists Jim Dwyer and Fintan O'Toole to Belfast and Dublin respectively for daily dispatches leading up to last Friday's vote.

But here is a tale from Ireland you won't read in the News: Harold Evans, the veteran English editor who is now the News's vice chairman and editorial director, once helped bury compelling evidence that the British military planned in advance the infamous 1972 Londonderry attack known as "Bloody Sunday." (Thirteen Irish civilians were killed--several as young as 17--and 14 were injured when British soldiers fired into a protest march. No soldiers were killed.)

That evidence was uncovered by two journalists whom Evans--then the editor of the London Sunday Times--had sent to Northern Ireland to cover the fallout from the massacre. Having assembled "at least one hundred pieces of evidence"--including eyewitness accounts, interviews with survivors, and indirect contact with the Irish Republican Army--the Sunday Times reporters concluded that Bloody Sunday had resulted from a planned special operation by the British Paratroop regiment, "which went disastrously wrong."

Rather than publish the explosive story--dated 3 February 1972, four daysafter the attack--Evanskilled it. He reportedly gave a copy to the Widgery Inquiry, the official British government body established to investigate Bloody Sunday. In the hands of British investigators, the unpublished document apparently vanished for a quarter-century. A copy has been found in an Irish archive; portions of it have recently been published in Irish media outlets sympathetic to Sinn Fein and the republican cause.

Derek Humphry, one of the Sunday Times reporters sent to Northern Ireland, confirmed last week that he and a colleague wrote and submitted a 10-page story presenting evidence that the British military planned to break up the Londonderry march--knowing that it would cause civilian casualties.

"That's what we believed then, and I stand by it," Humphry told the Voice in a telephone interview.

Humphry's reporting partner from 1972, Murray Sayle, currently resides in Japan. Sayle did not respond directly to a Voice fax seeking comment, but said through two intermediaries that he continues to believe that British soldiers planned the attack on civilians.

Evans, whose Times reputation was as a crusading liberal investigative journalist, was not available for comment. Last Thursday, responding to a detailed fax, Evans's assistant left a Washington, D.C., phone number where, she said, Evans could be reached for 15 minutes. When the number was dialed five minutes later, it turned out to be Mortimer Zuckerman's office at U.S. News&World Report, and Evans was said to have left. On Friday, as the Voice went to press, Evans did not respond to either a second fax or several messages left at his New York office.

BLOODY SUNDAY was one of the most convulsive events in the troubled recent history of northern Ireland. It led directly to the burning of the British embassy in Dublin, and inspired Bernadette Devlin, a Member of Parliament from Ulster, to punch Home Secretary Reginald Maudling in the House of Commons; she accused him of lying about the shootings.

The event resonates to this day. A writer for the Sunday Telegraph earlier this year referred to the mountains that stand between Northern Irish history and peace: "Standing above all those peaks remains the Everest of Northern Ireland travails, the one which will not go away, you know, and which is unavoidable from whichever angle one views the past quarter of a century in the province: Bloody Sunday."

When the Widgery Inquiry issued its report on the shootings, it exonerated the British soldiers, having determined that none fired until they were fired upon. Yet it acknowledged that there was no evidence that any of the 13 civilians killed were armed when they were shot.

Humphry--who, coincidentally, is also the author of the controversial suicide self-help book The Final Exit--said it would likely have been illegal for the Times to publish the story when it was written. For decades, British law has greatly circumscribed journalists' ability to report on matters related to security in general and Northern Ireland in particular. In this instance, it was probably illegal to publish the Humphry­Sayle report while the official inquiry was ongoing.

"We always thought that they called the commission's inquiry as a ruse to block our story," Humphry told the Voice. "Harry Evans, had he run our story, would've risked imprisonment."

Nonetheless, the Widgery Inquiry issued its report in April 1972, and Humphry readily conceded that the Times could have published its own findings any time after that. "Things had probably moved on by then," Humphry speculated.

But where Northern Ireland is concerned, very little ever moves on. Many observers believe that the failure of the Widgery Inquiry to deliver due process for the deaths of the Irish marchers inflamed the Irish republican opposition, destroying whatever hopes were building in the early '70s for Irish peace.

And charges that the Widgery Inquiry covered up the British military's excesses are being officially investigated even now. Indeed, several recent reports have reached conclusions similar to the unpublished Times story.

Last year, a statement surfaced from a British paratrooper identified as "Soldier A," in which he admitted that he and his colleagues were told by an officer the night before the march: "Let's teach these buggers a lesson--we want some kills tomorrow."

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