31 January 2004

The shadow of Iraq

We have been here before. In April 1972, the former brigadier Lord Widgery published his now notorious report into the killing of 14 unarmed civil rights demonstrators by British paratroopers in Northern Ireland three months earlier on Bloody Sunday. Widgery cleared the soldiers of blame, insisting, in defiance of a mass of evidence, that they had only opened fire after coming under attack. The Widgery report was so widely seen as a flagrant establishment whitewash, and continued to be such a focus of nationalist anger, that a quarter of a century later Tony Blair felt compelled to set up another Bloody Sunday inquiry under Lord Saville, still sitting today.

Lord Hutton - a scion of the Northern Irish protestant ascendancy who himself represented British soldiers at the Widgery inquiry - has, if anything, outdone Widgery in his service to the powers that be. Hutton's embrace of any construction of the evidence surrounding David Kelly's death that might be helpful to the government is breathtaking in its sweep. Instead of a prime minister who took the country to war on the basis of discredited dossiers about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, it is the BBC that now finds itself in the dock - and its chairman who was last night forced to resign. Hutton's report could scarcely have been more favourable if it had been drafted, or even sexed up, by Tony Blair's former spinmeister Alastair Campbell himself. The prime minister certainly knew his man when he appointed the one-time Diplock court judge to head the inquiry into Dr Kelly's death.

Tony Blair cannot quibble with this analysis of the Widgery inquiry, because Blair himself recognised that inquiry's deficiency when he appointed the Saville inquiry to take a fresh look at the events of Bloody Sunday. Hutton's appearance at the Widgery inquiry does not necessarily mean he was incapable of delivering a fair report, but the Hutton report simply does not accord with the evidence Hutton heard.

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