Former British Prime Minister Edward Heath today insisted he was not responsible for the deaths of 13 civil rights protesters on Bloody Sunday nearly 31 years ago.
Giving evidence to the inquiry into the shootings by the British army in the Bogside area of Derry on January 30 1972, Heath also refused to issue a fresh apology for what happened.
Instead, the 86-year-old politician reiterated the “intense regret” he expressed at the time of the killings and said he stood by the findings of the first investigation into the events.
Lord Widgery’s 1972 report largely exonerated the paratroopers who opened fire on the protesters, leading to complaints of a “whitewash” by survivors and relatives of the dead.
Michael Mansfield QC, acting for three of the victims’ families, asked Mr Heath whether he had ever accepted that all those who died were members of the IRA, as had been suggested.
The former Conservative premier said he did not accept that they were and stated that he had never asked himself since how the paratroopers came to shoot what Mr Mansfield called “13 innocent people“.
In a heated exchange at the inquiry, sitting in central London, Mr Mansfield asked Mr Heath: “Do you accept any responsibility for the deaths?”
Mr Heath: “No.”
Mr Mansfield: “Why is it that you do not accept any responsibility?”
Mr Heath: “Because I had no responsibility for it ... I have expressed my intense regret, which I did at the beginning.
“That continues and I fully appreciate the pain and the grief caused to their parents and their relatives.”
Mr Mansfield suggested that Mr Heath had “shut off or evaded responsibility” for the events of Bloody Sunday, for which he was ultimately responsible as head of the British government.
But Mr Heath said that soldiers in the province at that time were accountable to their immediate superiors in the forces there and the Northern Irish administration at Stormont.
He accepted they were then accountable through the General Chief of Staff to Whitehall and ultimately the British government, but that on some occasions, the Army took unauthorised action.
Mr Mansfield, who argued that Mr Heath’s government did have responsibilities for security in the country at the time, asked: “The policy within which the British army was operating in the north of Ireland was the responsibility ultimately of the British government, was it not?”
Mr Heath replied: “No... The reason was, as we have learned since, that the action taken by part of the army was not in fact agreed or approved by those above them.”
This included the conditions under which soldiers could fire weapons in relation to Bloody Sunday, he told the hearing.
Mr Heath was given time to consider these “unauthorised actions” and is expected to be questioned on them in detail tomorrow.
Earlier, the inquiry heard from a former Parachute Regiment officer on crowd control duty that day who said their superiors told them to expect violence, including the possibility of petrol bombers and snipers.
Another officer, a lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards, claimed the IRA was using the civil rights demonstration and peaceful protesters as “cover” to kill and maim members of the British security services.
The paratroopers were justified in firing on the protesters in self-defence because they were fired upon first by snipers and nail bombers, he claimed.
Mr Mansfield put it to Mr Heath that senior army officers knew there was a “serious risk” that innocent civilians might get shot and killed if violence broke out on the march.
“The question is: they all knew. If they knew that they would have to come to you and you would have to know,” suggested Mr Mansfield.
But Mr heathsaid: “They did not have to come to me and they did not come to me.”
Nothing was agreed “behind locked doors” and any suggestion it had been was “absolutely false“, he added.
The hearing was adjourned until tomorrow.