Northern Ireland

Sir Patrick Mayhew said British Government would not apologise over Bloody Sunday

The then Tanaiste Dick Spring and Sir Patrick Mayhew, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at a meeting at Stormont Castle in 1996. Picture by Brian Little/PA Wire.
The then Tanaiste Dick Spring and Sir Patrick Mayhew, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at a meeting at Stormont Castle in 1996. Picture by Brian Little/PA Wire.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Sir Patrick Mayhew told Dick Spring that the British Government would not apologise over Bloody Sunday, as it would be accepting liability, which "could not be justified".

According to a confidential document, the comments were made at a meeting between Sir Patrick and Mr Spring in London on February 6, 1997.

Sir Patrick also told the then Tanaiste and Irish Government officials that there was "not much prospect" of the Widgery findings being overturned.

The British and Irish delegation met in Lancaster House for a working dinner, lasting for three hours.

The memo reveals that most of the meeting was devoted to a wide-ranging discussion of the prospects for the multi-party negotiations and the intentions of the republican movement as regards the peace process.

Sir Patrick also opened up a discussion about Bloody Sunday, describing it as "an absolute disaster".

An Irish official noted that he made the remark "much to the discomfort of Ancram" who suggested that "tragedy" might be a better description.

The note stated that Sir Patrick stood his ground, insisting that his own assessment was the most appropriate.

Former Prime Minister John Major with his Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Sir Patrick Mayhew on the steps of Stormont Castle.
Former Prime Minister John Major with his Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Sir Patrick Mayhew on the steps of Stormont Castle.

He suggested that the British Government might not have a problem expressing "profound regret" for what had occurred, but to apologise would be to "accept liability" and this could not be justified on the "available evidence".

Members of the Parachute Regiment shot dead 13 civil rights protesters on the streets of Derry in January 1972.

An inquiry led by Lord Chief Justice Lord Widgery supported the soldiers' version of events, that they were returning fire, however, bereaved families dismissed the report as a whitewash.

In 2010, a new inquiry into the shooting, led by Lord Saville, found that there was no justification for shooting any of those killed or wounded.

Prime minister David Cameron later issued a public apology, saying the killings were "unjustified and unjustifiable".

In the meeting in 1997, a year before Tony Blair announced the new inquiry, Mr Spring said that Bloody Sunday was a "very sensitive issue" and that he wanted to see the chapter "closed in a dignified way", adding that he had no desire to subscribe to a "Provo agenda".