By Anne Cadwallader
DERRY — Up to 20,000 marchers turned out on Sunday to hear warnings that the Tribunal of Inquiry into the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry 28 years ago must not fall short of its aims of uncovering the full truth.
The warnings followed the news that since the current Tribunal of Inquiry was announced, the British Ministry of Defense has destroyed 13 rifles fired by soldiers on the day. Only five of the 29 rifles that were submitted for ballistic testing to the original Widgery inquiry into the 1972 killings are now still available.
Sunday’s parade followed the route taken by civil rights demonstrators in the city on Jan. 30, 1972, when British paratroopers opened fire into the crowd, killing 13 people. A 14th died later.
Relatives of some of the victims of Bloody Sunday, meanwhile, have criticized an attempt to link the rally with a campaign for gay rights in the United States. The rally’s organizing committee wrote to the Ancient Order of Hibernians in New York asking it to remove a ban on gays and lesbians taking part in the city’s St Patrick’s Day parade.
The Bloody Sunday committee acknowledged the support of the AOH, which has regularly sent representatives to rallies in Derry, but said the ban on gays was a contravention of human rights and called on the organization to rescind it.
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The letter said: "In the current circumstances . . . the committee believes it appropriate to make clear its position with regard to the policy of discrimination against gays and lesbians practiced by the AOH in the United States and exemplified by the exclusion of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization from the St Patrick’s Day Parade in New York."
"The committee condemns this discriminatory policy as being in direct contradiction of the ethos and objectives of the original Bloody Sunday march on January 30, 1972, which was specifically in support of inclusiveness and equal rights for all."
But a relative of one of those killed in 1972, who did not wish to be named, said the letter should not have been sent. "We were not consulted about this and a number of relatives are annoyed."
"We believe we should be concentrating on the campaign to finally reveal the truth about what happened that day, and not try to campaign for gay rights in America. The name of the Bloody Sunday campaign, and those killed, should not be used in this way."
John Kelly, whose brother Michael was one of those killed, said: "This is one of the most important rallies we have ever had because it is the last one before the Saville inquiry begins its formal hearings. We should not be getting involved in other issues."
A 150-strong contingent of AOH members took part in the Derry rally. AOH National President Tom Gilligan said the trip to Derry had been more than worthwhile.
"I’m glad we didn’t take notice of ILGO. I talked to all the families personally and they never knew about the letter and certainly didn’t agree with it. We marched behind the families with our own banner and were received with open arms," Gilligan said.
Gilligan added that he had not noticed an ILGO presence at the rally. One member of he group and several other gay activists traveled to Derry to march with a local gay group, Foyle Friends.
Destruction of rifles
Meanwhile, while families of the dead and injured are angry over the destruction of 13 rifles fired by soldiers on the day, the Saville inquiry has also expressed its dismay at the action.
Lawyers representing the inquiry say the weapons should have been carefully preserved. There was no legal obligation to keep the rifles because the Saville inquiry only sent a formal request to examine the weapons earlier this month.
But lawyers acting for the inquiry say it was duty-bound to preserve them after Lord Saville’s appointment by Tony Blair on Jan. 29, 1998.
"From the outset, we have asked for the disclosure of all material relevant to Bloody Sunday," a spokesman for the inquiry said. "It is reasonable to expect that, as a matter of principle, material connected to the events of Bloody Sunday should not be destroyed."
A Ministry of Defense spokesman said: "This matter is in the hands of the inquiry and we cannot comment on it. If the legal representatives acting for the relatives have a complaint about an issue of procedure, they should make it to the inquiry."
Tony Doherty, whose 31-year-old father, Patrick, was shot dead, said it provided further evidence of a coverup. "Clearly, what is coming to light, through this revelation is that those who stand to lose most from the inquiry, the British army and the MOD, are involved in every trick in the book to prevent the true facts emerging.
"I think culpability and further legal proceedings are to be established in the future, but for the meantime let us put the emphasis on finding the truth about what happened on Bloody Sunday."
Speakers at Sunday’s rally said a whitewash like the infamous Widgery hearing would not be tolerated. Alana Burke, who was knocked down by an armored personnel carrier on Bloody Sunday, told the crowd she remained angry nearly 30 years after the killings.
"I feel bitter at the way the victims were portrayed by the British Army and the politicians. Not content with murder, they embarked on character assassinations as well. We won’t settle for a Widgery mark II. Only when the truth is finally established can the healing really begin."
Victims’ relatives and local children in Sunday’s parade carried 14 white crosses, photos of the dead and a banner that read: "Bloody Sunday: the day innocence died." At the point where a British army barricade barred the way of the 1972 march, relatives of the dead stood in silence yesterday before completing the route set out 28 years ago.