Bloody Sunday and the unanswered questions
Public tribunals have a nasty habit of leaving loose ends. But will Lord Saville's mammoth report be the exception that proves the rule, asks Steve Richards
Even after the magnificently authoritative investigation into Bloody Sunday, I remain an inquiry sceptic. We have too many inquiries and nearly all of them fail to illuminate.
Some of them add to the haziness. Others reach the wrong conclusions and, later, there has to be an inquiry into the original inquiry.
Nearly always they are called for motives that are impure. There are few high-profile inquiries that come about because a government has decided it would be fascinating, important, and healthy for a definitive investigation.
A renewed hunger for the truth was not the motive behind Tony Blair's decision to hold the Saville Inquiry into what happened on Bloody Sunday. He did so in January 1998 in order to unlock the peace process that had reached another nightmarish obstacle.
If a fresh investigation into the bombing in Warrington might have got the peace process back on track, Blair would have summoned a Lord to look into it. Instead, an inquiry about another past event to be delivered in the far-off future was instigated in order to have an immediate impact on the present.
There is a deceptive purity about inquiries, the formality, the extensive questioning of every witness and, sometimes, the evidence-based conclusions.
But the context of these acts of seeming objectivity is always multi-layered. Inquiries are held to get a government out of a hole, or because a government has no choice but to hold one, and even then it tries to exert control.
The original inquiry into Bloody Sunday, completed by Lord Widgery in the space of three months in 1972, largely exonerated the soldiers from blame.
No doubt the Government had assumed, and hoped, when it appointed the Lord Chief Justice to embark on a superficial, speedy investigation that such a conclusion would be reached. Alternatively, the government would have called another inquiry.
John Major used to announce one most days of the week as he struggled to remain in power, tormented by external events often beyond his control. Did the Conservative government illegally export arms to Iraq? Help! Enter the Scott Inquiry.
Major was able to dictate the terms of the Scott Inquiry. Tony Blair was similarly powerful enough to announce the Hutton Inquiry, and establish that the remit was limited to the death of Dr David Kelly.
The narrow range meant that, from the beginning, Hutton was never going to be as devastating as the Government's critics had hoped and assumed. Blair later cited Hutton as a reason for having no more inquiries into the war in Iraq, but Hutton had not been asked to investigate the conflict.
Inquiries often become fig leafs in precisely this way. But sometimes they distort in the opposite way.
The current Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War, simply by sitting in public, has created the impression that there are more hidden scandals that will be dramatically exposed.
In some ways the Chilcot Inquiry is one of the few over which the Government lost control. Gordon Brown did not want the hearings to be held in public, but was then too weak as Prime Minister to impose his will.
In other respects, Chilcot fits the pattern. With misplaced optimism Brown hoped the announcement of an inquiry would give him a bit of a boost. The problem was that he then had to hold it.
In this regard inquiries are similar to referendums. The offer of a referendum helps a leader. The prospect of holding one can become a nightmare.
David Cameron sealed his deal with Nick Clegg when he offered a referendum on the voting system. Their subsequent cosy relationship will be tested when the plebiscite is actually called.
The Saville Inquiry outlasted the prime ministerial tenure of Blair, who commissioned it. This is not unusual. Chilcot will report long after Brown's departure.
Saville, though, is unusual in the clarity and unqualified nature of its judgments. There are no get-out clauses for the soldiers who were guilty and there is unequivocal vindication for those originally accused.
No one can accuse Saville of rushing to judgment. The exhaustive research, combined with the damning verdicts, shrink the decades that divide Bloody Sunday from the verdict.
The Army is held to account. Pitch perfect, David Cameron apologised with dignity in the Commons. Those who thought they would get away with it have not done so.
An inquiry sceptic can cheer when history is revisited, authoritatively revised and bleak truth is established. And yet even in this case the moment of catharsis brings its own problem, with other victims wondering why their unresolved cases are not being formally investigated, too.
There lies the final twist. Inquiries quite often fuel crises when they are called to address them.
I hope that does not happen in Northern Ireland, but inquires, or the context in which they are set up, are never as stoically objective and innocent as they seem.