Sunday Life

Judge who probed Bloody Sunday may have had Alzheimer's

By John Hunter
30 January 2005

Lord Widgery - the senior judge who chaired the controversial first Bloody Sunday Inquiry - may have been suffering from Alzheimer's disease at the time.

Medical evidence now suggests that the former Lord Chief Justice was suffering from early-onset dementia, when he led the probe into the 1972 killings in Londonderry.

Widgery died of advanced Alzheimer's, in 1981.

Medical experts say that, nine years earlier, he would probably have lacked the intellectual ability to conduct the inquiry effectively.

Widgery's performance as sole chairman of the inquiry has been relentlessly criticised, and nationalists have branded his report a whitewash.

Much has been made of the fact that when appointed by Edward Heath, the then Prime Minister advised him to remember that "we were in Northern Ireland fighting not only a military war, but a propaganda war".

During the inquiry, Lord Widgery himself examined only 15 of 500 eye-witness statements submitted.

Forensic evidence on weapon-handling was inadequately tested and the discrepancy between soldiers' original statements on January 30, 1972 and their testimony at the hearings never surfaced.

Widgery exonerated paratroopers of everything apart from being "reckless", but found there would have been no deaths if there had not been "the illegal march".

In the 1960s, Widgery had been distinguished by his mental clarity and ability on the Bench.

But in the 1970s, until he was finally persuaded to resign in 1980, his handling of cases became increasingly controversial, and it was well known in legal circles that he was suffering from dementia.

Following his death, one year after his retirement, one newspaper obituary bluntly noted that "dementia had rendered him incapable of performing the job" (as LCJ) for some years.

His successor, Lord Chief Justice Lane, was later said to have done "a decent job of clearing up the mess left by Lord Widgery".

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