John Major infuriated his Northern Ireland secretary and undermined a key ally by refusing to express regret for the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre of unarmed civilians by British soldiers in Londonderry, official papers show.
The Bloody Sunday documents are among more than 1,000 pages of newly released records about the former UK prime minister’s efforts to maintain momentum in peace talks between Protestant, pro-British unionist politicians and Catholic nationalists who favoured Irish reunification.
They betray officials’ exasperation with the Northern Ireland peace process, which had been set back by the decision of the Republican Provisional IRA in February 1996 to end an 18-month ceasefire. Violent loyalists were also breaching their own truce.
In one memo to Mr Major, John Holmes, his principal private secretary, described the shootings on January 30 1972, in which members of the Parachute Regiment killed 14 members of Northern Ireland’s Roman Catholic nationalist community, as an “inglorious incident”.
Mr Holmes wrote that the British government could genuinely regret the massacre but warned: “The politics of saying so are not straightforward. The distinction between regret and apologise, while real enough in some ways, may not be entirely apparent to the great British press. There is an obvious risk of headlines about U-turns, apologies and sops to Nationalists.”
Nationalist anger over Bloody Sunday had been heightened by the 1972 Widgery inquiry, which falsely concluded that many of those shot had been in close contact with weapons and that the British soldiers had probably been fired on first. The issue was revived in the 1990s when new evidence discredited the earlier investigation’s findings.
The documents show that Mr Major rejected advice to send a letter expressing regret over the shooting to John Hume, leader of the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party. The prime minister also refused to authorise a compromise version.
Mr Holmes wrote to the Northern Ireland Office on February 11 saying any expression of regret risked being seen as an apology for the massacre. “The Prime Minister is not immediately attracted by the idea of being drawn further down the road towards ‘apologising’ for Bloody Sunday, even assuming that the distinction between ‘regret’ and ‘apologise’ will hold up,” he wrote.
The papers also show that the prime minister’s rejection of this and other advice dismayed Sir Patrick Mayhew, his Northern Ireland secretary. In a memo to Mr Major on February 12, Mr Holmes wrote that Sir Patrick had called him and was “clearly angry”. “Paddy was distressed about your unwillingness to sign a letter to John Hume regretting Bloody Sunday,” he said.
Mr Major’s refusal to apologise was an embarrassment for Hume, who feared he was losing nationalist support over the issue to Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political wing.
“John Hume . . . made fairly clear that this was part of a struggle between the SDLP and Sinn Féin for control of the Bloody Sunday movement,” Mr Holmes wrote.
The Bloody Sunday controversies further heightened tensions with nationalists over the imprisonment of Roisin McAliskey, the 25-year-old daughter of Bernadette McAliskey, a former nationalist MP. The younger Ms McAliskey, who was heavily pregnant, was being held in prison in England following a request from Germany for her extradition to face charges over an IRA mortar attack on British army barracks in Osnabrück.
After news stories about the regular strip-searches she faced and the possibility she might be shackled in hospital while in labour, Mr Holmes noted the risk the case would become a “PR disaster”.
Ms McAliskey was freed when Jack Straw, home secretary in Tony Blair’s Labour government, in March 1998 ruled she was too ill to travel to Germany. The courts threw out a new German attempt to extradite her in 2007.
The new Labour government also established the Saville Inquiry to re-examine the conclusions of the original 1972 investigation into Bloody Sunday. When its findings were published in 2010, David Cameron, then prime minister, apologised for the killings, describing them as “unjustified and unjustifiable”. A former soldier was last year charged with the alleged murder of two of the dead and the alleged attempted murder of four other people. He awaits trial.
The Provisional IRA restored its ceasefire in July 1997, a key development on the path to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the conflict.
Hume, who was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the peace process, died in August 2020.