In May 1997, Labour leader Tony Blair succeeded John Major as British prime minister. Almost immediately, pressure was put on him to begin to resolve the Bloody Sunday issue. At the time, there was a noticeable thaw in British-Irish relations and a meaningful peace process loomed.
Days after Blair was appointed prime minister, Derry MP John Hume tabled a second Early Day Motion in the Commons urging the new prime minister to investigate the fresh evidence. The Irish government eventually presented its assessment, Bloody Sunday and the Report of the Widgery Tribunal to Tony Blair’s government in June 1997, pressing for a new inquiry. When Bertie Ahern succeeded John Bruton as Taoiseach in June 1997, the new administration was equally supportive of the campaign.
In late summer 1997, leading global human rights groups threw their weight behind the campaign. Human rights watchdog Amnesty International called on the British government to repudiate the Widgery findings. The nationwide petition gathered pace throughout the summer of 1997, too, with relatives travelling to Belfast, Dublin and many other cities. The number of signatories had topped 40,000 by July 1997 when the families travelled to London to present it to Downing Street. The hand-over outside 10 Downing Street drew considerable media attention, and, once again, high profile supporters like Labour MPs Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Benn accompanied the Derry group.
Towards the end of November, John Hume travelled to Westminster with a number of relatives and Derry city councillors to lobby for a new inquiry. More than sixty MPs had by now signed Hume’s Early Day Motion demanding the truth into the 1972 killings. In December 1997, a Day of Action took place across Britain in support of the campaign, with protests held in several major cities.
As the twenty-sixth anniversary loomed, relatives were more hopeful than ever of news from the British government. By now, support for the campaign had reached unprecedented levels. Bloody Sunday was being reported and debated all over the world. It was clear that action on Bloody Sunday was necessary to facilitate a successful and lasting peace process.
Towards the end of January 1998, the families received dramatic news - the British government was planning some kind of announcement. On 29 January 1998, the families, survivors and campaigners gathered to hear Tony Blair announce the establishment of a new public inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday.
‘We believe that the weight of material now available is such that these events require re-examination . . . We have therefore decided to set up an inquiry under the Tribunal of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. The inquiry will have the power to call witnesses and obtain production of papers.’
In Derry, relatives were both buoyant and nervous. The Inquiry was to be chaired by the Right Honourable Lord Mark Saville of Newdigate – a respected British Law Lord.
On Sunday 1 February 1998, more than 30,000 people came together to commemorate the twenty-sixth anniversary of Bloody Sunday. A jubilant mood prevailed. One pivotal chapter in Derry’s history had ended, and another was about to begin.
Derry's Bloody Sunday families hold a press conference in the Guildhall on Thursday 29 January 1998 following the announcement of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry by British prime minister Tony Blair earlier that day. (Derry Journal)
Derry MP John Hume, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace, and US Senator Edward 'Ted' Kennedy in quiet prayer at the Bloody Sunday Memorial in Rossville Street, January 1998. (Derry Journal)
Bloody Sunday families meet Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in 1998. (Museum of Free Derry)