Bloody Sunday: The Electronic Inquiry

June 30, 2001

The purpose of the visit was to witness technology in action. We were escorted through security and up to the public gallery to be confronted by a large Victorian chamber. The building is the Guild Hall or the city hall of Londonderry, known by the nationalist population as Derry. At the other end of the public hall was a huge organ replete with pipes and flutes. We could not see the organ’s keyboard but the room beneath must have contained over one hundred of them.

Suspended from a beautiful wooden gothic ceiling were two large flat screens facing the public area. As we entered the auditorium the screen on the left featured the image of a man who was clearly giving evidence. The witness himself had his own screen and, although we could not see what was on it, it would be a fair guess that it displayed the image on our right-hand screen. This was the evidence screen and it contained the object of the evidence being tendered either in the form of text, photograph, video, photomontage or virtual reality. This was the sexy bit.

The text could be taken from any document (what you might call a real scan job). Up where the organist should be pumping his stuff the technicians were busy inputting. A document might be referred to by counsel as ‘AW44.056’. This might be a reference to an affidavit sworn by the witness before the Widgery Tribunal in 1972. When the document appears on the screen the barrister might ask Mr Tech to highlight paragraph 14(e). The screen would then show in clearly legible form the highlighted lines of the deposition made by the same witness almost 30 years before.

The photographs were fascinating, black and white images taken by photographers present during the infamous march. Dramatically we could see how two army Saracens, referred to by all the participants as ‘pigs’ (the name derives from their porcine shape) drove on to Rossville Street. The photos illustrated how the soldiers ‘de-bussed’ and, under the cover of a wall beneath the Rossville Flats, they moved towards the gathered crowd clustered behind a rock pile barricade. The black and white images followed one after the other, telling a story recounted by the witness. From time to time they were amplified to show the identity of one demonstrator or another or to draw attention to the stones in their hands. We did not get to see any video footage so we never saw Father Daly waving his handkerchief at the camera on this day.

At noon Lord Saville called a recess and then gave us a personal tour of the gadgetry. The three members of the tribunal sit on a slightly elevated stage surrounded by a number of screens each. This enables them to view witnesses, interrogators, evidence and, more discreetly, a personal screen for such things as private e-mail or communication with the Bloody Sunday offices in Derry or London. The transcript of evidence is also available as it is given through ‘Livenote’ software. This means that the tribunal team and the various lawyers present can store their daily business on CD and bring it home to study or to annotate. At any given time, evidence given at any stage during the course of the previous year can be summoned using a prompt and then reintroduced at will. Access is available to literally millions of documents in the same way.

SCL members outside the Inquiry

Lord Saville emphasised the practical savings of the use of this technology not only of money but also time and effort. By example, he mentioned the 40 seconds, on average, it takes a barrister to source and read an extract from a document in, say, a commercial case when using bundles compared to the 3 to 5 seconds it takes to call it down through the computer system. Multiply this by the number of references during the course of an individual testimony and the seconds quickly add up to minutes and hours.

The enquiry has cost the British tax payer, so far, £39 million and its length is indefinite. The set-up cost was in the region of £8 million and the biggest single cost has been fees to the legal profession. This is not surprising as we counted about 30 lawyers also enveloped in multiple screens.

Lord Saville also referred to the wealth of video footage. Unfortunately the coverage from military helicopters hovering above ceased when the action started on the ground below.

Another feature of the technology being used was virtual reality. Go to a ‘hot spot’, hit the screen and off you go, with a 360 degree vision of Derry today (minus the murals) and Derry as it was 30 years ago. This enables the witness, who may not be comfortable with maps and drawings, to walk around the city jumping from one hot spot to the other. The SCL group noted, as we took a tour of the city, that the area involved is quite confined.

A lot of wires one might say, but we were informed that they rarely cross. In over a year of testimony the tribunal has suffered less than 15 minutes of downtime. Who says computers always break down?

Justin McKenna is from Partners at Law Solicitors,