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Wednesday, 14 February, 2001, 22:14 GMT
Leading republican addresses inquiry
Mitchel McLaughlin
Mitchel McLaughlin was 26 on Bloody Sunday
The Sinn Fein chairman has told the Bloody Sunday Inquiry he does not know if party colleague Martin McGuinness was ever an IRA member.

Mitchel McLaughlin made the statement while giving evidence to the Saville inquiry into the events of 30 January 1972 during which 13 people were killed by British soldiers in Londonderry.

Another man died later in hospital.

Under questioning by counsel to the inquiry Christopher Clarke QC in the Guildhall in Derry, the leading republican insisted he knew nothing about the about the membership or the activities of the IRA in Derry at that time.

He said they were a secretive organisation who "guarded their secrets very carefully and jealously".

Sinn fein educationh minister
Martin McGuinness has denied 'first shot' claims
Mr McLaughlin said he had never discussed IRA membership with Mr McGuinness, a fellow member of Sinn Fein in the city over many years, and now the Northern Ireland education minister.

He said he had never even asked the Mid Ulster MP about his participation in a meeting between the Provisional IRA leadership and Northern Ireland Secretary William Whitelaw in 1972.

Mr McGuinness has in earlier sessions of the tribunal been accused, by lawyers acting for the paratroopers, of firing the first shot on Bloody Sunday. He has denied the claim made by intelligence informant Infliction.

Asked by Mr Clarke whether he knew if Mr McGuinness was a member of the IRA, Mr McLaughlin replied: "It was my practice throughout my political career not to invite myself or not to interest myself in issues that were outside my field of activity.

"I was involved in Sinn Fein and I simply did not want to know that information because it was dangerous information."

The public gallery was almost full as Mr McLaughlin took the stand. The onlookers included former IRA hunger striker and prison commander Raymond McCartney.

'Turkey shoot'

Mr McLaughlin, who represents the Foyle constituency in the Northern Ireland Assembly, admitted rioting that day in Londonderry before army paratroopers entered the city's Bogside.

He said he believed that the IRA was staying away from the civil rights march which preceded the army shootings.

On the disturbances at Barrier 14 on William Street, he said: "I remember throwing stones at the soldiers behind the barrier and standing behind a large piece of corrugated tin sheeting in order to take cover from rubber bullets that the army were firing in retaliation."

I ran towards the group of people who were standing around the body on the ground to see if I could help. It was like running into a turkey shoot

Mitchel McLaughlin
In a statement, Mr McLaughlin, who was 26 on Bloody Sunday, said that as he fled the advancing troops, a soldier made "a serious effort" to blow his head off that day, the shot fired on Chamberlain Street coming within inches of him.

But under examination he admitted there was a "distinct possibility" that it may have been directed over the heads of people in the area to scare them off.

Mr McLaughlin said he emerged at the car park of the Rossville Flats where a group of people surrounded the body of Jackie Duddy, 17 - later carried through the Bogside, led by then Fr Edward Daly waving a bloodstained handkerchief.

The only people firing that day were the British Army and they were firing at myself and other marchers. I did not see anyone else at all with weapons

Mitchel McLaughlin
He said: "I ran towards the group of people who were standing around the body on the ground to see if I could help. It was like running into a turkey shoot."

He also described Michael Bridge at the scene, hysterically challenging soldiers to shoot him, and claimed: "One of the soldiers casually lifted his gun and shot him."

Mr Bridge survived a wound to his leg.

Soldiers who opened fire on Bloody Sunday have always maintained they believed their lives were in danger when they did so, but Mr McLaughlin said: "The only people firing that day were the British Army and they were firing at myself and other marchers.

"I did not see anyone else at all with weapons."

The inquiry in Derry's Guildhall has been hearing evidence since March 2000 about the events of Bloody Sunday.

It was set up by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998 and to date it has cost in the region of 30m.

It is expected to run for at least two more years. Proceedings continue on Thursday.

The BBC's David Eades
"The most significant republican to face the tribunal"
See also:

01 Feb 01 | Northern Ireland
First Bloody Sunday killing recalled
29 Jan 01 | Northern Ireland
Thousands attend Bloody Sunday rally
26 Jan 01 | Northern Ireland
McGuinness will give inquiry evidence
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