Mick North

From Chapter 7 of Mick North's book: "DUNBLANE: NEVER FORGET".

(Lord Cullen Report: A Shortfall in Justice):

The handgun ban was achieved in spite of, not because of, what Lord Cullen had recommended.  The whole process of the Inquiry fell short of what I, as a victim's father, might have expected.  Above all, it should be an opportunity for truth and justice.  In this context, truth means the accurate presentation of all the facts that are relevant to the events; justice equates with accountability.

It is too easy for those who become entangled in the aftermath of a tragedy to find themselves marginalised.  This becomes amplified when an inquiry, purportedly set up in the public interest, goes ahead without adequate explanation.   At first we were told nothing about the Cullen Inquiry or legal representation, and had to take our own steps to remedy this.  Had we not started meeting together and been able to resolve the matter as a group, it is doubtful whether we would have had time to prepare.  We had to appoint our own lawyer before we knew whether our legal costs would be covered, a risk we had to take.  Although our costs were paid out of the public purse, we weren't to know that at the time.  We were given certain assurances about the Inquiry - the meeting with Lord Cullen and the Crown Office lawyers was useful in this respect - yet it provided an expectation of openness that wasn't fulfilled.  We received lists of witnesses and other documentation from our lawyers, but had no clear overview of the strategy being adopted by the Crown who were, it has to be said, there to represent the public interest.  The key participants in the Inquiry were lawyers and its procedures and language, so familiar to them, were an alien world to many of the families.  Our own lawyers could help up to a point, but lack of familiarity doesn't aid full participation in a supposedly public process.LINK   At the very least, shouldn't it be possible for a government agency to produce a booklet on public inquiries that explains in lay terms what is going on?

The Public Inquiry began within weeks of the massacre, giving many of the parties little time to prepare.  The victims' families were still in a distressed state, and it has only been possible to appreciate some of its shortcomings retrospectively.  This raises a general question.  Public inquiries are set up as "one-offs", a single opportunity to establish and resolve all the problems.  They have a "once-and-for-all" quality and when they're over it is convenient for some parties to conclude that everything is done and dusted.  Is this not expecting far too much from the process and those involved?  It diminishes the possibility of considering evidence that may come to light later.LINK  Should there not be a process that allows a review, if necessary, after a set period?  An area of concern from the Dunblane Inquiry is the many rumours about Hamilton's links with police that have surfaced since the Inquiry.  There are suspicions about the motives of those who have circulated them, yet there are very serious implications if any of the rumours are true.  Can they be investigated appropriately once an inquiry is over?  Lord Ewing suggested to me that it should have been possible for Cullen to present a detailed but interim report.  After a suitable period of time, which would have allowed a little healing, then the Inquiry could have been re-opened and other issues raised, especially ones on which new information had become available.

The collection of evidence for the Dunblane Inquiry and the selection of witnesses were undertaken by the Crown Office and the local Procurator Fiscal.LINK  Through these processes they provided the parameters of the Inquiry, which meant that they determined its course, no doubt in consultation with Lord Cullen.  It would be impossible to consider calling every possible witness - no one would benefit from such an open-ended Inquiry - and some limits have to be placed on the evidence that can be heard.  The question then arises as to how the limits are determined and to what extent the selection process pushes the Inquiry in prescribed directions.   Certainly not all the available evidence needs to be presented, and with some of it, such as details of the victims' injuries, I can see why it was unnecessary and also inappropriate to present it in public.  Nevertheless I remain puzzled, at the very least, about some omissions, which no doubt reflect differences in the details wanted by Cullen and the details that I thought I needed to know.

First of all, there is the link between Dunblane and Thomas Hamilton.  Hamilton's actions were well planned, and we can assume that he deliberately targeted Dunblane.  He seemed particularly drawn to the town and had involvement with a number of its residents.   Yet the evidence on this was selective.  An inquiry aimed at getting to the heart of a problem should have explored all the links.  We know, for example, from what Lord Ewing told the House of Lords, that Hamilton's problems with Dunblane went as far back as 1971.  Lord Ewing regarded this old Dunblane connection to be important and concluded his speech by saying:

My reason for explaining all this is that in my humble opinion, honestly and sincerely expressed - I am in a minority of one - the Dunblane situation has been completely misread.  Hamilton's perceived problems were all based in Dunblane.   They were not firearms problems at all.  They were perceived as related to the town; everything that happened to Hamilton had the Dunblane background to it.

The events he described never came to light at the Inquiry.  Lord Ewing has told me that he didn't volunteer to give evidence because he didn't want to distress the families further, but nothing he revealed would have caused us any greater upset.  He was also concerned that it all happened a long time ago and, given the close proximity of the Inquiry to the massacre, might be seen as a diversion.  But this wasn't thought to be the case with Hamilton's dealings with the Scouts in 1974.  Was it the town of Dunblane itself that didn't want to be distressed?  A number of townsfolk, including its councillors, had known Thomas Hamilton more recently - they'd told the media as much - but none of them was called to give evidence to shed more light on Hamilton's relationship with the town.  Was this omission simply an example of over-sensitivity towards the feelings of a community or individuals within it?  I'd like to know more.

There are other gaps.  Neither of the chief constables who were in charge of Central Scotland Police during the period of Hamilton's gun licensing was called to the stand.  Wilson's absence was even more surprising, given the criticism of his force's operations on the day of the shootings.  I've also been puzzled why there was no evidence from the university secretary who'd typed Hamilton's letters.   She knew what he was writing and might have provided valuable insights into his state of mind; others who'd seen him less often were questioned on this.  While not suggesting there are sinister reasons behind this, I'm questioning whether, with such omissions, an Inquiry can be considered thorough.  Another question mark hangs over Cullen's willingness to state in his Report that he was "satisfied that he (Hamilton) was not a member of the masons"LINK, when very little evidence was presented on this.LINK   Discrepancies and deficiencies in the gun registration process were not fully explored, giving the gun lobby an opportunity to criticise the conduct of the Inquiry.

If establishing the truth is one of the prime aims of a public inquiry then no avenues should be closed off.  At the Dunblane Inquiry constraints were in place that prevented a complete exploration of the role of the Scottish prosecution service, the Procurators Fiscal.LINK   They had failed to proceed with charges against Hamilton on a number of occasions and although they are independent of the police service, the Procurators' actions did affect how Central Scotland Police behaved.LINK  The lack of charges was cited by DCC McMurdo as one of the reasons why he felt unable to revoke Hamilton's firearms licence.  At the Inquiry the Crown argued that the Procurators Fiscal should not be subjected to indepth questioning, an argument which was accepted by Lord Cullen.  Regardless of whether anything new would have been revealed, the barriers placed by the legal system on the questioning of "their own" suggest that public inquiries can never be entirely open.  The establishment boat can never be rocked too much.

This was also exemplified by theInquiry's attitude towards the discrepancies between the police and the parents in the times we were told of our children's deaths. Had there been a ruthless determination to establish the truth and to demonstrate that only the whole truth was acceptable, then those police officers who'd distorted the times ought to have been recalled to the stand to explain the discrepancy.

And what about that expectation of justice, the matter of accountability?   Cullen's Report sets out a number of recommendations, none of which deal with accountability for the events surrounding the massacre.   It has been too easy for those criticised in the Report to duck their responsibilities by saying that the matter has already been dealt with by Cullen.  Lord Cullen did not and could not implement his own recommendations, and neither was he responsible for following up any of the criticisms he made.  The response required those parties criticised, whether individuals or the management of organisations, to act honourably and consider their positions.  As I'll detail in the following chapter, no one from Central Scotland Police accepted responsibility. Both "watchdogs", Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and the local Joint Police Board, were content to say afterwards that matters had been dealt with by Lord Cullen.  They hadn't been.   In this respect the outcome of the Public Inquiry was far from satisfactory.

Is there a way of remedying this?  One way would be to give the responsibility of following up a public inquiry to a body, independent of the Government, with the power to enforce a response from the agencies involved.  Some issues will always be within the political arena and a response to them dependent on legislative changes that only Parliament can deliver.   But there are other issues that slip throught the net, especially if they are the subject of criticism within the Report, rather than matters dealt with as specific recommendations.  An independent body might ensure that parties criticised do not "get away with it" by failing to respond.

When Lord Cullen agreed in October 1999 to take charge of the Inquiry into the rail crash at Ladbroke Grove, most commentators again remarked on the suitability of his appointment.  Some, however, raised doubts.  Dave Whyte, an academic who has taken a keen interest in the Piper Alpha Inquiry, wrote:

Amidst the intense debate and controversy that has followed the Ladbroke Grove disaster there is one point that appears to have united all of the protagonists: Lord Cullen is unquestionably the best choice to head the public inquiry.   But the appointment of Lord Cullen actually tells us more about the role expected of him than it does about his ability to produce a report that will prevent another Ladbroke Grove.  Cullen was chosen to head this inquiry because he is a safe bet.   He is pragmatic, business-friendly and, most of all, he can be trusted not to unsettle the agenda that has already been set by government.

At the Piper Alpha inquiry he accepted, almost exclusively, the evidence of the oil companies on the shape of the safety regime that was to regulate them.  The trade unions represented at the inquiry opposed any moves toward self-regulation.

The oil companies had good reason to be pleased with the outcome of the Cullen inquiry into Piper Alpha.  The trade unions, the Piper Alpha families association and the public had good reason to believe the inquiry was a stitch-up.

The inquiry, by limiting the state's response to the problem of oil rig safety to the structure of the regulatory regimen, also allowed attention to be deflected away from the possibility of a criminal prosecution.

If some pieces of evidence carry more weight than others because the inquiry is working towards some pre-determined agenda, whether this is damage limitation or finding a scapegoat, the process provides little more than a piece of theatre.LINK  In the case of the Dunblane Inquiry, it allowed establishment figures and the institutions, from the gun lobby to the police, from politicians to administrators, the opportunity to act out how exasperated they had been with Hamilton and how they weren't really to blame for anything that happened. Cullen appeared unwilling to challenge the overall status quo.  The police could be criticised, but there'd be no specific recommendation for accountability.  Gun safety could be tightened, but only in a way that would allow shooting to continue.  With the door left ajar, it wouldn't be too long before the shooters could push it wide open.

When all is said and done the Cullen Report, the most public outcome of the Inquiry, represented the opinion of one man, albeit a fair and decent one, but nevertheless one man with an establishment perspective.LINK  Surely there is a case for having the opinions of more than one person contribute to such an important document?

We should be grateful that the aftermath of the Dunblane massacre provided one of those rare occasions when, in spite of the Inquiry's recommendations, politicians were willing to grasp the nettle and change things for the public good.  It is surely time to have a detailed review of the make-up and role of public inquiries.  A fundamental question to be asked will be: "Which public do they serve?"

Copyright © 2016 William Burns. All rights reserved.
Dunblane cover-up
Dunblane Whitewash
Dunblane City Sign
Scotland Map


Dunblane Public Inquiry
Dunblane Massacre
Read the full list in the Dunblane Whitewash catalogue. LINK
Dunblane Angels
St Blane's Church Dunblane
The stained glass window in St Blane's Church, Dunblane, which commemorates the victims of the 1996 massacre.
List of the victims of the Dunblane massacre
Victoria Clydesdale
Mhairi MacBeath
Charlotte Dunn
Melissa Currie
Emma Crozier
Kevin Hassell
Ross Irvine
David Kerr
Gwen Hodson/Mayor - schoolteacher
John Petrie
Hanna Scott
Joanna Ross
Sophie North
Emily Morton
Maegan Turner
Brett McKinnon
Abigail McLennan
We know who killed the above victims, but, although we may not care, we do not know for sure who killed Thomas Hamilton, and why that person was carrying a revolver at the time!
Why did Lord Cullen try to bury William Burns' letters to him for 100 years? LINK