Widgery receives promotion to the Court of Appeal in 1968. He has barely gotten used to his new position when Lord Parker of Waddington, who had been Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales since 1958, announces his retirement. There is no obvious successor and Widgery is the most junior of the possible appointees. The Lord Chancellor, Quintin Hogg, Baron Hailsham of St. Marylebone, chooses Widgery largely on the basis of his administrative abilities. On April 20, 1971 he is created a life peer taking the title Baron Widgery, of South Molton in the County of Devon.
Shortly after taking over, Widgery is handed the politically sensitive job of conducting an inquiry into the events of January 30, 1972 in Derry, where troops from 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment had murdered 13 civil rights marchers, commonly referred to as Bloody Sunday. A 14th person dies shortly after Widgery’s appointment. He hears testimony from the paratroopers, who claim they had been shot at, while the marchers insist that no one from the march was armed. Widgery produces a report that takes the British Army‘s side. He placed the main blame for the deaths on the march organisers for creating a dangerous situation where a confrontation was inevitable. His strongest criticism of the Army is that the “firing bordered on the reckless.”
The Widgery Report is accepted by the British government and Northern Ireland‘s unionists but is immediately denounced by Irish nationalist politicians, and people in the Bogside and Creggan areas are disgusted by his findings. The British Government had acquired some goodwill because of its suspension of the Stormont Parliament, but that disappears when Widgery’s conclusions are published. The grievance with Widgery’s findings lingers and the issue remains live as the Northern Ireland peace process advances in the 1990s.
In January 1998, on the eve of the 26th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Prime Minister Tony Blair announces a new inquiry, criticising the rushed process in which Widgery failed to take evidence from those wounded and did not personally read eyewitness accounts. The resulting Bloody Sunday Inquiry lasts 12 years before the Saville Report is published on June 15, 2010. It demolishes the Widgery Report, finding that soldiers lied about their actions and falsely claimed to have been attacked.
Prime Minister David Cameron, on behalf of the United Kingdom, formally apologises for the “unjustified and unjustifiable” events of Bloody Sunday. As a result of the Saville Report, even observers who are natural supporters of the British Army now regard Widgery as discredited. The conservative historian and commentator Max Hastings describes the Widgery report as “a shameless cover-up.”