74Barely have the South Yorkshire Police finished their failed attempt to wriggle out of responsibility for one disaster than a fellow Force with a past record of equal ineptitude are faced with answering questions surrounding another. In 1974, the West Midlands Police received two warnings that the IRA mainland bombing campaign – one that had claimed 5 lives in Guildford on October 5 – was poised to strike in Birmingham; they didn’t heed the warnings and two horrific explosions at two separate city centre locations killed 21 on November 21. Their response, admittedly under tremendous pressure from both government and public, was to round-up six available Irishmen and ensure they were sent down for the massacre, a notorious wrongful conviction that led to half-a-dozen men serving 16 years behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit whilst the guilty parties remained unpunished.

In the aftermath of the Birmingham Six’s release in 1991, a fresh investigation was opened into the pub bombings, led not by an independent body, but by the Chief Constable of the West Midlands at the time, Ron Hadfield – aided and abetted by the ever-dependable DPP. Perhaps unsurprisingly, officers investigating a Force headed by a man in charge of the investigation came to the conclusion that there was no case to be heard after all. However, the news that a fresh inquest into the deaths of the 21 in the Birmingham pub bombings of 1974 has been given the green light by coroner Louise Hunt has raised the kind of concerns that will be all-too familiar to any copper on duty at Hillsborough in 1989. Even before any such inquest has begun, the coroner’s decision has been disputed by the West Midlands Police, claiming her to be without jurisdiction to oversee an inquest. One would almost think they had something to hide.

The original 1974 inquest was abandoned before reaching its conclusions after the wrongful arrests of Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Joseph Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker, something that handily prevented any unwanted information leaking into the public domain. Repeated doubts over the convictions of the Six were aired by investigative journalists for years, but politicians prevented any possibility of a fair hearing until the Court of Appeal finally quashed those convictions in 1991. Although three officers involved in the case were later charged with perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, none were prosecuted.

The public outrage over the bombings in Guildford and Birmingham led to emergency legislation being rushed through Parliament, resulting in the Prevention of Terrorism Act, something that gave police the right to hold those suspected of terrorist activities for seven days – effective Internment, as utilised so disastrously in Ulster since 1971. This created the ideal climate for West Midlands Police to beat confessions out of arrested suspects, something that enabled the actual perpetrators of the bombings to get away with them as well as preventing the families of those who died from receiving a full inquest into their deaths.

The prospect of another drawn-out hearing into an event that took place decades ago may not be to everyone’s taste; but there’s no denying that the families of the 21 have earned the right to hear what really happened. Alas, the passage of time and subsequent deaths of many who could have provided them with answers may well leave them no more knowledgeable than they are right now; but the possibility of potentially-damaging information as to the nature of collusion between the British Government, Special Branch, MI5 and the IRA itself being uncovered, not to mention exposing the dubious tactics of the West Midlands Police, is enough to vindicate the course of action announced by Louise Hunt.

Birmingham Six member Patrick Hill has publicly given his support to Justice for the 21, the campaign group formed five years ago to demand a fresh inquest; he claims the identities of those who carried out the Birmingham pub bombings have long been known to highly-placed British politicians as well as senior members of the IRA. The latter have always publicly denied responsibility for the atrocity, though Hill states they have privately admitted it and that the bombers have evaded prosecution as part of the Good Friday Agreement. Two of the alleged five are now dead, whereas two more have been promised immunity. Justice for the 21 even claims one of them was a British double-agent. Whether any of these claims will be confirmed in the legal proceedings to come remains to be seen.

What is evident, however, is that we are in for one more exposé of the endemic corruption running through the British Police Force at all levels; and how long before the whole rotten edifice is dismantled from the top on down? We can but hope.

© The Editor


  1. This is a very murky world, one populated by national and international politics, intelligence services, policing, public positioning and covert negotiations, denials, arse-covering etc.
    Given all that, then the ‘collateral damage’ of 21 innocent deaths and 100 man-years of erroneous imprisonment is perhaps not entirely surprising – that doesn’t make it easier for the 21 or the 6, but that’s the harsh reality of it.
    At the time of these events, the Irish Issue was hot and the British Government had already been engaged in covert negotiations with the IRA, as well as infiltrating it with intelligence agents in a good-cop/bad-cop process. This was not looking promising.
    West Midlands Police were known to be an incompetent and corrupt unit (not that they were/are alone in that), so it is perhaps no surprise that, when faced with those explosive outrages, they would react in the ways they did. They and the Government were undoubtedly satisfied to have banged up a few suitable Irish blokes and many celebratory G&Ts will have been downed at the local Masonic Hall and business-as-usual could continue.
    And now we have the process of forensic revisiting again, a-la-Hillsborough, from which there will be some greater revelation but certainly not the whole truth: that will have to wait, at least until all the cast of players are dead because, with that hard-won peace in Ulster remaining fragile, it would still be impolitic to reveal more than is absolutely necessary for now, but at least the process has begun.
    In an ideal world, the truth would have been revealed back in 1974, in a less-than-ideal world it would have appeared before now, more than 40 years on, but in the real world of complex politics, it’s not yet time, so the can of candidness will be kicked a little further down the road of reality until the time is right and safe for a comprehensive historical judgement to be made.
    R.I.P. the 21 and tough-shit on the 6, but that’s the way of things in the real world.

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