Nearly 40 years after Birmingham bombings, families still kept from finding out truth
I was in Birmingham yesterday, and as I hastened from a crowed city centre pub through busy early evening streets to New Street station, my mind briefly went to that other November evening almost forty years ago when bombs ripped through two other pubs nearby, blasting people, glass and rubble about in bloody shambles.
It was on November 21, 1974.
At 20:11 a man with an Irish accent telephoned the Birmingham Post newspaper and said: "There is a bomb planted in the Rotunda and there is a bomb in New Street at the tax office". A telephoned warning was also sent to the Evening Mail newspaper. The Rotunda was a 25-storey office block that housed the "Mulberry Bush" pub on its lower two floors. The police started to check the upper floors of the Rotunda but failed to clear the crowded pub at street level. Six minutes after the warning, at 20:17, the bomb exploded inside a duffel bag, devastating the pub. Ten people were killed in this explosion and dozens injured, including one woman who was so badly wounded she was given the last rites administered by the Catholic Church to those on the point of death.It was immediately assumed by the authorities and media that this was the work of the Provisional IRA, although neither they nor Sinn Fein have ever claimed or admitted responsibility. Six Irish men who had been living in the Birmingham area were arrested that night on their way to the Belfast ferry and the following year sentenced to life imprisonment. It took 16 years of campaigning and protests before their sentences were quashed, and the "Birmingham Six" were released as innocent.
Police were attempting to clear the nearby "Tavern in the Town" basement pub on New Street below King Edward House, when at 20:27 a second bomb exploded there, killing another 11 people and leaving many with appalling injuries. The bodies of the dead and injured were strewn about the ruined pub. A passing West Midlands bus was wrecked in the blast. The explosion was so powerful that several victims were blown through a brick wall into an area just below the main front entrance to King Edward House. Their remains were wedged between the rubble and underground electric cables; it took hours for firemen to remove them. The two pubs were about 50 yards (46 m) apart. Buildings near the pubs were damaged and passersby in the street were struck by flying glass from shattered shop windows.
A third device, an "Eversoft Frangex" bomb, was placed outside a branch of Barclays Bank on Hagley Road but failed to detonate.
Altogether, 21 people were killed and 182 people were injured. Most of the dead and wounded were young people between the ages of 17 and 25, including two brothers, Desmond and Eugene Reilly. One of the victims, 18-year-old Maxine Hambleton, had not been a customer. She had just gone into the "Tavern in the Town" to hand out tickets to friends for a party. She was killed seconds after entering the pub and had been standing beside the bag containing the bomb when it exploded. Her friend Jane Davis, aged 17, was the youngest victim of the two bombings
More immediately after the bombing there was a wave of revulsion and hatred against Irish people in the West Midlands and around the country, and within two days the government was able to bring in the Prevention of Terrorism Act which it had been preparing. This has not prevented terrorism but it did enable police harassment and persecution of Irish people in particular, and has become permanent legislation that can be put to other use.
By sheer coincidence, while I was returning from Birmingham, a friend was posting an item on Facebook. Thirty-nine years after the Birmingham bombings relatives of victims have sought an inquiry, and are trying to get at the truth themselves, without much help it seems.
That was from last year, and since then though David Cameron appeared to agree there should be an investigation, the government doesn't seem to have moved. Birmingham campaigners have continued their efforts to get attention. They protested when Martin McGuiness was speaking, sought a meeting with Gerry Adams at a London conference, and went to Warrington to meet Paddy Hill, one of the "Birmingham Six", who deplored the bombings, and told them that while under interrogation he had given three names to police of people he thought were involved.
West Midlands police have reportedly re-opened their investigations, something they previously said could not be done without fresh evidence. But today comes news that shows things in another light.
Justice For The 21 (J421) campaigner Julie Hambleton, whose 18-year-old sister Maxine was among those killed when the bombs devastated the Mulberry Bush and the Tavern in the Town in Birmingham city centre, contacted the police and CPS to ask for records about the case.
But she said that the West Midlands Police Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) said that files are so top secret that they cannot be accessed.
he sought access to the full transcripts of the trial of the Birmingham Six at Lancaster Crown Court in 1975, which she had been told were in the MoJ’s possession.
“They said it was out of the boundaries of cost and that the files should be in the National Archive,” said the 50-year-old lecturer.
“Yet the National Archive had already told me they held some of the transcripts, and the rest were with the Government.
“It just gets murkier and messier.”
Julie Hambleton had been meeting a Detective Chief Superintendant Kenny Bell, head of the West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit.
“On the last two meetings with Mr Bell he told us we would need half a day to go through the whole of the 1993 investigation in detail,” she said.
“But, all of a sudden, he has told us that the file is top secret and cannot be accessed."
In the aftermath of the Birmingham bombings I was in the West Midlands, and involved in opposing the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and I remember some people saying they did not believe the bombs were the work of the IRA. They also told me that not only were the pubs bombed not obvious targets but both were popular with Irish people.
A biographer of Ruairi O Bradaigh, then Sinn Fein president, says the IRA leadership and supporters were "horrified" by the bombings. Ó Brádaigh "made inquiries and confirmed that the IRA leadership had not sanctioned the bombs". Others have said that low-ranking members of the IRA were involved but the bombings were a "mistake". Sinn Féin called the bombings "wrong" and said that if "issues relating to the IRA concerning the Birmingham bombings are still to be addressed, then it is very clearly the Sinn Féin position that this should happen".
Some time ago I wrote about the women from Ballymurphy who were demanding an inquiry into the British Army shootings of people in their town.
Unlike the people of Derry, who obtained the truth, if not justice, for the Bloody Sunday murders, but like those of Ballymurphy, the Birmingham victims have yet to be awarded either.
And we might also bracket Birmingham with the Dublin and Monaghan bombings which occurred in May 1974, killing 33 people and wounding hundreds. The Ulster Volunteer Force later claimed responsibility though many believe they were assisted by, if not acting as a cover for, the British Army.
However complicated the truth about these awful events, and whatever discomfort it brings to politicians, the relatives of those who died, and indeed the people of both these islands, are entitled to demand it.