On 21 November 1974, Birmingham experienced a terrible tragedy. Bombs exploded in two city centre pubs killing 21 people and injuring 182 more. The violent Troubles of Northern Ireland – during which more than 3,000 people died and around 50,000 were wounded – were being taken to England by the Provisional IRA.
The police were under pressure to find whoever was responsible for what was probably the biggest mass murder in Britain. Six men of Irish origin, who had lived in Birmingham for years, were soon arrested, prosecuted, convicted and given life sentences. Indeed, it nearly was ‘life’, as they were beaten to within an inch of their lives by prison officers.
The main evidence against the Birmingham Six, as they became known, comprised guilt by association (they had been travelling to Belfast for the funeral of an IRA friend, even though they were not IRA members), disputed scientific evidence, and their alleged confessions.
At their second, unsuccessful, appeal in 1980, Lord Denning acknowledged that the case stood or fell on these ‘confessions’. Refusing even to allow them a full appeal hearing, he said: ‘If they won, it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted in evidence; and that the convictions were erroneous... That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, “It cannot be right that these actions should go any further”.’
Eleven years later, in 1991, and after 16 years in prison, they did win. For many years it was thought by some that they really were guilty, but firm evidence of their innocence gradually accumulated.
Now Paddy Hill (one of the Birmingham Six), relatives of some of the victims, and several retired West Midlands police officers are campaigning for a new investigation. It has emerged that there were more bombs; they did not explode, and they have now disappeared, along with many documents.
Access to what remains has been blocked on ‘public interest’ grounds for 75 years. No one will explain why. What ‘public interests’ are being protected by withholding the truth from the public? Apparently it is not in the ‘public interest’ to tell us. This is all set out in a riveting BBC programme, The Bombs and My Brother, which was broadcast on 17 November and is still available to watch online.
Why does this matter now?
First, when anyone argues for the return of the death penalty, remind them of this story. Second, it shows us that miscarriages of justice are triple tragedies: the lives of the wrongly convicted are shattered, sometimes never to be rebuilt; the same is true of the victims of crime and their families, who thought they had closure; and the real criminals go unpunished. Third, all too often, for ‘public interest’ we can read ‘vested interests’. Fourth, it warns us not to turn a blind eye to injustice for fear of what the truth will reveal; covering it up is worse.
Had the establishment been prepared in 1980 to acknowledge the police malpractices, there might have been a successful reinvestigation, the real criminals might have been caught, and the families of the victims might have had some closure.
Unfortunately, the Birmingham bombings investigation was not an aberration. A similar mindset led to the Hillsborough cover-up, the violence and deceit in the miners’ strike and the sexual exploitation by undercover officers of green and animal rights activists.
Colluding to deny suspects their rights, concocting evidence, violence in custody and mysterious disappearance of evidence – just some of the failings of the Birmingham bombings investigation – are still with us. We need to be vigilant, for the sake of victims of crime and alleged perpetrators.
Professor of Criminal Law and Criminology, University of Birmingham