Birmingham bombings inquest may not deliver convictions, but could provide closure

Emma Kelly, Programme Director and Lecturer in Criminology Birmingham City University, looks at the likely outcomes of a new inquest into the Birmingham bombings

Birmingham bombings, family, inquests,

Image: Julie Hambleton (centre), sister of Birmingham pub bombings victim Maxine Hambleton, speaks to the media outside Council House in Solihull after it was announced that fresh inquests are to be held into the Birmingham bombings. Ben Birchall / PA Wire/Press Association Images

In the summer of 1975, a relative of mine who was then a 12 year old Irish girl from Dublin visiting the city of Birmingham for the first time, was repeatedly warned by her Kidderminster-settled aunt 'do not open your mouth; if someone says ‘hello’ or asks how are you are, you are to just smile'.

This scenario was very much a sign of the times, and paints an accurate picture of the 'moral panic' evoked by the media around Irish people in the Midlands in the wake of the bombings which had taken place in Birmingham just a short time before.

On the night of November 21st 1974, two bombs exploded in quick succession in the heart of Birmingham City Centre. This period was during the darkest days of the conflict between the two countries, and it was reported that signs were hung for all to see in the windows and doors of hostels and rental accommodation: 'No blacks, no dogs, no Irish'.

For further perspective, it is worth noting for that prior to the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005, the Birmingham pub bombings were considered the worst terrorist attacks on British soil, claiming the lives of 21 individuals and causing over 200 injuries. The impact on both sides of the Irish Sea was significant.

With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that, in the immediate wake of these bombings, the West Midlands police were under severe pressure to make arrests and hold the culprits accountable. Any culprits. In fact, any Irishman remotely fitting the somewhat ‘sketchy’ bill would do, it seemed.  

At this time ironically, the West Midlands Police had been relatively successful in their objective to apprehend IRA members, and had many behind bars. However, in this instance, the initial investigation lasted a mere 48 hours and within that time, there were five men arrested with a sixth to follow in due course.

Image: File photo dated 14/03/91 of the Birmingham Six outside the Old Bailey in London, after their convictions were quashed. (Left to right) John Walker, Paddy Hill, Hugh Callaghan, Chris Mullen MP, Richard McIlkenny, Gerry Hunter and William Power. Sean Dempsey / PA Wire/Press Association Images

Interestingly, individuals who were arrested for the Birmingham bombings were in fact en route to the funeral of another Irishman; this one was most certainly IRA affiliated. James Patrick McDade, of Ardoyne descent, (brother of Gerry McDade who had been a staff captain of the IRA and had been shot in the head by the British Army in 1971), was labelled the ‘Coventry Bomber’.

He was a member of the British Battalion of the Irish Republican Army who had blown himself up in a failed bombing incident at a Coventry telephone exchange. Upon his death, the Republican Movement in England were planning to honour James McDade via a local paramilitary Guard of Honour, however the Archbishop of Birmingham spoke out against this and ultimately forbade a funeral taking place in the local diocese.

The Home Secretary Roy Jenkins resisted attempts to ban the IRA, but declared an aggressive stance towards paramilitary displays in Birmingham; Coventry and Solihull Councils banned all processions for a period of one month in the West Midlands under the Public Order Act, 1936. Ground staff at Aldergrove, Belfast refused to handle the coffin, with The Times reporting evidence of their intimidation. As a result of this, McDade’s remains were flown to Dublin. It is a view shared by many that the Birmingham pub bombings were to be understood as a form of retaliation for the reaction to McDade.

There are an abundance of 'conspiracy' theories offering implausible to probable explanations as to why the West Midlands police did not react if were given 'tip offs' for these bombings and that the British State were in possession of sound intelligence. 

Ex-members of the IRA have claimed that, on the night in question, the bombers were adhere to the common practice of the IRA and were to give, via a series of telephone calls to local newspaper headquarters, a 30 minute warning. The bombers reportedly claimed that the telephone boxes were out of order - a sickening reminder of the unapologetic nature and futility of terrorism.

We are told today that with MI5 and intelligence that 'moles' and 'double agents' were a big part of how information was gathered; in this day and age of technology and social media, it seems a somewhat primitive approach but one that has worked for Britain since 1919. However, this information is in stark contrast to Chris Andrew’s Official History of MI5, which states that there was a distinct lack of intelligence relating to the IRA in Britain. 

The debate surrounding intelligence and security is a complex one; we must remember that the likes of MI5 and Government's Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) are only ever judged on their failures, which by default become 'public knowledge'. An intense, deep-rooted frustration and disdain which have manifested over a period of four decades haunts the families of the victims, as it has widely been reported that the real surviving perpetrators are still alive and live a life of freedom in the Republic of Ireland. As previously stated, the only way they are likely to be tried now would be if they travelled to Britain and 'handed themselves in'.

In 1987, information was leaked from Special Branch archives which alluded to the naming of the true perpetrators, which was picked up by Granada and placed in the public domain. However, West Midlands Police revisited this case in 1990 and cited ‘insufficient evidence’ as the reason behind no other convictions.

The quest to seek justice is a fundamental human right, and in this instance, justice was not only 'unresolved' but was further impoverished by the now infamous case of the 'Birmingham Six', meaning this case remains a highly emotive one. Paddy Hill, one of the Birmingham Six has said that he remains 'skeptical' in the wake of this announcement. The impact of the double bombings was shared by all members of the Birmingham community and beyond, including the families of Irish decent settled in the city who also lost loved ones.

Image: Paddy Hill, one of the Birmingham Six who were wrongly convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings, outside Council House in Solihull where it was announced that fresh inquests are to be held into the deaths of 21 people in the bombings after years of campaigning by victims' relatives. Ben Birchall / PA Wire/Press Association Images

In relation to the families currently advocating for this inquest to take place, there is the risk that the outcome they are seeking is, in many ways, beyond the realm of possibility: the two remaining individuals who are unofficially labelled as being the real perpetrators are highly unlikely to be extradited to the United Kingdom.

Equally, the findings of the inquest may be inconclusive- whilst statements and evidence from the likes of MI5 and the UK Foreign Office will be revisited, there remains no forensic evidence linking the perpetrators to this crime. West Midlands Police have widely been blamed as having failed in their duties, as there were reportedly several 'warnings' prior to these bombings which were not acted upon. The West Midlands current Chief Constable has commented, admitting that the Birmingham bombings mark the worst chapter in the force's history.

Upon reflection, one must ask the question what can come from this revisit and resulting inquest? Well, for some it is not a revisit; it is a chapter in their lives which is very much ongoing. While this inquest may not deliver convictions, it may result in some type of closure. Or, it may in fact stir up emotion and remind us darker times gone by.

However, some strand of justice is surely better than none. Often in seeking justice, solace follows in quick succession, and perhaps that is the very least is owed to the families and friends of the 21 after over four decades of denials and ambiguity surrounding this case. A wise man once said that Ireland needs to forget its history and England needs to remember it; this case is no exception.