“One person killed in England is worth 10 ( or is it 20 or 30?) in Ireland.” This was the notorious IRA judgement of propaganda value. And with 50 IRA attacks in England in 1974 that felt true at the time. The calculation was still valid in November that year when everything went horribly wrong for all sides over the Birmingham bombs. Reaction in Northern Ireland to the prominent coverage today will probably be rueful. We are more case hardened. Unless a Troubles story provokes a resonance of something else happening in England, purely “Irish” stories don’t get the prominence.
The Birmingham story has moved on from the appalling wrongful convictions. To make a lead story the news of the reopening of the Birmingham inquest is probably influenced by the recent record of historic police brutality, incompetence and coverup in south Yorkshire from Orgreave to Hillsborough ( and I have to say, also by the desire for a lead, any lead that isn’t about Brexit). And then there’s the question Newsnight reporter John Sweeney ended his report with tonight but wasn’t followed up; if they got it so wrong in Birmingham even in recent years, are they doing any better with Islamist extremism?
But might the passion, even the naivety of Julie Hambleton reignite passions here for a fresh drive to deal with the past? Perhaps. But the chances of getting either justice or truth don’t look good, except for more details of police cover up and incompetence. Which is one reason why the authorities drag their feet.
In the Guardian the great Birmingham 6 investigator Chris Mullin now a recently retired MP updated his assessment of the case headlined. “I fear the Birmingham bombings inquest will only bring heartache.”
Making her announcement, the coroner referred to a “wealth of evidence that has still not been heard”. It remains to be seen precisely what she was referring to, but at the earlier hearings Ashley Underwood QC, who acted for the relatives, asserted that “there is reason to believe that the murder gang had an informant in their ranks and that the police knew in advance” that the explosions were planned and could, therefore, perhaps have been averted.
I find this unlikely. Prior to the bombings the only informer of whom I am aware was an IRA man who was detained as part of an earlier round of arrests. His usefulness would have come to an end with his arrest some months before the pub bombings, although he might have been able to provide the police with the names of some of those who remained at liberty, which would have at least given them an idea of who to keep tabs on.
There is also intriguing evidence that an IRA man, arrested after the pub bombings, co-operated with the police. In 1987 the Granada Televisionprogramme World in Action obtained a document from the special branch archive which was a precis of interviews with a man who names several of the pub bombers. Remarkably, the police chose to take no action. To do so, of course, would have meant admitting that they had just put away the wrong people. The Criminal Records Office reference on the file is 10368/74. It would be interesting to hear more about this.
In his submission to the coroner, Underwood also alleged that “there is reason to believe that the police had sufficient time between the telephone warnings and the first bomb going off, to evacuate … but that the record was falsified”. There may be something in this. The man who made the warning call was Michael Murray. When I interviewed him in 1986 he conceded that the warning call was botched, but insisted that he gave more notice than the six minutes later alleged. At the time I was sceptical, but if there is evidence that the record was falsified – and I wouldn’t put anything past those in charge of the initial investigation – then it may well be that lives could have been saved.
So maybe there’s some new news in it after all. On Newsnight, it was left to former IRA informer and thorn in the flesh Sean O’Callaghan to bring the focus home.
Answering Ms Hambletons’ cry “ Where else could you say you planted bombs and walk away free? O’Callaghan replied: “There are people still alive who carried out Provisional IRA inquiries and know precisely what happened. Some of them are in public office”
And like the perpetrators alive and dead, we know who they are. Usually they have been adroit at deflecting attention to the security forces. But even the horror of the Birmingham 6 wrongful convictions and other flaws in police handling are not diverting attention this time. If they’re serious about reconciliation, the time for voluntary revelations has come.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London