Today sees the re-opening of the inquests into the deaths of 21 people in the Birmingham Pub Bombings on 21st November 1974. The campaign has been led, amongst other, by Julie Hambleton whose sister Maxine was one of those killed on that day. She has said “all we want is truth, justice and accountability.”
On 1st June this year, the Coroner for Birmingham and Solihull ruled that inquests in the case are to be reopened because she had serious concerns that the police may have failed to act on advance warnings about the attacks. Despite the hearings beginning today – hearings that will decide how the inquests are conducted and what will be examined – the families are being forced to jump through hoops in order to secure legal aid to allow them fully participate in the process.
Unlike many other victims of the conflict, the Birmingham families were not able to access a review of their case by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), whose remit only extended to events that took place within the north of Ireland. Whilst we can debate the efficacy and effectiveness of the HET from here to eternity, their reviews did provide a measure of comfort and information to some victim families. But only if their loved ones died in a small geographic area.
The conviction of the Birmingham Six was one of the greatest miscarriages of justice within the British legal system. For almost 17 years the Birmingham families believed that the killers had been brought to justice. Whilst those convictions could never change what had happened to them, it was at least an acknowledgement of their loss and a measure of reparation for the harm done.
In 1991 the families had to face the reality that agencies of the state had lied, fabricated evidence and sent innocent men to prison because of a political and policing desire to clear the case. One can only imagine the re-traumatising effect that betrayal had, not to mention having to face up to the fact that those responsible were yet to be held to account.
Seeking a new inquest became the only avenue left to the Birmingham families. This entitles them to a number of protections as set out under EU law. The investigations must be effective and capable both of determining the legality of the State’s acts or omissions and of leading to the accountability of those responsible. They must also have sufficient involvement of the next of kin to allow them secure their legitimate interests.
In order for next of kin in inquests to be able to properly scrutinise evidence and be sufficiently involved in proceedings, they require legal representation. Given this inquest has been reopened because the Coroner believes that agencies of the state may have failed to act on prior intelligence about the bombs, it is reasonable to assume that legal aid to families would be automatic.
Instead what has happened is that the UK Home Office has refused legal funding to the families and they have been forced to seek funding from the Legal Aid Agency in London, who have, to date, refused to grant this funding. This is despite British Home Secretary Amber Rudd assuring the families they would get the funding they needed.
On a matter of such national importance – the deadliest attack to have taken place in Britain as a result of the conflict – it beggars belief that the UK Home Office or Department of Justice have not stepped in and said to the families yes, we will ensure you have the representation you need to allow you fully participate in the process.
As Julie Hambleton has said in interviews: “If we don’t get legal funding, then how can we participate effectively? This is the latest attempt to stop us getting at the truth.”
But much more than just Julie Hambleton and the families of the other 20 people who died and the 182 people who were injured, what does it say to other victims and survivors of the conflict? The British government is actively undermining an effective investigation into the deaths of 21 of its own citizens on British soil. How, therefore, can Irish citizens and those living with the legacy of their loss in the north ever have any confidence that the British government has any interest in dealing with the past?
It gives no comfort to the families already engaged in inquests into conflict-related deaths; inquests that have been delayed, adjourned, frustrated and obstructed because of the actions and inactions of government.
The inquests into the Birmingham Pub bombings are setting the tone for future Troubles investigations. The recent statement by Secretary of State James Brokenshire that “significant progress” has been made in dealing with the past rings all the more hollow when the government’s treatment of the Birmingham families is considered.