Birmingham Bombing Inquests Set the Tone for Future Troubles Investigations

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.

  • 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.

    Or because of a desire by agencies of the state to not to be found guilty of being lead instrumental and solely responsible for the bombing ….. in order to try and change the public perception and politically incorrect direction of events at the time. You know that such things happen all of the time. Chilcot proved it to be so, surely.

    Or perhaps you prefer to accept that the IRA command at the time allowed innocent sympathetic families to suffer because of their silence on the matter? Just collateral damage to be fielded in the game of war being played? You know that such things happen all of the time. Chilcot proved it to be so, surely.

    Wake up, smell the coffee and realise that being played for the fool is your starring role in the lives media is presenting for your future and obedient acceptance/pathetic complicity.

  • Granni Trixie

    I agree with all the points you raise. But it is ridiculous to omit the culpability of the IRA both in respect of planting the bomb and in leaving the BIrmingham families to carry the can for their misdeeds.

  • ted hagan

    The IRA did let it be known many years ago that the British authorities had imprisoned the wrong people, which was pretty obvious anyway. It was a heinous crime and my heart goes out to the bomb victims’ families.

  • Granni Trixie

    Am I correct in assuming that you include those imprisoned after a miscarriage of justice as victims of the bombs? Also, if there is such a thing as ‘honour amongst theives’ then the IRA ought the have immediately let it be known that the authorities had the wrong people, not waited years.

    But don’t get me wrong – the state behaved vindictively and unjustly towards those Imprisoned and their families as did the IRA towards people who were bombed and their families.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Yip ! A twitter friend just made the same point a few hours ago !

  • Brian Walker

    The first issue is the complicating factor of legal aid for the families when their solicitor practices in Northern Ireland. The lay person might ask why an English firm isn’t representing them. Listen to an BBC West Midlands interview with Christopher Stanley of the Belfast firm KRW law who will put arguments for legal aid free of charge to the coroner today, but is also considering applying to practice in England.

    Another more fundamental issue is whether an inquest is likely to uncover further evidence of responsibility for the bombings. That’s seems unlikely even though names are in the public domain. What the families may really be looking for is further acknowledgement.

    Another issue is the desire for more than is already unknown about the police handling of the warnings and the notorious sequence that led to the wrongful convictions of the Birmingham 6. Is there more to be uncovered after the hearings at which the convictions were quashed?

    Why does Patricia believe that this inquest will “ set the tone” for further Troubles inquests in I assume Northern Ireland? It may be said that some progress has been made in setting up a more robust system for inquests into about 100 deaths but so far the First Minister has refused to release the funds. This will be resolved – or not – in the different context of NI and I don’t see the direct relevance.

    Small point: the “protections” are under article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), separate from “EU law” although all EU members subscribe to it. The British government is currently examining how to revise its relationship to the convention to allow freer interpretation by the UK Supreme Court and to reduce appeals to the European Court. This probably has no relevance to the new Birmingham inquests.

  • johnny lately

    Granni taking nothing away from what you say but what difference would it have made if the IRA had of issued a statement admitting the Birmingham bombings and letting the British know they had the wrong people. Isn’t it true that the IRA through members of the Balcombe Street gang let it be known both in private to the Police but also publicly in court that they were responsible for the Guilford and Woolwhich bombings yet those admissions fell on deaf ears and was ignored the admissions were kept hidden and innocent people were charged with the attacks.

    Theres nothing in the OP about this either Granni –

    “Following the release of the Birmingham Six in 1991, a reinvestigation was opened, led by the then Chief Constable for the West Midlands, Ron Hadfield, and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Barbara Mills. A team of 40 officers generated 5,000 documents, statements and reports. Mrs Mills, who became a Dame in 1997 and died in 2011, put a 75-year embargo on files relating to a Devon and Cornwall inquiry into the West Midlands Police investigation.
    It prevented the release of documents until 2069.”

    Why would the British government want to stop the British public and those British victims families knowing the truth for 75 years if they had nothing to hide ?

  • Why would the British government want to stop the British public and those British victims families knowing the truth for 75 years if they had nothing to hide ? …. johnny lately

    If they have anything at all sensitive and unpleasant to hide, there be at least three very valid reasons shared a few hours before right here, johnny lately. …..

    And you know all and any of it is made easily possible, and therefore most probable and likely. Such is time and spaces we are all puppets in?