The Birmingham pub bombings on 21 November 1974 killed 21 and injured 182 civilians in my home city of Birmingham. The atrocity is back in the news. Under the Terrorism Act 2000, the West Midlands police have applied for an order requiring Chris Mullin, journalist and former Labour MP — whose investigation of what turned out to be an appalling miscarriage of justice led to the release in 1991 of the men who had become known as the Birmingham Six — to turn over to them his notebooks and archive material. As those he believes to have been the real bombers have died, Mullin has released their names, but he refuses to identify living suspects. This is a clash between the professional obligation of a journalist to protect his sources and the desperate desire of the bereaved to see justice.
I have known my constituent Julie Hambleton, of the Justice for the 21 Group, for ten years. Her 18-year-old sister Maxine was murdered in the Tavern in the Town bar. Julie confronted Chris Mullin three years ago as he left the long-delayed inquests and asked: “How do you sleep at night? You did all that for the Birmingham Six and you’ve done nothing for 21 victims who were slaughtered in cold blood.”
The bombings happened at a period of high tension, with the Provisional IRA regularly letting off bombs in England. A week previously James McDade had been killed as he was trying to plant a bomb in Coventry. There was widespread fury at the news that the republican movement planned to give him a paramilitary funeral in Birmingham, where he had lived. It was banned by the Home Secretary and his coffin flown to Ireland. Five of the six men who would be charged with the pub bombings were being routinely searched as they were on route to Belfast for McDade’s funeral, when the news of the Birmingham bombings broke. They were taken to Morecambe for forensic tests and questioning, and a friend who had waved them off was arrested. The six were given life sentences in August 1975.
There was a good deal of disquiet over the next decade in some legal, media and political circles as their appeals were rejected. Chris Mullin was the investigator for several documentaries casting doubt on their convictions because of allegations of unreliable forensic evidence, plus police fabrication and suppression of evidence. Mullin wrote Error of Judgement: The Truth About the Birmingham Pub Bombings, which included claims he had met some of the real bombers. The Court of Appeal quashed the convictions in March 1991 and the men were later awarded compensation.
For the families there has been no justice, only years of frustration, characterised by too much evidence of police incompetence and establishment indifference. Campaigners have had to knock on doors, hard, to be heard. Mullin is correct when he says: “If West Midlands police had carried out a proper investigation after the bombing instead of framing the first half dozen people unlucky enough to fall into their hands, they might have caught the real perpetrators in the first place.” His “primary interest”, he said at the inquest, had been to rescue the Birmingham Six, and that he “was never under the illusion at any stage that I could bring the perpetrators to justice.” The police could have done that “had they been interested”.
But the victims’ families don’t feel he is interested either. The celebrities, campaigners and researchers who flocked to the case of the Birmingham Six, took their leave once their convictions had been quashed. At the inquest, Heather Williams QC, who acted for three of the bereaved families, asked why there was no chapter in Mullin’s book dealing with the victims. “If you mean did I interview any of the victims’ relatives, no, I didn’t. The relatives of the victims were no more likely to know what happened than anybody else.”
She made it clear she wasn’t criticising him for that, “What I’m suggesting to you is that, in the interests of the feelings of those who I represent, and doubtless the other families as well, to have had some reflection of the deaths of their loved ones in the book would have been important. I just give you two examples —” She was cut off by the coroner because her questions were “not relevant”.
We have overlooked the victims of the Birmingham pub bombings for too long. Chris Mullin should devote the considerable intellect and energies he devoted to the case of the Birmingham Six, to bringing justice for the 21 victims of 1974. He must now surrender all the information he has to the West Midlands police.