On a Thursday night in November, 1974, five Irishmen sat joking and playing cards on a train from the northern English city of Birmingham on their way to take a ferry to Belfast. Twenty minutes after the train left the station, Irish Republican Army bombs ripped apart two pubs in the centre of Birmingham, killing 21 people. Hours later, police arrested the five men and, along with a sixth man seized the next day, they were swept into a legal nightmare that lasted more than 16 years. Convicted of the biggest mass murder in modern British history, the socalled Birmingham Six were imprisoned for life. They maintained that they had been framed, but the courts turned down their appeals. But last week, they finally walked free after three Appeal Court judges at London’s historic Old Bailey reversed their convictions. And the Six were quick to voice their bitterness. “We were made scapegoats to please the public,” said Patrick Hill, one of the She. “British justice is in tatters today.”
The freeing of the Birmingham Six ended a legal marathon that many experts labelled the worst miscarriage of justice in modern British history. But it also raised a host of questions about why it took so long to overturn the men’s convictions, even though their supporters had uncovered evidence that they had been unjustly imprisoned. Home Secretary Kenneth Baker immediately announced a royal commission to investigate Britain’s criminal justice system— the first such inquiry in 13 years. It will study all aspects of the system, from pretrial investigations to the way in which alleged miscarriages of justice are handled.
At their 1975 trial, Hill, now 45, Hugh Callaghan, 60, John Walker, 55, Richard Mcllkenny, 57, Gerard Hunter, 42, and William Power, 44, were convicted on the basis of confessions signed by four of them, as well as scientific evidence that police experts said proved that two of them had recently handled explosives. Their cases also suffered because the five men aboard the train were going to Belfast for the funeral of an IRA bomber who had blown himself up a week earlier. In their defence, the Six denied that they had touched explosives and claimed that police beat them to force confessions out of them. They further argued that they were going to the funeral because they had been friends of his family— not because they were fellow terrorists. But at the time, there was little sympathy for their arguments. The deadly explosions in the Birmingham pubs were part of a major IRA bombing campaign against civilian targets in main-
land Britain that outraged public opinion and put severe pressure on the government and courts to find those responsible. All six were given life sentences.
But they were not forgotten. Supporters of the Six, including MPs and religious leaders,
campaigned for their release. And journalists unearthed evidence supporting the She’s contention that they had been beaten while under interrogation and casting doubt on the scientific evidence that police had put forward. Still, three appeal judges upheld their convictions in January, 1988.
In 1989, however, four other Irishmen convicted of the 1974 pub bombings in Guildford, south of London, were freed after an inquiry showed that police had framed them. In March, 1990, the government ordered a new investigation into the Birmingham case and referred it to the Court of Appeal. The inquiry cast doubt on the honesty of many of the policemen involved in questioning the Six and prompted Crown prosecutors to announce on Feb. 25 that they no longer considered the men’s convictions to be “safe and satisfactory.”
At the appeal hearing that ended last week, defence lawyer Michael Mansfield maintained
that police officers had woven an “intricate web of deceit” to secure the convictions. They falsified records of interrogations, altered the dates of alleged statements made by the men and lied about their activities during the original investigation, he said. At the same time, expert witnesses discredited the scientific tests used in 1975 to prove that two of the men had handled nitroglycerin. The same results, they testified, could be obtained by nitrites found in ordinary soap.
After their release, the She voiced both relief and anger. Their ordeal had made them almost unrecognizable from the police mug shots that had been their only public faces for 16 years. Hill, the angriest of the group, shouted outside the courthouse: “The police told us from the start we did not do it. They told us we were selected and they were going to frame us for it
just to keep people happy.” Another of the Six, Power, said later: “We were just a group of Irishmen picked up that night. All we ever were were nonentities, just working-class blokes.” Under British law, the Six will be eligible for compensation for their time in prison. The standard award in such cases is about $25,000 a year—or roughly $400,000 for each man. That will ease their financial situations, but they still face the task of adjusting to a world that has changed drastically while they were locked away. The trauma was not ended, either, for others caught up in the Birmingham bombings. Ian Lord, one of 162 people injured in the explosions, said that it was difficult to live with the knowledge that the real bombers were never caught. “The nightmare finishes for those six men,” he said. “It’s going to start all over for us.”
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