The Birmingham Six were released exactly 20 years ago, but the injustices that led to their wrongful conviction are now coming to bear on a new ‘suspect community’
At the trial in London last year of a young Muslim, one defence closing speech clearly interested the jury. In the case it was considering, it was being asked to infer involvement in terrorism from coincidences of association and the defendant’s clear interest in radical Islam. The speech recalled another trial, that of the Birmingham Six, based equally on seemingly damning coincidences of faith, association and political loyalties. In that case six men, all Irish, all Catholic, had been drinking in a pub at New Street station in Birmingham before boarding a train to catch a ferry to Belfast. Within six minutes, bombs exploded in two pubs on the station precincts. The men, all carrying mass cards, were travelling to the funeral of a friend, an IRA man who had blown himself up whilst assembling a bomb. All were Republican sympathisers. All were convicted in 1975 of the murders of the 21 victims killed in the explosions in the pubs shortly after their train had left for the Heysham ferry. All were completely innocent. Applying lessons of past injustice to the present, the jury acquitted the young Muslim man.
On 14 March 1991 the Birmingham Six finally walked free. Today, 20 years on, it is vital to appreciate the horrifying detail of what happened to them, and how the truth was not acknowledged for 16 years. The annihilation of justice for others remains an ever-present spectre. The replaying of their triumphal re-entry into the street outside the Old Bailey triggers only partial recollection; Richard McIlkenny steady and philosophical, “Every dog has his day”; Billy Power, looking ahead, thinking of others – “Judith Ward, the Bridgewater Four.” And Paddy Hill, burning with rage, “Justice? Those people in there don’t even know how to spell the word.” It had been his anger, sustained for 16 years, that scorched a route by which ultimately the six would escape. By 1980, he had written more than 1,000 detailed letters to lawyers, MPs, journalists; most never replied, almost all who did, answered similarly: “I’m afraid the odds against you are overwhelming.” After all, as well as the coincidences, four of the six men had signed confessions to the bombings soon after they were pulled off the Heysham ferry, and three tested positive for elements of explosives.
For 16 years every other aspect of the case was disregarded; that the men were, in Paddy Hill’s words, “tortured and framed” on arrest, beaten, subjected to mock executions, threatened with being thrown from a high building or a car on the motorway, and burnt with cigarettes; that their torturers were the infamous West Midlands serious crime squad, or that the scientist called to Heysham was the incompetent Dr Skuse. They were failed by everyone. Cut and visibly bruised when they were taken from the police station to the magistrates’ court, the solicitors who saw them first succeeded in getting legal aid forms signed, but failed to log their injuries.
Within an hour they were in Winson Green prison, where they ran the gauntlet of a lynch mob of prison officers; by the end the teeth of two of the men and the blood of all covered the reception area; the evidence essential to establish in the future that the “confessions” in police custody had been beaten out of them had been obliterated.
The confessions were ludicrously thin, but anything would have done. Retrospectively the police are invariably excused: “After all, weren’t they under extreme pressure to get convictions?” The bombs at New Street station had torn into the psyche of the country; support for the IRA in England, still then regarded romantically by many, was annihilated overnight. It was years until the IRA would admit to the bombings. It seems intended warnings had not been telephoned through. The men’s homes were the targets of petrol bombs, and nooses were hung on their gates; their families fled, some changed their names, one wife had to move 17 times, and put her children into care for their own safety.
Nevertheless, if the six men were all innocent, how could they have been convicted, and how could the true facts have been suppressed for 16 years? They had a trial by jury after all, moved to avoid local prejudice from Birmingham to Lancaster Crown Court.
But even at the time the appearance of fairness was questionable; at the court, housed in a medieval castle, the trial judge made his views clear. As he reviewed the evidence, Lord Bridge signalled his own reactions: “I am of the opinion,” he told the jury, “not shared by all my brothers on the bench, that if the judge has formed a clear view, it is much better to let the jury see that and say so, and not pretend to be a kind of Olympian detached observer.”
He suggested that if Dr Skuse was wrong about his claimed findings of nitro-glycerine traces, that would mean he had wasted most of his professional life; if the mens’ confessions were false and had been signed because of brutality, the enormity of the conspiracy within two police forces beggared belief. He considered it far from uncommon for criminals to seek relief from inner tensions by confessing.
The prosecution’s evidence, bar the coincidences, was in fact hardly credible, but nevertheless swallowed whole. The confessions of the four who capitulated were brief; none described (nor could the police who fabricated them afford to describe) the process of constructing or planting the bombs: they were simply said to have been left in two pubs in “white plastic bags” – previous IRA bombs retrieved from the Birmingham area after telephoned warnings having been thus found. Later forensic analysis by an independent laboratory established that the bombs had in fact been contained in leather holdalls, an inconvenience that in no way interfered with the juggernaut of conviction.
Every appeal failed; at their first, Lord Widgery considered there was “no ill treatment beyond the normal”. When the men sued the police for assault, the courts struck down their claims as impermissible attacks on legal certainty, “an appalling vista”. By 1991, the year of their release, 18 senior judges in turn had relied on the mantra that the original decision of the jury must be given deference, yet themselves listened to new evidence piecemeal before rejecting it outright, substituting themselves for the jury as the fact-finding body rather than order a retrial. Two retired law lords, Devlin and Scarman, fired broadsides at so seismic a constitutional shift.
Nevertheless, the appeal ordered by the home secretary in 1987 was expected, finally, to ensure the men’s release, hearing as it did weeks of dramatic new evidence; police officers on duty at the time had heard the threats and seen the injuries; a chart discovered in the handwriting of the officer in charge, a necessity if the false accounts of interrogations of six men at the hands of 12 officers from the serious crime squad were to match up. It contained inexplicable alterations; one interview claimed by Paddy Hill to have been conducted but denied by police at trial was written into the chart, but then crossed out. Dr Skuse, now retired on grounds of “limited efficiency”, cut a pathetic figure, claiming to have authenticated his dubious on-site tests of 1974 the week before the appeal, this time in his kitchen. Hundreds of distinguished observers queued each day for entry to the court. When the court rejected the appeal, commenting “the longer this hearing has gone on, the more convinced this court has become that the verdict of the jury was correct”, the men’s expectations of immediate release were in smithereens, but so too was the reputation of British justice.
The very public catastrophe of the appeal, ironically, energised an immediate fight back. How could the brutal West Midlands serious crime squad remain unscathed, having rampaged unchecked for more than two decades? In the end its overconfidence was its ruin; one interviewee too many, shackled naked to a chair, had been half suffocated with a plastic bag to force a confession. Questionnaires sent out to every prison were returned revealing in unrelated cases the same fabricated police verbals. Officers on the periphery of events in 1974 hinted at the true picture; one Special Branch officer at the Heysham Ferry confided that the night before giving evidence at the trial he had rewritten his entire notebook to coincide with the evidence given by a colleague in court the day before as to the actual time of arrival in Lancashire of the West Midlands police. He excused himself, “you know how things were”.
But in the end, it was the simplest of stupidities that concluded the matter. As the members of the serious crime squad had written (and rewritten) their false accounts, indentations on the pages underneath revealed how their books had been altered. Revelations of the efficacy of the forensic test in proving similar fabrications led to the disappearance from police storage in the West Midlands of dozens of potentially problematic notebooks. But for the Birmingham Six, their failed appeal in 1987 had secured for them one unexpected advantage; the notebooks in their case had been retrieved before the appeal, and retained by a separate police force, Devon and Cornwall. And so it finally came about that the six men emerged into the world.
Has there been a happy ending? Research shows the wrongly convicted suffer irreversible psychological damage far greater than that sustained even by the survivors of major physical trauma. Yet the state fails to provide any expert (or indeed any) aftercare; more than one appellant who has emerged seemingly triumphantly from the Court of Appeal has within weeks been reduced to sleeping on the pavements.
The six men are now five; Richard McIlkenny, the oldest, died in Ireland in 2006. The steadiest of all in prison, once outside his strong heart and spirit broke. Each man, from a devout community in which marriage and family are revered, has had to struggle with the spectre of estrangement; what has been rebuilt is not the same as that destroyed in 1974. Hugh Callaghan, Gerry Hunter and John Walker have carved out different lives, far from Birmingham. Billy Power has taken on responsibilities for generations of dependents and for prisoners still in jail; Paddy Hill’s have extended even further. The compensation he received has funded MOJO, a tiny charity that takes on what the state ignores, advice for the wrongfully convicted and safe havens for them on release. Everyone wrestles with demons.
And we have created, without doubt, a new suspect community. The young Muslim man on trial last year faced a different construct. Had he been convicted wrongly, too, there would have been no fabricated notes to discover years later. Instead association and interest might, had the prosecution in his case succeeded, have been enough under yet more emergency legislation to establish support for terrorism. And if acquitted? Control orders exist so that secret courts can (and do) hear secret evidence to severely constrain the liberty even of a person exonerated by a jury.
At least, we console ourselves, we no longer torture terrorist suspects. But is that claim a delusion? If we connive, it makes no difference whether the torture has been outsourced or perpetrated close to home in Birmingham. By the bitter end the case of the six men achieved what the successful elimination of torture requires, a very public accounting. But the detail of the British role in the production of tortured “confessions” in Guantánamo, Pakistan and Morocco is likely never to be publicly exposed; claimed “national security” is intended to ensure permanent secrecy. Twenty years on, we must therefore ask ourselves if we have, in fact, learned anything at all from our disgraceful past.