Chris Mullin is a former Labour MP and minister, and the author of Error of Judgment: The Truth about the Birmingham Bombings. The Friends of Harry Perkins, a sequel to his novel A Very British Coup, is published next month.
On the evening of 21 November 1974, bombs planted by the IRA in two crowded Birmingham pubs, the Tavern in the Town and the Mulberry Bush, exploded, killing 21 people and injuring at least 170. Many of the injuries were life-changing. None of those responsible has been brought to justice.
This month, almost 45 years later, an inquest opens into the deaths. The inquest has been forced on the authorities by the persistence of a small group of bereaved relatives who want to know who made the bombs and who planted them. The coroner has resisted this demand, arguing that it is not the job of an inquest to identify perpetrators. The relatives challenged his decision in the courts: the police, they say, know the names of those responsible and should be obliged to disclose them. The police respond that, although they have their suspicions, they have insufficient evidence to charge anyone. The lower court refused to order the coroner to address the issue, but did conclude that he hadn’t properly considered the matter and referred it back to him. The coroner stuck to his original decision. The relatives then took their case to the appeal court, which found for the coroner. There the matter rests.
I know the names of the bombers. Four men were involved: two bomb-makers and two planters. More than thirty years ago two of them described to me what they’d done in some detail. By a process of elimination, assisted by information from former members of the West Midlands IRA, I also identified at least one of the remaining perpetrators, perhaps both, though neither would admit to me their role in the bombings. But I have never named names. Journalists do not disclose their sources. I interviewed many of those who were active in the IRA’s West Midlands campaign. To gain their co-operation I gave repeated assurances, not only to the guilty, but to innocent intermediaries, that I would not disclose their identities. I cannot go back on that now, just because it would be convenient. My purpose at the time was to help free the six innocent men who had been convicted of the bombing. I was never under the illusion that I could bring the perpetrators to justice. My researches, conducted between 1985 and 1987, formed the final chapters of my book about the case, Error of Judgment. In it two of the perpetrators are quoted at length, but not identified. I no longer have any compunction about identifying two of the men involved, who are now dead (I am about to do so), but the man described in my book as the ‘young planter’ is still alive, and I will not name him.
Within four hours of the explosions on 21 November five Irishmen – Paddy Hill, Gerry Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, Billy Power and Johnny Walker – were arrested at Heysham in Lancashire as they got off a train from Birmingham New Street which connected with the ferry to Belfast. A sixth man, Hughie Callaghan, was arrested the next day in Birmingham. The five were taken to Morecambe police station where Dr Frank Skuse, a Home Office forensic scientist, tested their hands for evidence of contact with explosives. Meanwhile a posse of detectives from the West Midlands Serious Crimes Squad headed up the motorway to interview the suspects. In Morecambe Skuse conducted a Griess test, swabbing the hands of the suspects with ether, mixing it with caustic soda and noting the reaction. By dawn, he was claiming that the test had returned positive results for two of the five prisoners. He had no business making such a claim. Griess was only a screening test. Having obtained his initial results, he should have taken the samples back to his laboratory in Preston and fed them into a mass spectrometer, which gives a much more accurate result. Instead, Skuse told the West Midlands detectives he was certain at least two of the suspects had recently been in contact with nitroglycerine. From that moment, their fate was sealed.
Up to this point Lancashire police had resisted pressure from the West Midlands detectives to hand over the suspects for interrogation. After Skuse’s contribution the pressure became impossible to resist. Lancashire police effectively lost control of their police station and a programme of violence and intimidation began, lasting three days and two nights (during which time the prisoners were transferred to Queens Road police station in Birmingham), which resulted in four confessions. This was before the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (1984), which laid down strict rules for the treatment of suspects. Before its passage, confessions could be extracted by any means necessary, so long as any injuries inflicted weren’t too obvious. There were no tape or video recordings, no lawyer present, just police officers. The suspects who confessed claimed they did so after being beaten and deprived of sleep, having aggressive dogs put in their cells and, in one case, being subjected to a mock execution using blank cartridges.
The confessions were mistaken in details about the bombings and contradicted each other in major respects. Among the things they got wrong were the locations of the bombs, the types of bag they were carried in (something which only became apparent after scientists examined remnants found in the rubble, by which time it was too late to correct the confessions), and which suspects were supposed to have bombed which pub. They didn’t explain where the bombs had come from or who had made them. (Years later, at the Birmingham Six’s final, successful appeal in 1991, it was discovered that the interviewing officers had been rewriting their supposedly contemporaneous notebooks up to the day the original trial started.)
The trial took place at Lancaster Castle in the summer of 1975. Mr Justice (later Lord) Bridge made no secret of his approach to the evidence. ‘I am of the opinion,’ he told the jury, ‘not shared by all my brothers on the bench that, if a judge has formed a clear view, it is much better to let the jury see that and say so and not pretend to be some Olympian detached observer.’ He was as good as his word. The trial lasted 45 days. In addition to the six, there were three other people in the dock, charged with conspiracy to cause explosions. One of them was Michael Murray, a workmate of two of the six, who made no secret of his membership of the IRA. In the best IRA tradition he chose not to participate in the proceedings. His presence in the dock alongside the six was deeply damaging to their case. This is no doubt the reason the prosecution decided to try them together.
The case against the six was divided into what the judge called three chapters. The first was circumstantial evidence: they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and drank in the same pubs and clubs as a number of the wrong people. Even Bridge admitted that this ‘fell a long way short of anything that anyone could possibly regard as proof’. The two remaining chapters were the confessions and Skuse’s evidence. Skuse told the court, as he had told the police officers, that he was ‘99 per cent certain’ at least two of the accused had handled explosives.
There were clear difficulties with the prosecution case. The confessions were riddled with contradictions and the suggestion that they had been obtained by intimidation and violence could not be entirely dismissed – no one disputed that the men had suffered numerous injuries during their first few days in custody. The police position was that the injuries must have been inflicted after the suspects were remanded to Winson Green prison. The prison officers’ position was silence. The men’s position was that they had been assaulted both at the police station and at the prison. The distinction was important because if it could be demonstrated that the assaults had occurred in police custody the confessions would be invalid. A long procession of police officers ranging in rank from detective constable to chief superintendent gave evidence that no one had laid a finger on the suspects. In his summing up the judge outlined, in tones of incredulity, the scale of the conspiracy the police would have to have engaged in if the defendants were telling the truth. We now know that a conspiracy on this scale is essentially what did occur.
There were problems, too, with the evidence provided by Skuse. After applying the Griess test to the men’s hands at Morecambe, he did what he should have done before giving the police his conclusion and went back to his laboratory to feed the samples into a mass spectrometer. They all tested negative. What’s more, the clothes of all six men tested negative and a search of their homes revealed no trace of explosives. Where the bombs came from was a mystery left unexplored. Nevertheless, Skuse stuck to his assertion that the two positive Griess tests were proof of recent contact with explosives. Dr Hugh Black, a former Home Office chief inspector of explosives, appearing as a witness for the defence, pointed out that a range of innocent substances – anything containing nitrocellulose – could produce a positive Griess test. The problem was that Black was relying solely on his knowledge of chemistry. He had conducted no tests to support his (entirely accurate) assertions. The judge pounced on this.
Throughout the trial Bridge lost no opportunity to intervene on behalf of the prosecution. Not only did he criticise Black for failing to conduct experiments, he also went for the prison medical officer, Dr Harwood, whose evidence inconveniently asserted that the defendants showed signs of injury when they arrived at Winson Green. Harwood’s problem was that he was trying to cover for what Bridge called ‘his cronies’ in the prison service by making out all the assaults had been carried out by the police. Bridge took him apart. Finally, there was a tricky moment when one of the Lancashire police officers strayed off-script on a key issue of timing. Under questioning from the prosecution, he stuck to his story. Eventually the judge rode to the rescue.
Bridge’s summing up covered 189 pages and took three days to deliver. It is peppered with heavy hints as to his view of the evidence, although he always took care to insert the sentence, ‘Members of the jury, it is entirely a matter for you.’ One of the most remarkable passages came towards the end, when Bridge turned to Michael Murray, who had sat silently throughout the proceedings. ‘You may think,’ he told the jury, ‘that Murray’s conduct in this trial has shown a certain measure of dignity totally absent from the conduct of his co-defendants. You may find yourself in difficulty in withholding a certain measure of respect.’ Murray, as it turned out, was the only person in that courtroom who actually had anything to do with the bombings.
My attention was first drawn to the Birmingham case by my friend Peter Chippendale, who covered the trial for the Guardian. He told me he thought the wrong people had been convicted. It was ten years or so before I began to investigate the matter. In the early 1980s I persuaded Carmen Callil at Chatto and Windus to commission a book on the case, but the advance was small and did not begin to fund the research necessary. In 1985, Ray Fitzwalter, the editor of ITV’s documentary series World in Action, agreed to take me on temporarily and give me the resources to look into the case.
To begin with, I spent much time, along with the World in Action journalists Ian McBride and Charles Tremayne, trying to find a police officer involved in the case who would tell a story different from the one told in court. The search proved fruitless. Next we got two independent forensic scientists to test Skuse’s evidence. They found, just as Black had suggested during the trial, that a range of innocent household substances containing nitrocellulose, from varnish to sprays, could produce a positive Griess test. Of particular interest was the discovery that packs of playing cards used to be coated with nitrocellulose. The five men on the train to Heysham had played cards during the journey. We got Ian McBride to shuffle a pack of old playing cards and, sure enough, his hands produced a positive Griess test. With that, the forensic evidence collapsed. Soon after a World in Action documentary describing our findings was shown in October 1985, I was contacted by a former police officer who had been at Queens Road police station and witnessed some of the comings and goings in the cell block. We made a second documentary.
The case against the six men had always been weak, but that in itself did not prove their innocence. The only way to do that was to track down the actual bombers. My colleagues were not immediately interested in this line of inquiry so I went about it alone, beginning with a visit to the Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in July 1985. I didn’t expect him to deliver up the real bombers; I wanted him to indicate that he had no objection to my interviewing particular individuals, whose names I would put to him. I wanted especially to talk to Michael Murray, who, having served most of his 12-year sentence for conspiracy to cause explosions, had recently been released and was living in Dublin.
Murray was not at all keen to meet me, but agreed after the intervention of intermediaries. We agreed that I would not disclose his identity and that when we came to a question he didn’t want to answer he would say so, but not mislead me. I met him three times, in July and November 1985 and April 1986. The first interview lasted three hours. Despite his initial reluctance he provided an account of what happened on the night of the bombings. Two men had made the bombs and two others had planted them in the pubs. The targets had not been the pubs, but the buildings they were part of: one was in the Rotunda, a local landmark, and the other was underneath the New Street office of the Inland Revenue.
At that meeting Murray declined to discuss his own role, but at our second meeting he was frank. He was one of the men who had made the bombs and he had given the warning phone call (which had come too late). This still wasn’t enough to free the jailed men. The police never claimed to have caught the bomb-makers. Indeed they had never offered any explanation as to where the bombs came from. I had to find one or both of the planters and persuade them to describe what they had done in such detail that it wouldn’t be possible for anyone to go on pretending that the right people were in prison.
I drew up a list of all those known to have been involved in planting bombs in and around Birmingham. Tracking them down wasn’t too difficult since many of them had served long prison terms. I started with those who’d been in prison at the time of the pub bombings. They didn’t necessarily know the identity of the bombers, but they did know which members of the West Midlands IRA were at liberty that night. They all agreed on one point: none of the Birmingham Six had been a member of the IRA.
I then began to track down those members of the West Midlands IRA who had been at liberty on the night of the bombings. Gradually I narrowed down my list of suspects and when I had been given the same name by three separate sources, I moved in on him. He lived on a bleak housing estate and was in his early thirties. He had been involved in seven or eight other city-centre bombings before the pub bombings. He set out to give me a sanitised version of his career, but as we started discussing the night of 21 November his voice began to tremble and fade away. At first, he lied, saying he had been warned to stay at home that night because something big was going to happen. After we changed the subject his voice grew stronger again. ‘I think you were in the pubs,’ I said to him. There was a long silence. We were sitting on the floor. He stared straight ahead, smoking. Then it all came tumbling out. This is what he told me:
On the evening of the bombings a person came to see me and said, ‘You’re needed for an operation.’ I went with him to a house. We went by car. The bombs were in the parlour, behind the sofa. One was in a duffle bag and the other was in a small brown luggage case. I was given the duffle bag and a pistol. I put the gun in my coat pocket. The other man carried the case. We walked into town. It was a good mile. The other fellow told me the targets ten minutes before we arrived. He said: ‘The one in the Tavern is for the tax office and the one in the Mulberry Bush is for the Rotunda.’ He added: ‘There’ll be plenty of warning.’ Believe it or not I accepted it. I didn’t want the stigma of cowardice attached to me. He kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, those people will be well out of there.’ I kept on about it and he repeated there would be substantial warning.
We approached down Digbeth. Just before we arrived we stopped in the entrance to a row of shops. The other guy opened the case and was fiddling with something. Then he reached inside my duffle bag. That was when the bombs were primed. We crossed the road without using the underpass because the police were sometimes down there. We did the Tavern first. Up New Street. Past the Mulberry Bush. The other fellow went to the bar and ordered two drinks. I took both bags and found a seat. I was shitting myself. The other person came back with the drinks. We took a sip and then got up leaving the duffle bag under a seat.
At the Mulberry Bush the procedure was the same. ‘This time I ordered the drinks. The other person found a table at the back. The bomb was left by a telephone.’ We talked for nearly four hours. I pressed him repeatedly for the name of the other man, but he refused to tell me. As I left, he said: ‘No offence Mr Mullin, but I never want to see you again.’
I learned from other sources that the other planter was called James Francis Gavin. It was from his house in Bordesley Green that the bombers had set out. By the time I was told about him, Gavin was in Portlaoise Prison, near Dublin, serving life for a murder committed in 1977. A pipe layer by profession, he was married to an English woman, served in the British army for three years and lived in Britain for many more. During the course of my three-hour interview with him he readily admitted to his involvement in the IRA’s West Midlands campaign and even to having advised IRA units all over the country about the layout of British military bases. When it came to the pub bombings, however, he flatly denied involvement. Instead he doggedly suggested that the bombings were the work of British agents bent on discrediting the IRA – something the IRA had never alleged. His reasons for this became clear as the interview progressed.
In the immediate aftermath of the pub bombings the IRA had issued a statement saying that it was not its policy to kill civilians; there would be an internal inquiry and the results of it would be published, ‘however unpalatable’. There was an inquiry, but the results were never published. I later interviewed an IRA veteran who sat on the inquiry. ‘A lot of lies were told,’ he said. ‘The people who had come out of England were interviewed. They all said, “It wasn’t us.” I firmly believed them at the time. Eighteen months later I was sitting in the house of one of the people who had been active in Birmingham. People had had a few drinks and they started talking. It became clear that we had done it. A second inquiry was held. It concluded that we had been lied to and that the people who had done it were walking around free.’
Michael Murray had confessed to being one of the bomb-makers. Gavin, even if he hadn’t admitted it to me, and the young man I spoke to had planted the bombs. A fourth name crops up from time to time: Michael Christopher Hayes, who was active in the West Midlands IRA in 1974 and returned to Ireland some time in 1975, remaining active there. Sean O’Callaghan, who infiltrated the IRA as an agent of the Irish security service, identified him as the one-time ‘quartermaster’ of the IRA English operation. According to another knowledgeable source he was its deputy head during the 1980s and so would have been involved in planning all the bombings that took place on the British mainland in that period. That would include the Brighton bombing of 1984. I interviewed him in October 1987. Like Gavin, he admitted to a leading role in the IRA’s West Midlands campaign, but denied involvement in the pub bombings. Lately, however, he has become more talkative. In Dublin in 2017 he gave an interview to a BBC journalist in which he accepted ‘collective responsibility’ for the bombings, but again denied direct involvement. He also made the unlikely claim that he had defused a third bomb in Birmingham that night: it had been left in the doorway of a branch of Barclays Bank in Hagley Road but failed to go off. This may or may not be true, but it does confirm he was active that night.
Michael Murray died in 1999, James Francis Gavin in 2002. Michael Christopher Hayes remains at liberty in Ireland. So does the young planter. Remarkably, they all spent time in West Midlands police custody after the bombings. The Birmingham Six were finally freed in 1991.