The Birmingham Six were six men (Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Joseph Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker) who were sentenced to life imprisonment for the Birmingham pub bombings. Their convictions were declared unsafe and unsatisfactory and quashed by the Court of Appeal on 14th March 1991. The six men were later awarded compensation ranging from £840,000 to £1.2 million.
The story of the Birmingham Six began on the 21st November 1974, when two bombs exploded in two separate Birmingham pubs; the Mulberry Bush at the foot of the Rotunda at 8.25pm and the Tavern in the Town, a basement pub in New Street, at 8.27pm. 21 people were killed (ten at the Mulberry Bush and eleven at the Tavern in the Town) and 182 people were injured, making the attacks collectively the most injurious and serious attacks in Great Britain since World War II. A third device was placed outside a bank in Hagley Road but failed to detonate.
Six men were arrested, five of whom were Belfast-born Roman Catholics, whilst John Walker was born in Derry. All six had lived in Birmingham since the 1960s. Five of the men (Hill, Hunter, McIlkenny, Power and Walker) had left the city early on the evening of the 21st November from New Street Station, shortly before the explosions. They were travelling to Belfast to attend the funeral of James McDade, an IRA member who had accidentally killed himself whilst planting a bomb in Coventry. Hill also intended to see an aunt in Belfast who was ill and not expected to live. Callaghan saw them off at the station.
Upon reaching Heysham, they and others were subject to a Special Branch stop and Search. The men did not tell the police of the true purpose of their visit to Belfast, something which was later held against them. Whilst the search was in progress, the police were informed of the Birmingham bombings. The men agreed to be taken to Morecambe police station for forensic tests.
On the morning of the 22nd November, after the forensic tests had taken place and the men had been questioned at the hands of the Morecambe Police, the men were transferred to the custody of West Midlands Serious Crime Squad police unit. William Power alleged that he was assaulted by members of Birmingham Criminal Investigation Department. Also on the 22nd November, Callaghan was brought into custody.
Whilst the men were in the custody of the West midlands Police, they were deprived of food and sleep and were sometimes interrogated for up to 12 hours without a break. Threats were also made against the men and they endured beatings ranging from punches, dogs being let within a foot of them and being made the subjects of a mock execution. Billy Power confessed whilst in Morecambe and Hugh Callaghan, John Walker and Richard McIlkenny confessed at Queens Road in Aston with Paddy Hill and Gerry Hunter not signing any documents.
On the 12th May 1975, the six men were charged with murder and conspiracy to cause explosions. Three other men, James Kelly, Michael Murray and Michael Sheehan, were charged with conspiracy and Kelly and Sheehan also faced charges of unlawful possession of explosives.
The trial of the Birmingham Six started on the 9th June 1975 at Lancaster Crown Court before Justice Bridge and a jury. After legal arguments, the statements made in November, the unreliability of which was subsequently established, were deemed admissible as evidence. Thomas Watt provided circumstantial evidence about John Walker’s association with Provisional IRA members.
Forensic scientist Dr Frank Skuse used positive Greiss test results to claim that Hill and Power had handled explosives, whilst Callaghan, Hunter, McIlkenny and Walker all tested negative. GCMS tests at a later date were negative for Power and contradicted the initial results for Hill. Skuse’s claim that he was 99% certain that Power and Hill had explosives traces on their hands was opposed by defence expert Dr Hugh Kenneth Black of the Royal Institute of Chemistry, the former HM Chief Inspector of Explosives, Home Office. Skuse’s evidence was clearly preferred by Bridge. The jury found the six men guilty of murder. On the 15th August 1975, the Birmingham Six were sentenced to 21 life sentences each.
On the 28th November 1974, the men appeared in court for a second time after they had been remanded into custody at HM Prison, Birmingham. Each of the men showed bruising and other signs of ill-treatment. Fourteen prison officers were charged with assult in June 1975, but all were acquitted at a trial presided over by Mr Justice Swanwick. In 1977, the six men brought a civil claim for damages against the West Midlands Police. This claim was struck out on the 17th January by the Court of Appeal, constituted by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning, Goff LJ and Sir George Baker, under the principle of estoppel.
During proceedings, prison officers and police were blamed for the beatings. A prisoner released from prison two weeks after the Birmingham Six started their sentence testified to the beatings the six men had received.
In March 1976, their first application for leave to appeal was dismissed by the Court of Appeal, presided over by Lord Widgery CJ. In 1985, Granada TV broadcast the first of several World in Action programmes casting doubt on the men’s convictions. In 1986, Journalist Chris Mullin, who investigated the case for World in Action, also published the book Error of Judgement: The Truth About the Birmingham Pub Bombings, which set out a detailed case supporting the men’s claims that they were innocent. In the book, Mullin claimed to have met some of those who were actually responsible for the bombings.
The Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd MP, referred the case back to the Court of Appeal. In January 1988, following a six week hearing (at that point in time the longest appeal hearing ever held), the convictions were ruled to be safe and satisfactory. The Court of Appeal, presided over by the Lord Chief Justice Lord Lane dismissed the appeals. Over the next three years, newspaper articles, television documentaries and books all presented new evidence questioning the safety of the convictions, whilst campaign groups were formed in Britain, Ireland, Europe and the US calling for the men’s release.
In 1991, their second full appeal took place. Hunter was represented by Lord Gifford QC, whilst others were represented by human rights solicitor Gareth Peirce. New evidence of police fabrication and suppression of evidence was presented. Additionally, the condemnation with regards to the confessions and the 1975 forensic evidence caused the Crown to decide not to resist the appeals. The Court of Appeal, constituted by Lord Justices Lloyd, Mustill and Farquharson , stated of the forensic evidence that “Dr Skuse’s conclusion was wrong, and demonstrably wrong, judged even by the state of forensic science in 1974.
The success of the appeals, as well as other miscarriages of justice, caused the Home Secretary to set up a Royal Commission on Criminal Justice in 1991. The commission reported in 1993 and led to the Criminal Act 1995 which established the Criminal Cases Review Commission in 1997. Superintendent George Reade and two other police officers were charged with perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice but were never prosecuted. Richard McIlkenny died of cancer in Dublin on the 21st May 2006.
Shane MacGowan and Terry Woods, songwriters with the Irish folk / punk band The Pogues, wrote the song Streets of Sorrow / Birmingham Six based on the plight of the Birmingham Six and included it on the band’s 1988 album If I Should Fall from Grace with God. The song is split into two parts, the first of which, Streets of Sorrow, written and sung by Woods, describes the emotions felt on the streets of Northern Ireland at the height of The Troubles. The song is told from the perspective of somebody leaving Northern Ireland because of the increasing levels of violence and conflict. The narrator states that he will never return “to feel more sorrow, nor to see more young men slain”.
The second part of the song, Birmingham Six, written and sung by MacGowan, is a demonstration of support to the Birmingham Six (as well as to the Guildford Four, who were similarly victims of a miscarriage of justice, having been accused of the Guildford Pub Bombings). The song tells of how the confessions of the six men had been extracted by torture at the hands of the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad, claiming “There were six men in Birmingham, In Guildford there’s four, That were picked up and tortured, And framed by the law, And the filth got promotion, But they’re still doing time, For being Irish in the wrong place, And at the wrong time”. Whilst this was later proven to be the case, at the time that the song was written, the people mentioned in the song were still convicted and still in prison.
Streets of Sorrow / Birmingham Six was highly controversial. When the band performed the song on Channel 4’s Friday Night Live on the 15th April 1988, the programme cut to a commercial break before the end of the song. The song was quickly banned by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) under the same laws which were responsible for a ban on the broadcasting of direct interviews with members of Sinn Fein and other groups, as they worried that it might have invited support for a terrorist organisation such as the IRA. After the Birmingham Six had their convictions overturned in 1991, the ban on the song was lifted.
Interviews with the Birmingham Six can be seen on this ITV documentary, World in Action Special: The Birmingham Six – Their Own Story, transmitted on the 18th March 1991: