Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Birmingham

Who’s Sorry Now?

Colman's Column3A version of this  article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday March 24 2015.

ConwayBook

Freedom Fighter

Kieran Conway says he is very sorry. What could this respectable-looking white-haired 60-year-old man in his smart suit and red silk tie possibly be guilty about?

Well, there is the small matter of blowing 21 innocent people to giblets while they were out enjoying a quiet drink.

On top of that is the fact that six innocent men each spent 15 years in prison for what Mr Conway and his friends did.

In a recently published book, Southside Provisional : From Freedom Fighter to the Four Courts, Conway, who ran the Provisional IRA’s intelligence-gathering in the 1970s, made the first formal IRA  admission that it had carried out the bombing of the Tavern in the Town and the Mulberry Bush pubs in  central Birmingham. Notice that he thinks of himself as a “freedom fighter”. Conway claimed that the civilian casualties had not been intended. One is reminded of the sentiments expressed by Padraic Pearse, leader of the 1916 Easter rising: “we might make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people: but bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing”.

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Birmingham Bombings

I was living in Manchester on 21 November 1974. One of my close friends had recently moved to Birmingham. I had often visited him there and become friends with many of his new friends. I knew the city well because I had been visiting since before I was ten years old to see my cousin Pat Saward, who was also captain of the Republic of Ireland team, playing football for Aston Villa. When I heard the news of the bombings, I was immediately concerned for my friends. I had often been in the Tavern on the Town. I could picture the streets where the atrocity was perpetrated.

pub

The bombs killed 21 people and injured 182. The dead and wounded were mainly young people between the ages of 17 and 25, including two brothers: Desmond and Eugene Reilly (aged 22 and 23 respectively). Their names clearly indicate that they were of Irish extraction and not British imperialists. The Mulberry Bush was on the lower two floors of an office block called the Rotunda. The police began checking the upper floors of the Rotunda but did not clear the crowded pub at street level before the bomb exploded at 20:17. Ten people were killed in this explosion and dozens injured.

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At 20:27 a bomb exploded at the Tavern on the Town, a basement pub 50 yards away on New Street. It killed a further 11 people and left many with severe injuries. Several victims were blown through a brick wall. Their remains were wedged between the rubble and underground electric cables; it took hours for firemen to free them. A passing West Midlands bus was wrecked in the blast and passersby were struck by flying glass from shattered windows. The fact that two bombs had exploded  close together meant it was difficult to get casualties to hospital in the chaos.

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One of the victims, 18-year-old Maxine Hambleton, had only gone into the Tavern in the Town to hand out tickets to friends for a party. She was killed seconds after entering the pub and had been standing beside the bag containing the bomb when it exploded. Her friend, 17-year-old Jane Davis, was the youngest victim of the bombings.

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Birmingham Six

Evening-Mail-mcdade

On the night of the bombings, six Irishmen were arrested at Heysham Port while about to board a ferry to Belfast. They became known as the “Birmingham Six”.  The six were from Belfast but had lived in Birmingham for some time. They were going to Belfast for the funeral of James McDade who was killed in a premature explosion while planting an IRA bomb at the Coventry telephone exchange. One of the six was also intending to see an aunt in Belfast who was sick and not expected to live.

West Midlands  police were under great pressure to make arrests and the British government were under pressure to clamp down on the IRA. Someone had to pay and it did not really matter who the sacrificial victims were. The Birmingham Six – Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Joseph Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker—were quickly arrested and eventually sentenced to life imprisonment in 1975. The West Midlands Police tortured them- they were deprived of food and sleep, they were interrogated sometimes for up to 12 hours without a break; threats were made against them; they were punched; fierce dogs  were allowed close to them; there were  mock executions.


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Forensic scientist Dr Frank Skuse used positive Griess test results to claim that Hill and Power had handled explosives. Dr Hugh Kenneth Black of the Royal Institute of Chemistry, the former HM Chief Inspector of Explosives at the Home Office challenged Skuse’s interpretation. The men had been playing cards on the train and that could have given the same results as explosives. The judge (and the jury) preferred Skuse’s version.  In October 1985, a  World in Action TV documentary In The Interests of Justice concluded that the real Birmingham pub bombers had gone free. Days after the TV programme, the Home Office retired Skuse, aged 51, from the Civil Service on the grounds of “limited effectiveness”. All 350 of Skuse’s cases, dating back to 1966, were re-examined. In 1991, the Court of Appeal stated that the Griess test should only be used as a preliminary test and that Dr Skuse’s conclusion was demonstrably wrong, judged even by the state of forensic science in 1974.

Dr-Frank-Skuse

The convictions of the Birmingham Six were declared unsafe and unsatisfactory and quashed by the Court of Appeal on 14 March 1991. The six men were later awarded compensation ranging from £840,000 to £1.2 million. They had each spent 15 years in prison.

 

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Guildford Bombings – Legitimate Targets?

Kieran Conway is now a criminal lawyer in Dublin. He says in his book that where off-duty soldiers were the targets of bombings, “I had little sympathy for either the soldiers or the unfortunate civilians who had been sharing their drinking space.”

The bombing of the Horse and Groom and the Seven Stars in Guildford in October 1974 would be acceptable to this freedom fighter because those two pubs were popular with off-duty soldiers from the barracks in Pirbright. Four soldiers and one civilian were killed, whilst a further sixty-five were wounded. Once again innocent people –

Gerry Conlon, Paul Hill, Patrick Armstrong and Carole Richardson

-each spent 15 years in prison for a crime they did not commit. Conlon had been in London at the time of the bombings, and had visited his aunt, Annie Maguire. A few days after the Guildford Four were arrested, the Metropolitan Police arrested Auntie Annie and her family, including Gerry Conlon’s father, Patrick “Giuseppe” Conlon. The Maguire Seven were falsely convicted of providing bomb-making material in March 1976 and sentenced to terms varying between four and fourteen years. The Guildford Four were held in prison for fifteen years, while Giuseppe Conlon died near the end of his third year of imprisonment. All the convictions were overturned years later in the appeal courts after it was proved the Guildford Four’s convictions had been based on confessions obtained by torture whilst evidence specifically clearing the Four was not reported by the police.

Gerry Conlon, despite being portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis in a film, did not have a happy life. He died last year at the age of 65. He spent 25% of his life in prison for a terrible crime committed by someone else and had mental problems as a result.

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Paul Hill did rather better. He moved to the USA. In 1993, married Courtney Kennedy, a daughter of assassinated American senator Robert F. Kennedy and a niece of assassinated president John F Kennedy. They had a daughter in 1999, but legally separated in 2006.

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Troubled Times

 

The year 1974 was a particularly uncomfortable one in which to be Irish in England. I recall sitting in the Irish Club in Gloucester with my sainted aunt who was on a visit with her son and his wife. Our pleasant evening was marred by a brick being thrown through the window. A work colleague vehemently told me that she was boycotting Kerry Gold butter because of the IRA.  One had to be constantly vigilant. When I worked in a social security office in Manchester, we evacuated the building when a security guard found a suspicious parcel in a toilet. It turned out to be a package of sausages. When I worked in London for Sir Arthur Armitage at the Social Security Advisory Committee, I had the building, near Lincolns Inn Fields, cleared when an unidentified parcel arrived addressed to Sir Arthur. Sir Arthur was an eminent lawyer and Vice-Chancellor of Manchester University. We were planning our annual visit to Belfast and he was very nervous about it, having received threats. I was not at all embarrassed when the parcel turned out to be a tape of an interview he had done. Because of the actions of Conway and his friends, we had to live with fear and even today, people in the UK are living with the effects of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Confession

In his book, Conway writes about his participation in bank raids and gun battles and his encounters with leading IRA figures. He refers to Gerry Adams as “a mendacious, lying bastard”. Conway  told the Irish Independent newspaper: “For much of its existence, Sinn Fein was a support group for the IRA, a junior and not terribly effective part of the republican movement. Though always controlled from a distance by the IRA, the IRA leadership decided in the late 1970s that the party would come under IRA control at every level.” This sounds similar to the relationship between the LTTE and the TNA.

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Conor Cruise O’Brien pointed out 30 years ago that those who carried out the Easter Rising in 1916 believed they were entitled, although they were but a small unelected group of conspirators in a democratic country, to stage a revolution in which many innocent people were killed. “Armed struggle” generally means  fanatics killing innocents by remote control. Revolutionary leaders presume a lot. Pearse might nobly say: “I care not though I were to live but one day and one night, if only my fame and my deeds live after me”. The majority of the casualties in the Easter Rising were civilians. Did Prabhakaran ever ask Tamils civilians  if they wanted to be martyrs? Was there a referendum on martyrdom, a focus group?

Despite the undoubted success of the Good Friday Agreement a handful of unelected die-hards do not want peace. They want to create new martyrs for Ireland. Today, after so much bloodshed, Ireland is still not united. Today, after so much bloodshed, there is no Eelam.

How Sorry Is Conway?

Maxine Hambleton’s family and the campaign group Justice4the21 met Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper last week to ask for her support for new inquests. They have also met Home Secretary Theresa May and are preparing a case for the European Parliament. Inquests were opened days after the bombings and closed in 1975 without hearing evidence, because of the guilty verdicts on the Birmingham Six.

While Conway was heading the IRA’s intelligence department, the Provisionals killed 140 people. Conway said in an interview: “I have no doubt that actions of mine resulted in serious harm to people and worse, and I regret that. I very much regret it in view of the outcome… The IRA has disappeared into history having taken a position on how to achieve Irish unity which is identical to that of the British government it fought against for 25 years and that is not a good outcome,” ”

Julie-and-Brian-Hambleton

Julie Hambleton is asking why this “freedom fighter” is not questioned about his role in the murder of her sister following his admissions in his book.

 

Corruption and Construction

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday August 20 2014.

Colman's Column3

Urban renewal seems to be inseparable from corruption. T Dan Smith was once a local hero in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and then he was sentenced in 1974 to six years in prison for accepting bribes. Smith believed strongly in the need to clear Newcastle of slum housing and put a great deal of effort into regeneration plans.

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Modernist planning was at its height in Britain during the 1960s, after the end of post-war austerity. Newcastle, as well as Manchester and Birmingham, was drastically transformed. It was a time of “clean sweep” planning, where the only constraints on redevelopment were economic. Conservation policy was restricted to the preservation of a limited number of major buildings and monuments. In his article, Alas Smith and Burns? Conservation in Newcastle upon Tyne city centre 1959–68, John Pendlebury of the School of Architecture at Newcastle University, wrote “though modernist rationalism was the driving force in the city’s re-planning, it co-existed with a conscious policy of conservation, born out of a picturesque design tradition.”

Not everyone appreciated Smith’s efforts. Alec Glasgow wrote a contemporary folk song:

Weep, Geordie, weep,

At the murder of your city.

Weep, Geordie, weep

For the vandals have no pity.

 

Smith’s name is usually spoken in negative terms regarding the destruction of historic and aesthetically pleasing buildings, which were replaced with a concrete jungle.

Some called him Smith “Mr Newcastle” others called him “the mouth of the Tyne”. Another nickname was “one-coat Smith”. When he ran a painting and decorating firm, his painters were noted for their stingy use of materials. Despite this, the firm was granted more than half the contracts for painting council houses.

While his evangelical zeal to make Newcastle a better place may have been genuine, Smith’s desire to make money was stronger and got mixed up with his political ambitions. Smith was appointed Chairman of Newcastle council’s Housing Committee in 1958 and was elected as Leader of the City Council in 1959. He created one of the country’s first free-standing Planning Departments and made it the most powerful department in the council. He strengthened his power by creating an inner Cabinet of his own supporters. When Harold Wilson became prime minister in 1964, Smith was confident that he would be invited to take a national ministerial post. However, Wilson had vague suspicions about Smith’s probity and did not call him.

In 1962, Smith set up a PR firm to support redevelopment of other urban centres in the northeast, and later nationwide. Through this, he established links with John Poulson, an architect with a reputation for rewarding those who put business his way. Smith eventually received £156,000 from Poulson for his work, which typically involved signing up local councillors on to the payroll of his companies and getting them to push their councils to accept Poulson’s redevelopment schemes. Poulson earned more than £1,000,000 through Smith.

Poulson

Another of Poulson’s contacts was the then Shadow Commonwealth Secretary Reginald Maudling. In 1966, Maudling accepted an offer to be Chairman of one of Poulson’s companies for £5,000 per annum. Maudling’s son Martin, who had left Oxford University without taking a degree, went to work for another Poulson company. Poulson agreed to donate large sums of money to a charity patronised by Maudling’s wife. Maudling helped to bring pressure on the government of Malta to award a £1.5 million contract for the new Victoria Hospital on Gozo to Poulson. This had led to heavy losses to the Maltese government. A Parliamentary inquiry into Maudling’s conduct concluded that he had indulged in “conduct inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect from its members”.

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No punishment was imposed but Maudling drank himself to death at the age of 61. The son, William Maudling, 42, who once lived in Downing Street with his family, threw himself from the 16th floor in 1999, his life ruined by heroin.

Smith’s PR firm was also involved with Wandsworth Borough Council in pushing a redevelopment scheme. Smith’s Wandsworth council contact, Alderman Sidney Sporle, fell under police suspicion of corruption in the late 1960s. The police investigation led to Smith himself being charged with bribery in January 1970. He was acquitted at his trial in July 1971, but was forced to resign all his political offices. Smith was arrested again in October 1973 after Poulson’s 1972 bankruptcy hearings disclosed extensive bribery. He pleaded guilty in 1974 and was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment; despite his guilty plea, he continued to assert his innocence.

After his death, Smith’s career was the inspiration for Austin Donohue, a character in Peter Flannery’s play, Our Friends in the North. The part was first played by Jim Broadbent in the Royal Shakespeare Company production, and then by Alun Armstrong (who once stayed at our friends’ guesthouse in Badulla) in the 1996 BBC television drama version.

Back in the early 70s, I worked as a social security visitor in a poor district of Manchester. Some of the street names were already familiar to me from reading about the Moors Murderers. Brady and Hindley once trod those drab streets in Gorton and Ardwick. Things were changing in those days. The streets had been built as warrens of terraced back-to-back houses for the workers of the industrial revolution. Lives could be cramped and stunted but there was also a sense of community still celebrated by the popular teledrama Coronation Street, which started in the early 60s and is still running.

Manchester Corporation, like similar ruling bodies in other municipalities, probably had good intentions when they embarked on slum clearance and urban renewal. Some of the old houses were pretty grim with outside toilets and some had gas mantles rather than electric light.

New blocks sprang up quite quickly. These resembled something out of a movie about the French Foreign Legion. Local people called them Fort Ardwick and Fort Beswick. As well as disrupting the sense of community enjoyed in the old terraces these new blocks might have been designed to assist crime with their walkways in the sky.

Even when they were brand new, these dwellings proved not fit for purpose. They were put up very quickly using prefabricated materials like a huge Lego kit. They were not as durable or well-designed as Lego.

The kind of concrete used caused condensation indoors so that the walls were dripping wet, causing respiratory problems in the elderly and in babies. Under floor heating was installed which could not be controlled by the tenants. Tenants were often baked to a frazzle and faced with huge fuel bills that they could not pay. A friend of mine lived in a council property in Hulme and found the place infested with cockroaches and beetles because the walls were built of straw.

I visited Manchester eight years ago and the area once covered by Fort Beswick had neat little rows of houses all on ground level. Although there was more space and the houses looked in good condition, they did rather remind me of the old terraced houses that were demolished in the 1960s and 1970s.

Not far from Beswick is the new home of Manchester City football club. The new stadium was built at a cost of GBP 110 million for the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The stadium is owned by the City Council and leased by the football club which, despite its previous lack of glamour, in 2008 became the richest club in the world after a takeover by an Arab consortium headed by Dr Al-Fahim, known as the Donald Trump of Abu Dhabi. A previous owner was former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, known to Mancunians as “Frank Sinatra”.

Manchester City FC signed an agreement with the Council in March 2010 to allow a £1 billion redevelopment led by architect Rafael Vinoly of land around the stadium and possible stadium expansion. In a spooky link with T Dan Smith, Vinoly was hiredby Wandsworth Council in London to develop the area around Battersea Power Station. The proposed development is supposed to generate 15,000 jobs. The network of tall curved blocks of offices will block the view of Sir Gilbert Scott’s industrial masterpiece. The accommodation is not intended to attract local families but hordes of predatory bankers with no children but easy access to the City and huge bonuses.

Manchester City’s stadium was a part of the massive Eastlands redevelopment. According to the consultative regeneration framework document, 3,000 jobs were created in ten years. This is low considering that at least 2,000 jobs were axed to cut public spending. The much-lauded regeneration of East Manchester never lived up to the hype of galvanising growth and job-creation in one of the city’s most deprived areas. New jobs tended to be poorly paid ‘flexible’ jobs, servicing the consumption habits of middle classes. Only half of the hundreds of new jobs at supermarkets went to local residents. Save the Children found that 27 %per cent of children in Manchester were living in “severe poverty” – the worst record of any local authority in the country.

On my last visit to Manchester, the city centre was very different from the bleak place it was during the Thatcher years. The IRA did the city a favour by blowing up the ugly Arndale Centre and opening the way to better buildings. The new city centre reminded me of Seattle. There were luxury apartments and chic hotels. Even old churches and cotton mills had been converted into housing. Salford used to be grim but now it has luxury accommodation and an arts centre dedicated to LS Lowry. Somehow, it was still grim.

According to the Eastlands document, 5,000 extra homes have been built in East Manchester. However, the Manchester-Salford Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder (whoever came up with that name!) between 2008 and 2009 demolished 2,200 more homes than it built at a cost of GBP 600 million. The project ground to halt, leaving a wasteland behind it.

How will Beswick, Bradford and Lower Openshaw compete with the new enterprise scheme at Manchester Airport (another arm of the council)? There are many empty office blocks in Manchester and but more will be built at the airport.

Some people will have made a lot of money out of continually knocking British cities down and re-building them. Not many of those people will go to prison like T Dan smith did. In 1985, Smith wrote that “Thatcherism, in an odd sort of way, could reasonably be described as legalised Poulsonism. Contributions to Tory Party funds will be repaid by the handing over of public assets for private gain”.

Thatcherism and Poulsonism live on in all the British political parties.

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