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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.