Sunday 19 November 2017

Flashback 1991: Release of the Birmingham Six

This weekend 25 years ago the Birmingham Six were released from prison 16 years after their wrongful convictions

Freedom: The Birmingham Six wave to supporters outside the Old Bailey following their release in March 1991. Photo: Brian Farrell.
Freedom: The Birmingham Six wave to supporters outside the Old Bailey following their release in March 1991. Photo: Brian Farrell.

Ger Siggins

'Freedom for the Six' proclaimed the headline across the front of the Irish Independent on March 15, 1991. It reported on the release of six Irishmen by a London court the day before. The Birmingham Six were just one of a series of Irish victims of miscarriages of justice in the UK in the 1970s. The IRA had taken its campaign to the streets and pubs of Britain with a series of deadly bomb attacks, but the authorities' efforts to defeat them also saw many innocents drawn in.

The Six, as well as the Guildford Four, Judith Ward and the Maguire family, were all jailed as police and judiciary zealously prosecuted people who were guilty of nothing except being Irish in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the Irish Independent, John Steele and Bernard Purcell reported that: "The Birmingham Six finally won their freedom yesterday after 16 years of protesting their innocence."

Appeal court judges quashed their convictions after evidence emerged which discredited the flimsy evidence against them. They had been convicted of two bombings in Birmingham pubs on November 21, 1974, in which 21 people died. The six - Billy Power, Hugh Callaghan, John Walker, Richard McIlkenny, Paddy Hill and Gerry Hunter - had been travelling to Belfast for the funeral of an IRA man and were being searched before boarding the ferry at Heysham when news came through of the bombings.

Over the next few days they were beaten, deprived of food and sleep, interrogated without breaks and subjected to mock executions. Four of them signed confessions. The following summer they were all found guilty of murder and conspiracy to cause explosions and each sentenced to 21 life sentences. The men continued to protest their innocence and Hill, in particular, was like a terrier in the way he wrote hundreds of letters seeking support for their appeals.

A Granada TV researcher, Chris Mullin, took up their case and made a series of programmes casting doubt on their guilt. He later became a Labour MP and continued to advocate for them. They were eventually allowed a second full appeal during which forensic evidence was shown to be wrong, and police evidence fabricated. The men spilled out into the street outside London's Old Bailey to loud cheers. Paddy Hill, burning with rage, turned to the media and pointed back at the courthouse. "Justice? I don't think those people in there have got the honesty or intelligence to spell the word, never mind dispense it."

The Six were awarded compensation ranging from €1-1.5million. The men also shared libel settlements from The Sun and Sunday Telegraph.

All now in their 70s or 80s, the Birmingham Six have made homes in other parts of Britain or the Continent. Billy Power and Paddy Hill continue to campaign on miscarriage of justice cases.

Richard McIlkenny died in 2006 aged 72, after a long battle with cancer. At his funeral, the priest told the mourners of a conversation he had with Mr McIlkenny's daughter. "Ann said to me last week he never felt free," he said. "He never felt free. Richard, you touched all of us, you are free now."

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